Saddle Score

In about 2003 I went to the MT Isa rodeo for Ralph magazine, where I learnt interesting things about cowboys and clowns. Here is the result. The photographer is Mick Richards.


THE RODEO: where hard men ride angry livestock, for points. Or chase it and tie it up, for points. Or fall off and get stood on by it, for no points. Ralph heads to Mt Isa’s legendary annual rodeo to learn the ropes.


Steer Wrestling

If it goes right

Wrestling? Mugging, more like. The cowboy leaps off his horse onto the horns of a runaway 200kg steer and uses his momentum to flip it over. The clock stops when the steer is on the ground and all four hooves are pointed in the same direction.

If it goes wrong

The cowboy can miss, or the steer remain upright and refuse to become just another street-crime statistic. If the steer doesn’t go down first time, an 80kg cowboy is left trying to pull a 200kg steer to the ground. At Mt Isa, one bloke pulls a steer directly on top of him. The next 10 frantic seconds look like one of those videos they make in liberal parts of Europe. Poor bastard doesn’t get any points either.

Team Roping

If it goes right

ONE bloke (the “header”) lassoes the calf’s head, the other (the “heeler”) lassoes both hind legs and ties his end round the saddle horn. Cue casual cowboy nods to each other and crowd.

If it goes wrong

THE header could miss the fleeing schnitzel filler completely or, as often happens, the heeler only gets one hind leg. Cue tears, recriminations and a calf’s unsettling laugh of triumph as he leaves the arena.

Rope and Tie

If it goes right

The calf gets a short head-start, before a bloke on a highly trained horse chases, ropes it, jumps down and physically dumps it on its side like a roll of mooing carpet. He ties three hooves together with a bit of string and he’s done. This should take less than 10 seconds.

If it goes wrong

Either the rope misses the calf; the string comes loose; or the horse starts dragging around the helpless calf in an amusing manner. The RSPCA has reservations about the long-term mental effects on the calf.

Saddle Bronc Riding

If it goes right

THE rider tries to last eight seconds on a specially bred bucking horse, holding onto a single rein with one hand only. He is judged on style and spurring action.

If it goes wrong

YOU’LL be disqualified if you touch the horse or equipment with your free hand, or if after three seconds you’re spitting out arena dirt and wondering if your hips have snapped. At Mt Isa, the riders seem less in danger of coming off than being snapped in half while riding. Cowboys are jerked back and forth at eye-buggering speed, free arm waving in unnatural angles from the body. It’s like seeing a film with some of the frames missing.

Bareback Bronc Riding

If it goes right

With no rig on the horse except a handle, and the rules the same as for saddle bronc riding, you hang on like mad and try to show some kind of style into the bargain.

If it goes wrong

“If you’re right-handed and the horse bucks you off on the left-hand side, that’s called being hung-up,” says champion barebacker Tony Hecksher. “You can’t get out because you’ve rolled over on your hand and the horse is dragging and kicking at you. The pick-up team (guys on horseback who take you off when you’re done) has to get you back over to the other side so you can let go. It’s bad news.”

Bull Riding

If it goes right

THIS is often called the world’s most dangerous sport. For eight seconds, the rider is judged on his use of his free arm, legs and feet to achieve balance and good body position, while sitting bareback on a living, thinking tornado.

If it goes wrong

THE rider is trampled, gored and generally rearranged until the bull gets bored. Spectators get an extra dose of adrenaline in Mt Isa, when a bull slams his rider to the ground, wheels and charges the fence, scattering clowns, judges and commentator. Later, a black monster named Mafia manages to buck all four feet off the ground at once. The rider lasts four seconds, then gets thrown away like a dirty rag.


Craig “Roper” Hollamby, Rodeo Clown

WHAT is your job title?
Protection bullfighter.

Is that what everyone calls you?
It sort of varies. Some of them I can’t say. Generally it’s “rodeo clown”.

What do you do?
I jump in front of the bull and stop the cowboy getting hit when he comes off.

At what point do you know you have to do that?
When the cowboy’s down and the bull’s just going for him, I take the hit for the cowboy.

Is that why you wear that absurd get-up?
Yeah. The bull can see the clothing flying around a bit; but really, I’ve got to get in the bull’s face so it’s looking at me and not the rider.

Why do you do it?
Because it’s fun. There’s an adrenaline rush.

Is it well paid?
Yeah. It varies anywhere between three or four hundred for a small show, up to about $3000.

How long have you been doing this?
Ten years.

What is your opinion of bulls?
If I’m on the ground underneath him, I’m not too impressed with him. But generally I do like working with them.

What goes through your mind when you realise you have to jump in front of an annoyed bull?

Would you describe bulls as clever animals?
Oh, very. The older bulls know how to get you. They’ve worked out how the rider gets off. The older they are, the smarter they get and the more cunning — and the more victories they get.

At what point do you know it’s time to retire?
If you can’t be there in time to save the cowboy.

How long have you got to get there in time?
Split seconds.

Where are you during the bull ride?
I pretty well stay on the chutes because we’re not supposed to get in the way. If a bull sees us he’ll stop bucking sometimes, so we’ve got to sit back against the chute. Then as soon as the rider is coming off or is in trouble of any kind, we’re in.

How many clowns per bull?
It varies from rodeo to rodeo, but it takes two of you to work a bull in most situations.

Do you ever fancy doing something less dangerous, like accounting?
Occasionally I go away for a couple of weeks, but then I start thinking, “Jesus, I feel a little bit out of it.”


See this as higher-res PDFs: