Save a Horse – Ride a Cowboy (or so I’ve been told)

The warm, pungent odor of animal shit stinging my nose was the first indication that the next few days would be out of the ordinary.

Despite living all of my nearly-30 years in Nebraska, one of America’s most rural states, I don’t think I’ve ever spent considerable or meaningful time on a farm.

Livestock, corn, hay bales. All of that was a mystery to me. I knew how much I loved steak, loved corn, loved all those delicious foods of the Heartland that made their way to my table – restaurant, home or otherwise.

But the stories behind those foods remained veiled. The livestock, in particular, had personalities. Had histories. Had lives, most of which are spent pinned in manmade cages, fed grain mixed with God-knows-what, and poked with sharp objects, leading them to their eventual, collective and delicious (for me) demise.

Don’t take me for a vegetarian, though. That social choice couldn’t be farther from the truth. Steak, hamburgers, bacon and ham are the not-so-delicate delicacies that make my soul sing.

But back to the smell of animal shit.

I found myself at the River City Roundup and Rodeo, a celebration of all things agriculture that finds its way to downtown Omaha every fall. In sleek, modern space where I’ve witnessed live performances by U2 and Simon and Garfunkle now sat 200 truckloads of brown dirt (caked with animal shit, I’m certain) and colorful advertisements for Wrangler Jeans.

It was an American rodeo, all right, and I couldn’t have felt more out of place had I been walking nude through the exhibition halls. Dressed in a short denim skirt, bright green T-shirt and sassy pink scarf, I looked nothing like the other women who walked by. Something about them looked tough. They wore low-cut, tight-fighting, Western-style shirts on top, skin-tight jeans on the bottom. One (or more) articles of clothing were adorned with silver or sparkle embellishments and they had a swagger about themselves the likes of which I hadn’t seen before. Some wore cowboy hats with lots of ratted, curly hair flowing below the brim. Very few carried purses, but almost all of them wore cowboy boots.

I quickly glanced downward to compare my shoes: $5, Mary Jane-style, canvas tennis shoes I picked up on sale this summer at Payless. They were comfortable, cute and practical. Wasn’t that enough?

(Even the children running about mirrored the adults, wearing miniature-size cowboy hats, vests and chaps with fringe.)

I’d be lying if I said those tried-and-true Western beauties only gave me friendly glances in passing. The truth was, I felt more like a city slicker who shouldn’t have been let on the farm.

You see, I found myself at the River City Roundup and Rodeo because my boyfriend, Matt, works on-air for a country radio station in Omaha. Hailing from a background thick with the sounds of AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, his transition to embracing country music hasn’t been too terribly challenging. Much of his adolescent and teen years were spent in small towns – that, and he owns a cowboy hat. (I’ve joked that it’s something I’ve learned to look past, me being a City Girl and all.)

For the next three days Matt would be broadcasting from the River City Roundup and Rodeo, promoting the radio station and meeting his listeners.

Always up for a new challenge – not to mention ideas for essays – I tagged along.

As we walked through the main entryway, I smelled the unmistakable odor of, well, you know. It stunk. Bad. I honestly thought for a few, albeit brief, seconds that I would be sick, covering all those shiny cowboy boots with the Jimmy John’s sandwich (Turkey Tom, no sprouts, please) I had for lunch.

But I breathed through my mouth and forged ahead. Matt seemed at home as we walked past the countless vendor booths selling Western jewelry, animal photographs and prints and, yes, even cowboy hats. (For kids, too! But more about the cowboy hats later.)

We snaked our way upstairs to the food counters, downed a few hot dogs and beers before heading inside to catch some of the rodeo. My experience wouldn’t be complete without damn good seats to a rodeo!

I’d never been to a rodeo, let alone understood what this “sport” was all about. I quickly learned that eight seconds is all it takes to become a winner, so long as you stay atop the animal. (“Oh, eight seconds. Like the Luke Perry movie, right?” I asked Matt, my query laced with complete honesty. He shot me a questionable look, no doubt embarrassed given the seasoned spectators nearby.)

Steers? Cows? Buffalos? I really couldn’t distinguish what these petite men were riding and why the animals were kicking so powerfully. After a few rounds and close examination at the battles before me, it appeared each animal was let loose from its cage wearing some type of rather uncomfortable saddle. As they ran about the dirt-covered floor, they kicked those hind legs, while the riders held on for dear life.

Audiences cheered as the animals writhed in pain. The colorful commentators, clothed in only the finest Western wear, made quick barbs after each ride, egging the crowd on to cheer louder and louder with each rider. They reminded us rodeo-goers that these men were “the true athletes” of the world.

Really? Riding a defenseless animal was a sport? Where’s the competition? How could the animal even win, writhing in pain the way they were? And how did they know to exit the arena, as if on cue, after each ride was over?

“Welcome to our new life,” Matt said, his right arm suspended above the crowd and attraction taking place in front of us. I couldn’t believe it.

Which leads me to my Run-In With a Cowboy Hat two days later. After sitting through the 90-minute River City Roundup and Rodeo Parade that wound its way through the urban cityscape of downtown Omaha, Matt and I made our way back to the main event just a few blocks to the east. He had joked about getting me into a cowboy hat just once that weekend, and he succeed.

Knowing my love for the color purple (the hue, not the movie), he made a beeline for one of the vendors. He plucked a purple cowboy hat from the shelf and placed it atop my head.

“Get your camera,” he said with a grin. “I’ve got to get a picture of this.”

I smiled for the camera and anxiously waited for the flash when I could remove the hat, hoping no one I knew saw me. While placing the hat back on the shelf, I saw the “Kids” sign, realizing I had just tried on a hat sized for a small child; and, to be honest, it fit perfectly.

(This day, however, I learned my fashion lesson for attending a rodeo. I wore jeans, a short-sleeved collared shirt, but the same $5 tennis shoes from Payless. It was the best Western outfit I could throw together with just a day’s notice. No fringe or sparkle for me, thank you very much.)

The experience of the past few days were truly worth it when, later that night, I was one of just a handful of people who met Jessica Simpson.

Yes, THE Jessica Simpson, the one with the handbags and shoes and cosmetic line and “buffalo wings” comment.

That story, dear readers, is yet to come.

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