Wild Cow Milking? An Unplanned Rodeo Experience

September 21, 2007 by

North America, Places to Go, Travel Advice & Inspiration

There are those great moments when “no itinerary” and “total spontaneity” walk hand-in-hand to deliver a unique and completely memorable travel experience. This was the case a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon the Ellensburg Rodeo. Yes, rodeo.

Ellensburg Rodeo in Washington
Rope ’em, cowboy!

Ellensburg is a quaint town located about two hours east of Seattle, tucked between Washington’s premier wine region and The Gorge Amphitheater, where the night before I enjoyed The Dave Mathews Band. As we headed west toward Seattle, “rodeo” was not on our radar.

In fact, as a self-proclaimed city slicker, I wouldn’t have given it one second of thought except when we drove through Ellensburg for a quick pit stop we found nearly every storefront window painted with rodeo renderings with banners out in force. The whole town had rodeo fever, welcoming out-of-towners (us) and wishing contestants good luck. It was Labor Day and the festivities had been going on all weekend.

In a matter of hours – and miles – it was as if we stepped into the heart of the West. Established in 1923, the Ellensburg Rodeo is one of the oldest in the United States and among the Top 25 Rodeo competitions paying out a $250,000 purse. Who knew? My boyfriend did. He actually went to Central Washington University in Ellensburg to study International Tourism although, somehow, he never mad it to “The Rodeo.” Apparently, he prefers two-wheeled transport (his road bike) to four-legged competitions. Without a schedule to stick to, we decided to give into chance and check out The Rodeo.

Now, I’m not total Rodeo Rookie. For years, I accompanied my grandparents to the Grand National Rodeo at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. In fact, my grandfather on my mother’s side was known in certain circles as “The Mule Man” and even made a video before his death about training the notoriously stubborn mule. The rodeo tradition abruptly ended the year I witnessed a horse step directly on a man’s head, rendering him brain dead. After that, I wasn’t so keen but I do understand how engaging… and dangerous, a rodeo can be.

Ellensburg Rodeo in Washington
City slickers at the rodeo

The Ellensburg Rodeo is real: real cowboys, real cowgirls and real rodeo livestock. The names of contestants were perfectly scripted: Jake, Wes, Chet, Cody… The preferred attire was Wranglers, over-powering belt buckles, worn and weathered boots and authentic 10-gallon hats. We weren’t exactly dressed for the part, wearing cotton shorts and t-shirts with caps but we were welcomed nonetheless.

Rodeo is a highly physical sport that doesn’t allow for much boredom. Our timing was perfect because we were seeing the best of the best in the finals of a three-day event. We arrived during the Tie-down Calf Roping and quickly saw the Saddle Bronc, Steer Roping, Barrel Racing, Women’s Breakaway Roping, and Saturday Night Bullriding. While bull riding is the most extreme and exciting, the most entertaining was Wild Cow Milking… yes, milking. I’m not sure how official this sport is, but it’s done in a number of rodeos.

In Milking, one cowboy on a horse ropes a cow around the neck and his teammate, coming from the arena’s perimeter and wrestles the cow while the one on the horse dismounts in order to draw milk. This must be done during an allotted time and the milk must be verified by a judge. Check out the video:

In only took about 5 minutes in our seats to understand why PETA and just about every other animal rights group wants to ban the sport of rodeo. It can be grueling and uncomfortable to watch… for the effects on the animals and the people.

It’s hard to argue that rodeos don’t have a place in American history and culture, however. I liken it to the bullfight in Spain. As part of tradition, the bullfight is a way of life and culture for many Spanish people yet there are many nationals who choose not to witness the gore of it.

For us, the unplanned Rodeo experience provided exposure to a part of America we rarely get to see and we were thankful for the opportunity to learn more about its legacy. It was a perfect spontaneous outing; although, I don’t expect to be following the Rodeo circuit any time soon.

If you’re interested in seeing a rodeo, you can check out the list of rodeos sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. If you can’t actually see one live, you might be able to see one on TV. There is a Pro Rodeo Tour – the Ellensburg Rodeo was stop 10 on the 12-stop Wrangler tour – and its site lists upcoming broadcasts.

Dawn Lyon

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