ASHLAND — Kyle Brennecke stood near the bucking chute, taping his right arm. A bareback rider, he was set to climb onto a horse that wanted to hurl him into the dust in 20 minutes. All around him, horses stood next to men in denim and felt hats.
He didn’t believe bareback riding is as nasty as people think. “I broke my leg. I seen people who died. But there’s people who died climbing down stairs.”
Brennecke, 26, was one of around 150 contestants participating in the 38th annual Cattlemen Days Rodeo in Ashland. Hailing from over 15 states, they competed in seven events: tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding and bull riding.
The rodeo was spread over Friday and Saturday, with around 5,000 people expected to visit, said Bruce Glascock, chairman of the rodeo committee. The event continued Saturday with a parade through downtown Ashland at 2 p.m. and the Kiddy Roundup, which included roping, stick horse barrels, calf scramble and other activities.
On Friday night, the contests began with saddle bronc riding, followed by trick riding. One of the trick riders was Haley Ganzel, 19. Just before the rodeo began, she stood on top of a horse wearing an American flag-inspired dress. She carried a pole with the flag as she rode around the grounds.
She’d been in the rodeo business since she was 5. She now trick-rides for a living, traveling the country performing her act. She had Sadie, the horse she was standing on, from the time she was 5 and the brown horse was just a foal.
“We grew up together,” she said. “I take it with me wherever I go.”
While Ganzel and her horse worked together for their act, Brennecke's mount wanted nothing to do with him. As his horse started bucking beneath him, Brennecke was tossed and whirled. Unlike Ganzel, he didn’t know the animal's name: It was just a contract horse. Somehow, he managed to hold on, and a bell buzzed after eight seconds.
The bell and Brennecke were greeted with loud applause from the audience. The announcer’s voice drowned them out. "That was the ride of the night.”
The stadium’s perimeter was dotted with trailers where cowboys, cowgirls, helpers and the rodeo clown set up shop. The clown, 36-year-old Johnny "Backflip" Dudley, has been on the circuit for 12 years. The job has not always as funny as he is.
“I got my foot crushed when a bull stomped on it, shattered my right hand and got two plates and 10 screws in it, broke my right leg and had surgery on both knees, broke my ribs when a bull gored me and then broke my neck," he said. "Everybody in this business gets hurt.”
Out on the field, Backflip tumbled around the arena and pulled a skunk from a box to loud applause. “It don’t matter if your'e 9 or 90. My jokes gotta make you laugh.”
Brock McGuire, 20, one of the younger bullfighters at the event who partnered with Backflip to play a game with the crowd, was not as scarred as his friend.
“I only broke my wrist once, in Wyoming,” he said. The bullfighter was staring into a mirror, painting on makeup before joining Backflip beneath the floodlights in the arena.
McGuire likes everything about this job, such as traveling and meeting new people. But the thing that gives him the most satisfaction is making a good save — distracting a bull from stomping on a fallen rider.
“When you make a good save, you get a darn good feeling,” he said. “You just put your body on the line to take a save for somebody.”
As the nickering of the horses mingled with country music, the dust settled over the stadium. Some men hit the beer tent. Logan Dalton, 8, had watched Brennecke wrestle with the horse from the bleachers.
"I want to ride like that," he said.
Supervising editor is Seth Klamann.