Airplanes landing at O’Hare often fly right over the Rosemont Horizon, and even inside the enclosed stadium you can hear the whine of their engines as they drop. The Horizon is nearly three quarters full on a cold, drizzly Saturday night in late February, the third night of the International Championship Rodeo. Some of the spectators say they have come because they have free tickets, some because they remember going to the rodeo when they were kids, some because they like animals. There are children who pull their fathers down to the rail above the pens that hold bucking broncos and bulls, and then hold their hands out toward the horses. Their fathers stand awkwardly behind them, watching the young men in boots and broad hats rosin their gloves or walk their horses up and down the ramp that leads under the stadium. One 15-year-old boy who’s trying to find an empty seat down in front says he loves coming to rodeos and wants to be a bull rider when he grows up. “I think it’s part of–like history and all that,” he says. A woman who’s never been to a rodeo says she came because she thought her six-year-old grandson would like it. “The horses, the action, people falling off and running around. And the popcorn, the candy, tacos–the works. And he likes going with grandpa and grandma,” she says. “I didn’t know what to expect–all this dirt that they brought in. And it doesn’t smell–I thought it would, but it doesn’t.”
Moving quickly and carefully around the penned bucking broncos, a man uses a short wooden cane to separate one horse from the group. He herds the reluctant horse into the narrow sectioned chute that runs the width of the arena, and another man slams a gate shut behind it. The sides of the chute are higher than the frightened horse’s head, and it has no room to move. Five more horses are herded and closed into the other sections of the chute. One of them keeps smashing its back hooves into the gate behind it.
The rodeo’s one-man band eventually takes his seat and plays a horn and organ medley–“Dixie,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America the Beautiful.” The lights dim. “Lord, we just ask that what we do here tonight will be according to your will,” the announcer says, and then prays for the safety of the riders who are going to compete. A spotlight moves to the end of the arena and then follows a team of horsewomen who hold aloft flags as they circle the floor. The audience applauds the team and then cheers when a white horse and a rider carrying a huge American flag gallop into the arena. The crowd sings the national anthem–but they start cheering wildly before it’s over. The bronco crashes its hooves into the gate.
The lights come back up, and you can see a rider trying to find his seat on the bare back of one of the horses in the bucking chute. One of his hands grips the narrow rigging that circles the horse’s chest; his other hand must stay in the air or he’ll be disqualified. His knees jut up as he holds his heels over the horse’s shoulders, where they must be when the horse hits the ground coming out of the chute. The rider finally nods and two men throw the gate open. Heaving and jerking, the horse springs out, and the rider almost instantly slams into the dirt. Two men on horseback chase the still bucking horse across the arena and pull off the flank strap that’s cinched around its groin. Bucking horses buck because they hate being ridden; the flank strap makes them buck even more. The men herd the bronco toward an open gate next to the pens and into the stripping chute, where the rigging is taken off. The horse is then released into an open pen; because this rodeo company usually lets its animals be ridden only every other day, the horse probably won’t be ridden again until next week’s rodeo.
The second rider doesn’t last much longer than the first. There’s a disappointed groan from the crowd, and then a roar as the third rider bucks out of the gate without falling off. “Stick on it! Stick on it!” a man screams. The rider snaps back and forth on top of the lunging horse, but he “makes the whistle”–staying on the minimum eight seconds. The crowd whoops.
World Classic Rodeo Productions, one of a number of companies producing rodeos on the major circuit, puts on about 23 rodeos around the country every year. The four day event at the Horizon is just one more short stop for those who travel with the company–the many animals, the announcer, the clowns, the flag bearers, the buffalo stunt riders, the man in a gorilla suit who stands on the backs of two horses as they gallop around the arena. The more than 250 contestants from 23 states, including several from Illinois, will pay their own travel expenses and an entry fee to compete just once in one of the six events that are held each day: bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping, barrel racing, and bareback- and saddle-bronc riding. Only 24 of these riders, four in each event, will leave Chicago with any winnings.
Benny Jordan is one of the two “pickup men” who travel with the rodeo. They corral the loose bulls and horses and help lift riders who haven’t been thrown off the bulls and broncos. Jordan is not a large man, but he’s powerful enough to lift a rider off a horse using only his left arm. At 36, he moves on his horse with an easy, unconscious grace. Like his father before him, he competed in rodeos for years, starting at 12 riding bulls and bareback and saddled broncos. In 1979 and 1981 he was the International Rodeo Association’s world bareback-bronc champion.
On Saturday morning before the rodeo Jordan is up before sunrise and off to feed, water, and clean the animals, which are kept in a huge tent in the parking lot behind the Horizon. By ten o’clock he has finished those chores and has backed his pickup down into the passageway under the stadium, where he has unloaded a box of tools. He brings in one of the horses that the man in the gorilla suit rides and ties it to a fence rail behind his truck. He shoes all the rodeo stunt and work horses and sometimes trims the hooves of the bucking horses, which don’t need to be shod. He holds one hoof after the other between his legs, bending over it as he pulls each shoe off and trims and scrapes the hoof clean. He is just about the only person around, and only once in nearly three hours does he stop working and go to get a soft drink.
Jordan is on the road most of the year with the rodeo. He speaks quietly in a quick Oklahoma twang. “I’ll be home a couple weeks, then I’ll be gone a month or so. Just kind of depends on the rodeo. It’s hard to say.” He says he hasn’t been home since before Christmas and rarely has a chance to see his two sons, who live with his ex-wife. On Sunday he’s headed for Des Moines, Iowa, and after that he may have a couple of weeks to go back home to Oklahoma, where he and his father have cattle ranches. Then he’ll work a rodeo in Oregon and two more in Tennessee, then go back to help his father and brothers, who take care of his ranch while he’s gone, do the spring work until the summer rodeo circuit starts.
“Every Fourth of July there’s a lot of rodeos–cowboys call it cowboy Christmas because there’s so many. In ’79 we went to 17 rodeos in 15 days–we flew a lot. We’d been in Michigan and a lot of places, including California. We went to two rodeos in California in one day, then the next day we went to Salina, Kansas, and I got my neck broke. And we drove on to Salt Lake City, Utah, and got on an airplane and flew to Chicago, and we was up to Plymouth, Wisconsin, that night. I’d broke my neck the night before, and the next night I got on a bareback horse and didn’t even remember it. Then the next night was in Oklahoma again, and it was a couple of weeks later I got to hurtin’ so bad I couldn’t get around. I went to the doctor, and my neck was broke bad. It still hurts a little–I have to go to the chiropractor all the time.
“I kept ridin’. I was on the road the rest of that year–I won the Championship that year. I had a clavicle strap on it and a brace. If I’d hurt it any more I could’ve been paralyzed. Visions of trophies in my eyes, I guess.” And money. “See, you get a point for each dollar won in rodeo. Then at the end of the year the one with the most money won, that’s the champion in each event. And the top 15 in each event go to the finals. The finals pay lots of money. The best year I ever had I won over $50,000. They win more than that nowadays. But they spend most of it, you know. Expenses. A guy’s got to pay all his expenses. When I won over $50,000, I didn’t get home with very much.”
He drops the hoof of the horse he’s shoeing and hammers the nails out of the shoe he’s just pulled off. Then he takes a wire brush out of his tool box and scrubs the shoe. The horse lets out a long fluttering snort.
Jordan has been injured many times, and he says his left shoulder, the arm he hung on with, still aches every morning. “I lost count of broken bones. Most people get their legs broke. I never broke either leg. A lot of ribs and arms, fingers and toes, and stuff like that. Collarbones. I had my heart knocked loose one time. A bull just stepped on me and jarred me so hard it bruised my heart real bad.” In the early 70s he joined the Army, went through basic training, and was about to be shipped to Vietnam. But while home on leave, he decided to ride in a rodeo. “I got hurt real bad there. I hung up to a bull–I couldn’t get my hand out. He bucked me off and I couldn’t get loose from him. See, sometimes your hand doesn’t come loose–you get dragged and you’re kind of at the bull’s mercy. But I hung one with great big horns, and he hooked me in the throat and messed my throat up.” Jordan went back to his Army post but was sent home. He was a long time recovering, and the Army reclassified him unfit for duty.
Later, when describing the one time he lived in a city, he says, “In ’70, I think, I broke my hip in Winston-Salem–I forgot about that. And I was crippled for years.” He had a job training and conditioning racehorses, and he says he just rode through the pain. “After five years ridin’ them I worked it out, and it’s never bothered me since.”
But over the years the aches pile up and make it hard to ride. “When you get a few injuries, a bareback horse hurts you every time you ride one–it jerks you and jars you so bad. They just jerk on your arm more, where a bull don’t jerk you that much.” A bull, he says, “may not hurt you every time, but if he does get you or step on you, it may be worse than what the horse did to you. But you get on ten horses, they’re going to hurt you ten times.” Asked whether the horses get hurt too, he says, “You’ll see an animal get hurt every now and then, but you see a lot more people. Most people still think it’s cruel to buck those horses. A lot of ’em think you torture them to make them do that, but that’s not true. It’s just natural for those horses to buck. And like these buckin’ horses, if they wasn’t here buckin’–that’s all they’re good for, you know–they’d be dog food.”
Despite all the injuries he went on riding. “It’s just a way of life, you know.” He shrugs and then laughs. “I don’t know. It’s just what I do.” He says he doubts he’ll compete again, and will probably never get on another bareback bronco. “It’s a young man’s game. I quit competing the year after I won the world championship in ’81. But some of those other guys that were startin’ to come on–Well, I made the finals again in ’82, but the guy that won the bareback championship that year was a real good friend of mine. And he’s about 21 years old. We rodeoed a lot together, but he calls me Mr. Jordan. You know?” He laughs. “Makes you kind of feel funny.”
He looks up from scraping a hoof. “It’s not the years, it’s how you spend them. It’s not the places, it’s the miles in between. I used to go over 100,000 a year. Easy. Of course that was in an automobile. Then we flew, too.”
Apparently everybody on the major rodeo circuits knows or knows of just about everybody else. The riders’ paths often cross as they travel around the country from one rodeo to the next. Many of those who rode in Chicago on Thursday or Friday night have gone on to another major rodeo in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; many of those who will ride here on Saturday and Sunday will have just come from there.
On Saturday night three friends who already rode, on Thursday night, sit talking in the seats above the stock pens. Michael Orr is a 22-year-old saddle-bronc rider from Billings, Montana, who works as a ranch hand in Wisconsin for $100 a week plus room and board. “It’s all I know,” he says. Bud Smith, a 32-year-old single parent, grew up on the south side of Chicago near the stockyards and now works as an airplane mechanic at O’Hare. He started riding bulls only five years ago on the military circuit. Bruce Olson, who is 26 and also rides bulls, is from Duluth, Minnesota. He works as a salesman, selling plastic machinery, but says he’s going to quit and ride rodeos full-time over the summer.
Since only four riders in each event win any money, Orr, Olson, and Smith are out the $60 entry fee they paid to ride. Orr was thrown before the eight seconds were up. “It was either too rough, or I was too drunk,” he says.
“A little of both,” he says, pulling on the wide brim of his hat.
Smith and Olson laugh. “It’s a fun life-style,” says Olson. “I could do this and have $800 in the bank at the end of the year. Or work nine to five and buy a stereo and a couch, and then make more money and buy a bigger couch and a house–and I’d still have $800 in the bank.”
They laugh about how little they make riding. The top bull rider at the Horizon will win $939.82; a total of $17,390 will be paid to the 24 winners. Last year $15 million was paid out in prize money on the major circuit, most of it donated by corporate sponsors such as Winston, Copenhagen/Skoal, Coors, Wrangler, Dodge, and Ford, the sponsor for the Horizon show.
Smith says that there’s a science to staying on the back of a bull, even though you have to learn it well enough to react instinctively. He explains that bulls have certain patterns when they buck and spin. That unlike horses they can twist and roll their hips. That a major trick is to keep the plane of your body at a right angle to the plane of the bull’s body. He says he writes down the way every bull he watches moves, and learns a lot from other riders. “I consider it a sport just like any other sport,” says Olson. “But you’re competing against a bull or a horse, not another guy. If I see someone who’s riding a bull I know, I’ll tell him exactly what [the bull’s] going to do. And if the guy wins, I’ll give him a handshake and that’s OK.”
They’re well aware of how dangerous their sport is, but Olson says he’ll keep on riding until he doesn’t like it anymore. “I almost quit this winter,” he says. “I got spooked.”
Smith nods; he spent two months last year wearing a sling for a ruptured tendon. “I was out for a year and a half once,” he says. “I just couldn’t get my mind concentrated. You have to convince yourself to get back into it. I just don’t go at it as hard as I did before.”
Rodeos are becoming more and more popular–more than 20 million Americans paid to see one last year. Spectators who think the riders in spurs and chaps are somehow connected to the legendary old west are not always wrong. But the number of real cowboys in the rodeo is dwindling.
“When I was growin’ up, most guys that came to the rodeo was ranch cowboys,” says Benny Jordan. “They was tryin’ to make a better livin’ and stuff. But there’ll be very few guys here competin’ that’s actually cowboys. Nowadays they’re just rodeo athletes.” He says rodeo riders–and many of the champions–often learn what they know in one of the numerous rodeo schools around the country. “Like the bull riders and stuff, most of these guys have never ridden a horse. They just learn how to ride bulls.” The steer wrestlers and calf ropers may know how to ride a horse, he says, but that doesn’t mean they know how to work cattle. “Very few of those guys are ranch cowboys. You see a lot of guys that play football and stuff like that in high school and college that are steer wrestlers. It takes kind of a bigger guy to wrestle a steer.”
Most of the real cowboys have disappeared from the rodeo because they’re disappearing from the land. Like farmers, many ranchers went heavily into debt in the 1970s. Many were forced to sell, often to large corporate or absentee owners; others are still struggling. Those who are left generally hire as little help as possible, and many hired hands have given up and headed for the city. “Most of these big ranches don’t keep cowboys year-round,” says Jordan. “They’ll just keep two or three to look after the cattle and do fences and stuff. Then in the fall or spring when they work cattle–like vaccinate and brand them–then they’ll hire on some extras just for a couple of weeks or a month. Like the big ranch that I worked on in Oklahoma this fall. There in that one place it’s 14,000 acres, and only but two guys run that year-round. In the winter they’ll hire a couple kids to help feed. Then when they’re workin’ cattle, there’s 20 guys hired.” When cowboys do get hired, the work is hard and the pay isn’t that good. Most of the ranchers Jordan knows pay $40 a day, though some pay $50. “You usually stay in tents. A lot of ’em have an old bunkhouse, so you can stay in there. And they’ll feed you. And most of ’em will furnish you a horse.”
To work year-round on a ranch, he says, you almost have to be an owner or a foreman on somebody else’s ranch. Jordan, his father, and his brothers run cattle on 23,000 acres, in the mountains in southeast Oklahoma, most of it clear-cut pasture leased from the Weyerhaeuser timber and paper company. “We’ve got that contract on that leased land down there, and once you get it, they can’t ever cancel it. The only way they can cancel it is if you don’t make payment,” says Jordan. His rodeo salary and the money from the odd jobs he picks up help make his payments. “I’m just now getting enough cattle of my own that I can realize a livin’ off of ’em. Cow prices have been real good, and I’m gettin’ more mama cows now. Another year or two and I won’t owe a penny on ’em. And my dad don’t owe any money on his cattle. We haven’t bought a lot of cattle because we raise them all–we keep all our heifers every year.
“I shoe a lot of horses down in Oklahoma–if I’m there. When I used to stay there all the time, I had a lot of regular customers. I could make more money shoein’ horses than rodeoin’, but it’s hard on you. It hurts your back.”
His father and brothers take care of his cattle when he’s gone. His mother, who works in the local post office, pulls out his bills and pays them for him. “I’ll be back in time to work cattle this spring. Brand all our calves and stuff,” he says. In the winter or early spring all the new calves are marked with an ear slit. “Dad’s probably markin’ ’em right now. If he sees it’s one of his calves, he’s got his own mark. And then if he sees one of my calves–because it’s with its mama, he’ll know whose it is–he’ll put my mark on it. After all summer the calf may be off its mama–you know, already weaned–and if it’s not marked, you don’t know whose it is. And it’ll end up being Dad’s,” Jordan laughs. “But then in the fall, all of ’em gets a big BJ right there on the side–that’s Dad’s brand–and mine’s all got a B on the hip.”
Jordan nails a shoe on one of the horse’s hooves, then gently sets the foot on a small stand and cuts off the ends of the nails where they protrude from the hoof. He crimps the ends of the nails slightly so that they can’t pull out, and takes a long rasp and scrapes clean the outside of the hoof. A young man who plans to ride Saturday night leads a big chestnut into the passageway and asks Jordan if he can fix a loose shoe. Jordan promises to look at it as soon as he finishes the horse he’s working on.
Jordan says he doubts that many people realize that some of the cowboys who still exist sometimes work the way they used to. “It’s kind of like the old days–we work ’em out on the ranch on horseback all the time. See, we go out and we just camp for a couple of weeks while we work cattle,” he says. “I mean, it’s not hostile or anything like it used to be. But like I wear a gun every day at home down in the mountains.” He says he wears it in case he has to shoot a rattlesnake–or his horse. If his horse were spooked and he fell and was dragged, he might not have any other way to stop it. “And there’s still guys that steal cattle. We don’t have that many stole, but they range-butcher a lot of ’em. Kill ’em–like a calf–and butcher ’em right there and haul the meat out. It’s usually people that’s hungry. In a way, you kind of feel sorry for them.”
The Jordan family also raises bucking bulls to sell to rodeos’ and the growing popularity of rodeos has helped sales. Good bucking bulls can be sold for a lot more than castrated males, steers that are sold for meat. “When a calf’s born down there, if he looks like he might buck, we’ll leave him a bull. And then when he’s about two years old, we’ll try him and see how he does.” He pauses and then smiles. “I get on some of those.”
He admits that he still thinks about competing, and says there are old-timer rodeos in Oklahoma and Texas that use horses and bulls that are a little older and a little slower. “It’s a pretty good deal. I could go to some of those,” he says. “My dad, he could probably win at those, but he just won’t go to them. He hardly ever gets away from home anymore.” His father is 57. “My dad gets around real good, but I have noticed in the last couple years that he lets me do more. Before, whatever had to be done, he’d just go ahead and he’d do it. Literally, he wouldn’t let you do much–he thought he had to do everything.”
Jordan is intensely aware that his ability to go on ranching depends on his ability to go on driving his body hard. “If I get a leg broke or somethin’–Of course, now I could go to Dad’s and Mom’s, I guess. But if I get crippled later–there I am. Because if I can’t ride, work cattle and stuff–” He shrugs and ducks his head into the back of his truck, where he hammers a shoe on an anvil to straighten it. Then he sticks his head back out and smiles. “But I’m not going to worry about it too much.”
And what would he want to do if he wasn’t ranching? He pulls his head back and laughs. “Is there something else?”
After Jordan finishes shoeing a second stunt horse, he leads the young rider’s chestnut up to the fence and ties it. His face is wet with sweat, but he pulls off the loose shoe, cleans it, and nails it back on. He packs his tools into his truck, then brings out a pad and a handmade, tooled saddle that he won riding bulls. He saddles a big brown-and-white quarter horse, one of two of his own horses that he rides alternately during the rodeo. “It’s a paint. The Indians call them pintos.” He says the pintos that once ran wild have been crossed with other breeds, but that it’s really just a choice of words. “A paint is just an upgraded pinto. A lot of people that kind of want to be big shots, they don’t like you to call them pintos.”
More contestants, with trailers of horses hitched to their trucks, have started arriving outside. The bucking horses in the tent start whinnying. Jordan stands still and listens. “I’m sure those buckin’ horses would rather be out there on the prairie somewhere than in here at the rodeo,” he says. “They’re kind of scared. I mean, the building scares ’em. People scare ’em.” He pauses. “Like me. I’d rather be out on the mountains, too, by myself than around here. But the thing is, those horses, they’d have been extinct a long time ago if they weren’t buckin’ horses. ‘Cause they’re sure not ridin’ horses.”
Bull riding is the last event on Saturday night. The crowd is still applauding and cheering, though not as loudly as before. Four riders are hurled into the dirt before one stays on the eight seconds. Finally, well after ten o’clock, the announcer thanks everyone for coming, and most in the audience head for their cars. A few stay to watch the calf ropers and steer wrestlers who didn’t fit into the time allotted for the events in the program; the rodeo producers are obliged to let any rider who shows up for these two events compete. The arena is quiet, and once again you can hear the planes passing overhead.
After the last calf roper has tried to down a calf and tie its feet together, the riders slowly walk their horses out of the stadium, heading down the ramp and up to the parking lot. Jordan sits on his horse off to one side of the ramp while a tractor drives into the arena and starts raking the dirt. A few spectators still linger along the rail above the ramp. “Hell of a way to make a living,” says one man to the woman standing next to him. “That’s a nice hat,” he yells at Jordan, then turns to the woman and says, “I don’t like those boots, though.”
Jordan doesn’t appear to have heard. All the horses, bulls, steers, and calves are now in the pens above the ramp. The man who separated the horses into the bucking chute opens the pens one by one and lets the animals out, and Jordan herds them toward the tent outside, where they’ll be fed and watered. The bucking horses are first, and need no encouraging. They gallop down the ramp and up the other side, their manes and tails whipping. The bulls are next, then the steers. Left alone, the calves start bawling. The gate to their pen is finally opened, but they seem confused. Jordan carefully maneuvers behind them and, with a few soft calls and the whistle of his swinging lariat, guides them out toward the parking lot.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joseph Griffin.