October 29, 2022 | Last updated May 31, 2023

Flashback Friday: Why Small-town Rodeos are One of Nebraska’s Greatest Treasures

By Kylie Kinley, Assistant Editor

I have ridden a horse maybe three times in my life. I don’t know how to throw a rope. I have been head-butted, stepped on, tail-whipped, chased around, and dragged by cattle, but never felt the desire to wrestle or ride them. But I love the sport of rodeo. Barrel racers and their horses, whether paints or roans or buckskins, merge into one speeding being as they round the third barrel. Calf ropers’ hands blur tying three hooves together while their fellow athlete—their horse—keeps the rope taut. Pick-up men circle the arena with their long, fringed legs and their skilled saving of men from beasts’ backs. Rodeo queens race the lengthening summer shadows with rhinestones and sequins and snapping banners. Bull riders wrap their hands in their ropes and wait to explode into the arena on 1,500 pounds of muscle, snot, and anger.

Rodeo Nebraska by Mark Harris, published by the NSHS last fall, allows enthusiasts and casual rodeo fans to keep the thrill of rodeo long after the final bucking chute empties. This book is also a great gift to people who know nothing about rodeo. The book’s foreword explains the sport’s deep roots in American history and Nebraska history in particular, and the photos and stories of the adults, children, and animals showcase exactly what non-fans have been missing. Rodeo’s innate connection to history adds weight to events that last only seconds. Famous bulls with storied pedigrees. Old buckles etched with the names of champions. Family traditions of working cattle during the week and cutting loose with some rodeoing on the weekends. The history of muscle memories in the horses and humans who have spent hours in the dirt and mud of practice arenas. The century-plus traditions of county fair boards and small-town festivals, from mutton busting to 4-H shows to locally-raised barbecue roasted to perfection in the deep dirt of The Good Life.

Oakland – Vengeful bulls have multiple weapons and are experienced in their use.

McCook native Mark Harris photographed eighty-two Nebraska rodeo events in sixty-two separate locations and artistically captured the competition, the rural crowds, and all things connected with rodeo. He also visited ranches that breed broncs, bulls, and speed horses, and he spoke to hundreds of competitors. With chapter titles like “Sandhills Speedsters: Speed-Event Horses,” “Lonely Roads and Where They Lead,” “Animal Welfare,” and “Tuck Your Chin and Brace for Hell: Bronc Riding,” you can be sure that Harris has covered the sport itself and the people, animals, and places in Nebraska where rodeo flourishes. The photos here are driven by questions. What brings people to the sport? What is it like to compete in rodeo? How do the winners get so good? Harris gives us action shots, to be sure—bone-crushing falls and majestic rides. But he also turns his camera on the people: the communities that host rodeos and those who participate. The book’s ability to celebrate the small-town community is one of its strongest assets. It’s the reason a person like me—with no horse knowledge and with her only rodeo-participation experience coming from growing up on a cow-calf operation and helping out when the heifers got a little wild—attends at least five rodeos a year. I attend rodeos because they envelope me with a sense of community. What I feel in the place where my family has lived for three generations is also available at any rodeo I attend. I’ve felt this at no other sporting event, not even in the hallowed bleachers of Memorial Stadium.

Fort Robinson State Park wranglers and other staff provide weekly rodeo entertainment for park visitors. Women compete with men in team roping.

Rodeo offers some of the grittiest, fiercest competition of any sport, but this competition fosters a camaraderie that no other sport can match. Plus, you’re not attending with 85,000 of your “closest friends” plus a television audience. You are attending with maybe one to two thousand other people, which may be five times the town’s regular population and most of the people in your county. And they truly are your closest friends – and your family and your banker and your seed dealer. The event probably isn’t being filmed. You will watch this event, and then it will be gone. No auto-tune. Never overproduced. There will be no hours-long analysis on ESPN or columns in the newspaper about how the coach behaved or which players messed up or which receiver had the worst play of the game. The rodeo announcer will remind you that animals are athletes, too, and all athletes can have a bad day, and you respectfully applaud the cowboys and cowgirls with empty ropes as they exit the arena. With rodeo, you have the luxury of being your own bulldogging analyst. Creating your own instant replay of a wreck or of an incredible eight-second ride. Discussing play-by-play action in a beer tent while a country cover band plays “Ring of Fire.” Rodeo is both private and public. Intimate and collective. In my entire life I have missed only three nights of my hometown rodeo in Webster County. I have a lot of rodeo-related emotions and memories, but one in particular illustrates the importance of rodeo in a small town.

 

This 1913 photo from Thedford, Nebraska, is labeled, “Easy Money! Want to Try Him?”

 

I started working for my local paper when I was sixteen, and whenever I interviewed people who knew me (which is nearly everyone when you live in a small town), they would often patronize me. Our rodeo superintendent was one of the first people who broke this trend. Even though our family and his family farmed next to each other and I had played with his children countless times, he treated me like I was a professional when I interviewed him. It was the first time I felt like a real reporter, and though it was a small act, I am still grateful to him for that. About a decade later, he was diagnosed with cancer. I heard updates about his illness from my parents, from posts on Facebook, and from seeing him in person if I happened to be home and ran into him. But it wasn’t real to me until they put him, his wife, and his five kids into a pickup and drove them around the arena to thank them for their service to our rodeo. We all stood up and clapped, and I had to look at the dirt or the fence or the barrels. Because I knew if I looked into the faces of my family, friends, neighbors, and people who just loved rodeo and loved this rodeo because he took such good care of it, I would lose it. He passed away the next winter. Just a few months after his death, I attended the funeral of my greatest mentor and true Nebraskan force of nature John Carter, whose chair I sit in as I write this blog. And as soon as it was over, I knew I could only do one thing.

A trick-riding young lady flies by her audience at the Omaha Legion Rodeo, 1924. NSHS RG2478-15

 

I went to a rodeo. And I watched races and rope tying and thought about the conversations John and I had shared about cowboys, country music, ranching in Bassett, livestock, rural humor, frontier triumph and tragedy, modern Nebraska dramas, and even Buddhism. Mostly, I used that rodeo as a foundation to lay my grief and build something good out of it. And it worked. Because rodeo isn’t just about the horses, bulls, wild cows, cowboys, cowgirls, clowns, and spectators. Rodeo is greater than the sum of its parts. Harris captures this in Rodeo Nebraska. This eight-year labor of love celebrates the grit, adventure, emotion, tradition, and action of rodeo. If you want to experience that action, attend a Nebraska rodeo this summer (see the schedule here at www.rodeonebraskabook.com). And until the next “Star Spangled Banner” is sung to a flag flying from a pole lodged in a horse’s stirrup in the middle of a dirt arena, buy and read Rodeo Nebraska by Mark Harris.

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