An Evening Of Costa Rican Rodeo Madness

The reed thin drunk was just barely sober enough to avoid being flattened by a rampaging bull. The crowd roared when he broke into a nifty little dance, complete with somersaults and a crash but many were also hoping that he’d be trampled (see video). I was rooting for the harassed bulls to teach the dozens of insane men in the ring a lesson, but I dared not admit that to anyone. Costa Rican law mandates that a cowboy should be sober while riding a bull, but there is no such requirement for the spectators, even though many of them choose to be part of the action, right in the ring.

I’m not much of a rodeo guy but they are an integral part of the culture in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, so when we heard about Expo Liberia, a rodeo and carnival that was supposed to be one of the biggest and best in the area, we decided to check it out.

As we entered the fairgrounds just off the Pan-American Highway in Liberia, a regional hub in Guanacaste, a police officer approached us with a warning.

“Be very, very careful here,” he said. “There are a lot of criminals and drug addicts around.”

Not exactly what you want to hear any time, but particularly not with your wife and two small children in tow. Nonetheless, we appreciated the warning and the fact that there were police officers everywhere. We walked past a row of bars that were competing to see who could play the loudest music from the most distorted speakers (see video). I’m not sure who won but the fact that there were so few customers at most of the bars seemed to amplify the noise and absurdity of the situation.

One of the bars had a guy singing what sounded like Costa Rican show tunes and it was completely empty. We felt horrible for him but not bad enough to subject ourselves to the music for more than a few seconds.

My kids had fun squandering a large chunk of our hard earned money on rides, inflatable jumpy houses and cotton candy and I was dismayed but also impressed to see freelance port-o-potty entrepreneurs charging the equivalent of a dollar to use their facilities. A host of small children hassled us to buy them tickets for rides and we almost succumbed until one of the Costa Rican carnies intervened.

“Their parents are here,” he warned. “You don’t have to buy them anything.”

“Where are they?” I asked.

“Probably at the bars,” he said, gesturing toward where the distorted, pulsating music was coming from.

After my kids had exhausted their tickets, we gravitated toward the rodeo ring, where my sons watched in fascination as a group of jeering men and boys poked, prodded and harassed a pair of confined bulls. They were obviously getting them in an agitated state for the evening’s show but I decided that I didn’t want to support their endeavor by buying tickets, even at just $4 a pop. (Though apparently the bulls aren’t actually harmed in Costa Rican rodeos).

But as we were wandering around the side of the ring, we noticed that there were just as many people, it not more, watching the show for free under the stands. Curiosity got the best of us, so we stood alongside other cheapskates and vendors, who flogged little bags of fruity drinks, nuts and other treats, and settled in for the show.

“All these people standing underneath the stands, this doesn’t seem safe,” said Jen, my wife. “What if this thing collapses on us- we’ll all be dead.”

I pondered this prospect and considered what a small news item it would be in the U.S. Dozens perish as Costa Rican rodeo stands collapse. But as soon as the first bucking bull came charging out of the gate, our attention shifted from the rickety stands to the action unfolding in front of us.

There were scores of men- and not a single woman- standing around in the ring, but I had (wrongly) assumed that they would take their seats once the action started. After the sabanero (cowboy) was thrown off of the bull, attention shifted to all the men in the ring. Some of them appeared to be trying to taunt and smack the bull, while more prudent guys hopped up on the side of the wooden stands to steer clear of the beast.

For the first few seconds, the bull was angry and he actively charged a few men. But then he kind of just pulled up and stopped dead in his tracks, as if to say, fuck this, I am not going to take the bait and chase you macho assholes around this ring. A few of the men tried to bait him but he just stood his ground and glared at them. Eventually, as the men became more aggressive, he took the bait and started charging, sending all but the most clinically insane scurrying up onto the lower wooden rungs of the stands.

I asked a woman standing next to us why there were no women in the ring and she chuckled.

“We’re too smart,” she said.

The scene repeated itself time and time again. The men wanted action and needed to harass the bulls to galvanize them to play along. I don’t care for the idea of proving one’s masculinity by tormenting animals and it was hard to reconcile why so many guys wanted to be in the ring.

I didn’t stay long enough to witness any injuries but apparently it’s common for at least a few people to get trampled each night. Brian Wedge, a photographer from Maine who blogged about an evening he spent at a Costa Rican rodeo, actually photographed people lying injured in ambulances at the rodeo he attended in 2011.

But while I didn’t get a kick out of the tormenting of the bulls, I loved the dancing, strutting drunk guy who commanded our attention. As you can see from the video above, he was, when he could remain upright, a very good dancer.

After nearly an hour of watching the spectacle from underneath the stands, we’d had more than enough. I was happy to escape before the stands collapsed or a bull came smashing through the flimsy wooden beams that separated us from him. But I wished I could have taken the bulls with me to spare them the indignity of sticking around to provide amusement to the locals.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Top North American rodeos to check out this summer

In honor of the approaching National Day of the American Cowboy, which I wrote about earlier in the week, I wanted to highlight some of the best rodeos North America has to offer.

Even city slickers can enjoy a rodeo; it is, after all, a sporting event. With a lot of beer. And grilled meat. And a lack of giant foam fingers and face-painting (not a bad thing, I might add).

In all seriousness, rodeos are great family fare. There are usually parades and drill team exhibitions, down-to-earth people, great camaraderie, and you can watch some truly amazing human, equine, and bovine athletes perform in independent and team events. At day’s end, you can always count on a big barbecue, live music, and a dance. The below rodeos are all located in places of great historic interest if you love the Old West or Americana. Git boot-scootin’.

Calgary Stampede
It may be surprising to learn that Canada has a cowboy culture, but Alberta does, and is home to this world-famous event, which is an integral part of the community. Critter lovers should note that the Stampede places extreme emphasis on animal welfare, which you can read about here (FYI, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) also has strict animal welfare regulations in place, so contrary to belief, livestock are not being tortured for the sake of entertainment). Events ranging from steer wrestling and women’s barrel racing to junior steer riding will be happening July eighth through the 17th.

[Photo credit: bronc, Flicker user Bill Gracey;Sheridan WYO Rodeo
Located in the heart of Yellowstone Country at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, Sheridan has no shortage of pastoral pleasures to go with its Western heritage. Rodeo Week–July eighth through the 17th–kicks off with a parade, and night rodeos are held the 13-16th. Part of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, Sheridan WYO also features events like the Indian Relay Races (Those of you who are offended by the non-PC-ness of the name…remember we are not in Berkeley, and there’s a $25,000 payout prize), and a public Boot Kick-off event featuring live music, food vendors, and more.

Cheyenne Frontier Days
Know as the “Daddy of Em All,” the world’s largest outdoor rodeo has celebrated the American West since 1897. From July 23rd to the 31st, crowds from all over the world gather to watch arena events. You can also visit Cheyenne’s excellent Old West Museum, tour historic homes and “Behind the Chutes(don’t miss if you want to see what goes on before that gate swings open and bulls and broncs cut loose),” and attend Western Art Shows, concerts (Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow headline this year), a carnival midway, an Indian Village handicraft/historic recreation, and more.

Days of ’76 Rodeo

Held in one of the Old West’s most historic and notorious towns, this Deadwood, South Dakota event has been named Best PRCA Small Outdoor Rodeo four times, as well as PRCA Midsize Rodeo of the Year since 2004. This, the 89th year, runs from July 26-30th, and features two parades and lots of local Native American culture. The entire city of Deadwood is a national historic landmark located in the Black Hills Territory, so be sure to plan on an extra day or two for exploring.

Pendleton Roundup
Eastern Oregon is at the heart of the state’s cowboy country, and Pendleton is one of the ten largest rodeos in the world. Have a last-days-of-summer trip September 14-17th, when the weather is hot and sunny (it does happen in the Pacific Northwest, really). Bareback and saddle bronc riding, team roping, bull riding, Indian relay races, wild cow milking, children’s rodeo, and parade: it’s all here. Trivia: Pendleton is one of the first rodeos to have women officially compete. In 1914, Bertha Blanchett came within 12 points of winning the All-Around title.

[Photo credit: team roping, Flickr user Al_HikesAZ]

Celebrate National Day of the American Cowboy

Yes, Virginia, there are cowboys. And thanks to the efforts of American Cowboy magazine, the tough, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth men and women who make your juicy T-bone possible are getting their own day of recognition. I’m not talking about your wannabe, Keith Urban-listening, jacked-up pick-up driving, tight jeans-wearing, soft-handed yahoos. I’m referring to the real deal: people who work the land for a living, and actually know how to ride a horse, throw a lariat, and mend a fence.

The National Day of the American Cowboy, held this year on July 23rd, was founded by the magazine in 2004 to “preserve, protect, and promote our Western heritage.”

Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to American Cowboy, but not just because I grew up on a ranch and immersed in the Western lifestyle. It’s because I spent my formative years around ranchers, wranglers, packers, and rodeo folk that I have the respect I do for these people, and have dedicated myself to helping preserve their way of life. I may not agree with industrial livestock production and certain ecological aspects (which don’t pertain to all ranchers, anyway) but I can separate that from the need to feed millions–if not billions–of people, and the respect cowboys and ranchers have for the land, their animals, and their heritage.

Few people are more invested in preserving open space than cowboys. Their livelihood depends upon it. And without a deep investment in the welfare of their livestock they can’t make ends meet. So this year, think about thanking our cowboys by joining a local event (click here for listings). Or put on Sons of the Pioneers, fire up the barbecue, and offer a toast with a bottle of Coors or shot of Jack.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mharrsch]

Trail rides and wagon trains converge in Houston to kick off world’s largest rodeo

In a salute to the Old West, 13 trail rides and wagon trains–some coming from 336 miles away–have converged to mark the start of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which runs through March 20th. The world’s largest exhibition and rodeo entertainment show was developed to “encourage and promote the breeding, raising, and marketing of better livestock and farm products at public fairs and to promote and maintain research and educational functions within the livestock industry.” I recently posted about a similar agricultural and livestock fair in Paris, so happily, these events are global.

Three thousand participants rode from five days to three weeks to reach Houston, carrying on a tradition that began in 1952, when a small group of men started a trail ride to help promote the rodeo. The riders and wagons pay tribute to the heritage of the frontier, and the animals and individuals who made the settlement of the West possible. But the ride is also a form of education. In addition to the settlers, some trail rides are dedicated to honoring the history of black and Hispanic cowboys, which many are unaware of.’s blog interviews a number of participants, some of whom have annually made the ride since childhood, or are second- or third-generation riders. One 15-year-old girl was actually born on the ride. Eighty-year old Mac Goldsby of Houston has been doing the Valley Lodge Trail Ride since its founding in 1959. “To me, it’s walking history,” he says. “There’s so many people that don’t know about horses, mules. If anything, it might inspire them to read history.”

The Houston event has inspired others to host trail rides to promote their shows and educate the public, such as the Dixie National Livestock Show and Rodeo in Mississippi, and the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Hats off to preserving America’s Western heritage, and keeping tradition alive.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Bill Gracey]

From four-wheeling to cattle roping, saying ‘I do’ just got a little more adventurous

Weddings were never my thing. Between the dress, the invitations, the cakes, the chaos – the concept is too overwhelming for me to digest. I’ve participated and planned dozens of weddings for my nearest and dearest and while I couldn’t be happier for their nuptials, I’d be the first one barefoot on an island eloping without witness if I were to get married (sorry, Mom).

But for those who want a traditional wedding with a twist, The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, in Tuscon, has a few options for you. At the resort, future brides and grooms have the option of exchanging vows reflecting a different approach to the traditional wedding ceremony. Some of the adventure wedding options include:

Four-Wheel Wedding Adventure: Hop in a Jeep tour into the High Sonoran Desert and recite your nuptials amid thousands of saguaro cacti and the desert landscape. Advice to the bride: Consider a dress other than white, as four-wheeling through the dessert isn’t the cleanest activity.Hiking Adventure Nuptials: You and your guests will hike to legendary Lower Javelina and Wild Burro trails to a private outdoor ceremony, where a Native American flautist performs a wedding song and the ceremony ends with a Native American sage blessing. Side note: You might want to leave your fancy shoes back at the hotel for this one. Who says hiking boots won’t look good with your white scalloped lace dress?

Mountain Bike Vows: Guests ride into the pristine Tortolita Reserve via mountain bikes. Seems like a lot of work required to reach your betrothed, but afterwards, the couple is treated to an outdoor a massage and a romantic breakfast is included on the following day. Don’t forget your he

Western Horseback Ceremony: Forget the flower girls and saddle up the steeds! The bride and groom are married on horseback while an acoustic guitar player follows you through the dessert.

Wedding Rodeo: You have to love any wedding ceremony that includes a lasso. Guests venture to the famous and exclusive White Stallion Ranch, where a cowboy minister performs the ‘western’ wedding ceremony. After the “I dos”, return to the White Stallion Ranch for your own Wedding Rodeo, where cowgirls and cowboys rope and ride.

As if getting married isn’t adventurous enough, the resort also offers hiking, canyoneering, birding, rock climbing, and archeological touring. I say go for it! After all, what better way is there to say “I do” then four-wheeling through the dessert or roping in cattle?