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The American cowboy is often revered as the epitome of manly virtue.
The American cowboy is the symbol of red-blooded American values – whatever that might mean. He’s a figure tied to the earth – humble, respectful, fearless, and no stranger to hard work. The legends of the wild west permeate our cultural landscape, and while many pulp novels and Hollywood films are weighed-down by ridiculous (and often comedic) anachronisms, it would be a mistake to neglect the American preoccupation with cowboys.
A great deal has changed since the push west. The ranching lifestyle that initially gave rise to rodeo is disappearing. Despite the decline of the rancher and the disappearance of the range, the image of the cowboy – hat, lasso, chaps and spurs – hasn’t lost it’s potency. The cowboy’s courage and skill illustrate man’s ability to conquer the wilderness; he accomplishes this by pursuing, confronting, and subduing outlaw stock. There’s another side to this public celebration of determination and bravery. Criticisms and condemnations of rodeo usually revolve around the ethical treatment of animals. What a lot of folks don’t realize is that this controversy is almost as old as the cowboy myth itself.
The earliest protests regarding animal welfare date as far back as the mid-1870s.
I’m no stranger to criticisms of the modern rodeo myself. I live in a reasonably liberal community and work closely with several vegans. Hell, even my girlfriend’s a vegetarian. I’m lambasted by criticisms simply for photographing rodeo events, let alone participating directly in them. Initially, I had to admit a relative ignorance regarding animal treatment at rodeo. My family ate steak at the dinner table, we took field-trips to the Kansas City Royal Rodeo in elementary school, and we watched John Wayne classics like ‘The Cowboys.’ That’s just how it was, and I didn’t ask questions.
My present interest in rodeo photography is, more than anything, born out of a desire to understand my own country. This, I know, hinges on the cliché – but that being said, I honestly believe that there’s value in the investigation of our own origin myths. My intent isn’t to build-up or to knock-down, to celebrate or to dispel. Taking a closer look at this subject matter simply makes sense to me, especially when taking into account the politically fractious time in which we live.
One thing is certain – I’m not interested in glorifying some epic form of animal cruelty or sadism. I’m interested the Old West, writ large on the marquee. I’m interested in the ranching lifestyle, where it began and why it’s disappearing. I’m interested in the representation of the rancher, the cowboy, and the western folk hero in popular media. And while I do this, I get to add to the pantheon of media images that illustrate the extreme danger, occasional madness, and remarkable talent of these rodeo cowboys.
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Up next, a few statistic regarding animal treatment, injuries, and PRCA regulations.