"Rodeo gets in your blood," says bareback rider Shane Law. Ask any rider why they compete and you'll get a similar answer. Some call rodeo an addiction - an adrenaline rush that can't be found anywhere else.
That rush comes at a cost. It's not unusual for bareback riders to suffer lower back and elbow injuries and cracked ribs. "When you get off, you're white as a sheet," Law says. But it's worth it. "When they crack that latch and that horse blows out of there, there is nothing in the world like it," Law says.
Rodeo judges may be the busiest people at the rodeo. During riding events, the judges score both the riders and the livestock. The mark depends upon the rider's technique and how well the animal bucks and kicks. It's a demanding job. The judges' decision determines who leaves with a paycheck. "You ain't got too long to look and you got a lot of things to be looking at," says rodeo judge Bill Nauman.
Riders can't count on their own skills to win a rodeo. The performance of the horse or bull is also important. In fact, half the total score depends on how well the animal bucks and kicks.
"They're showoffs," stock contractor Deward Gill says of the animals. "They love the crowd and they like to show off," says Gill, who provides bucking stock for rodeos.
Rodeo is a competition between a rider and a horse or bull, Gill says, with the animal trying everything to toss the rider. "Horses and bulls buck because they like it. They're doing it for the sport of it. Sometimes the animal is smarter than the rider and that's always amusing to me," Gill says.
Like a circus ringmaster, the announcer keeps the rodeo moving - calling out the next event, explaining the rules to the crowd and announcing scores. "The announcer is kind of the master of ceremonies," says long time rodeo announcer Dick Parker.
Parker says he started announcing when he saw he wasn't going to make much money as a rodeo cowboy. He doesn't regret his decision. "You got the best seat in the house. You're still involved with the sport and you get a check every time you go," Parker says.
Who is the best rider at the rodeo? Chances are, it's the pick up rider. When a bucking horse ride ends, the pick up rider gallops alongside, pulls the cowboy off the horse and sets him down on the ground safely.
"You have to be a pretty good horseman. You have to really know horses and stock and ride really good," says Jason Schaper.
And, Schaper says, the pick up rider has to be on his toes. "There have been times when we've had guys hang up and dragging alongside the horse and you have to ride up next to them and pull their hand out or hold the horse. It gets pretty intense at times, " Schaper says.
"You've got every one of these cowboy's life in your hands," says Drew Pearson. A bullfighter, Pearson may have the most demanding job at the rodeo. It's his job to see that bull riders get away safely after their ride. It takes skill, speed, agility.and a lot of guts. When the ride ends, Pearson steps between the bull and cowboy so the bull will chase him while the cowboy runs for safety.
Pearson takes his job seriously. He used to ride. "I got knocked underneath one and it busted my leg and hurt me pretty bad. So I realized you need to have pretty good bullfighters, " Pearson says.
Today, Pearson downplays the danger. The bulls, he says, "aren't too bad. They just want to buck the guy off and go back and eat."
For bareback riders, the proper glove can make the difference between winning and losing. Bareback gloves are highly specialized, packed full of leather wedges which keep a rider's hand in the rigging.
"These aren't like the average work glove a person buys downtown," says glove maker Shawn Schild. A former rider, Schild designs gloves for some of the top riders in the country.
Schild says the right glove not only helps the rider hold on, it helps him get off when the ride is over. Some gloves bunch up when the rider tries to pull his hand from the rigging. Schild says his gloves flatten out when the rider relaxes his hand, making it easy to pull free of the rigging.
While a well designed glove helps prevents injuries, the real benefit is helping the rider stay on the horse for eight seconds. "If you can't hold on, you can't make any money," says Schild.