GERRY — Tyler Sebben was a couple hours away from entering the arena where he was hoping to seize back his sport. Or his life.
When you’re a man of the rodeo – even a moppy blond-haired, slightly whiskered young 19-year-old like Sebben – your sport and your life are roughly the same.
Even when that sport cracks your bones and squishes your guts.
With about 200 other cowboys and cowgirls – yes, they do actually exist – Seben was here to compete in the Gerry Rodeo.
“I’m at this in-between phase,” said Sebben, a Connecticut resident.
Four months ago, he was thrown from a horse that then stepped on his torso, snapping a pair of ribs and splurting the air from his lungs like a whoopee cushion.
“I just want to get back to where I was,” he said.
So Sebben came here to Gerry, where the rodeo grandstand is roughly big enough (or small enough) to fit all 1,900 residents of this town.
The four-night Gerry Rodeo is hyperlocal in purpose: It’s the major fundraiser for the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department, which has run the rodeo for 72 years. (Organizers call it the “oldest consecutive rodeo east of the Mississippi.”)
But the scope of the event is national: Competitors travel from as far as Florida, Texas and California to ride bucking horses, wrestle steers to the dirt, lasso calves, barrel race on horseback, and cling to the top of temperamental bulls.
They pay an entry fee, usually between $75 and $150, to compete in each event, and they’re guaranteed nothing. The nightly winners in each category get a small payout – usually $100 – and the top competitor in each event gets about $3,000, sometimes more, at the end of the run on Saturday night.
Organizers spend about $120,000 and hope to profit through ticket and food sales.
Nobody gets rich. Plenty get hurt. It’s distinctly possible to die.
So why? Why enter a ring clinging to an angry animal, competing in a sport where nicks and bruises and – in Sebben’s case – cracked ribs and a collapsed lung are decidedly more likely outcomes than fame and riches?
It’s because they’re cowboys (and cowgirls – there’s a women’s event called “girls barrel racing” in which competitors ride their horses around a series of barrels).
Don’t get it?
That’s OK. You’re probably not a cowboy. Not everyone wants to be.
Not everyone can be.
Being a ‘cowboy’
“ ‘Cowboy’ is in your heart,” said Scott Poe, a 42-year-old who grew up in West Virginia and started “rodeo-ing” – if you do it, it’s a verb – down south.
Poe, who now lives in Gouverneur, was visiting the Gerry Rodeo last Thursday. As he reminisced about his own days earning a “daggone good livin’ ” in the rodeo, his 7-year-old son A.J. was hanging out with Sebben by the bullpen.
“It’s the greatest sport there is,” said Poe, a thickly built man with sun-beat skin and slightly graying goatee.
To Poe, the inherent dangers of the sport are part of the appeal. The risk doesn’t counter the reward. It is the reward.
It’s a cowboy thing.
“Something bad can happen in a heartbeat. You can be riding a horse, roping a steer, end up getting your thumb pulled off, your fingers pulled off. So you’ve gotta have faith,” he said.
Poe glanced to the pen, where three hulking bulls awaited their night’s work.
“Take a look at that big gray bull,” Poe said, pointing. “He’s 1,900 pounds. You tie one hand on his back with one hand in the air” – this is how bull riders compete – “and you better have something. You better know what the heck you’re doing.”
Even then, managing to stay safely atop a bucking bull for the standard eight seconds is a life-threatening challenge. When Poe was a 17-year-old cowboy, he watched a friend who was just a couple years younger die atop a bull. It took only two bucks: On the first buck, the boy’s head collided with the bull’s skull, knocking out the rider.
On the second buck, the bull’s horn impaled the boy’s stomach, ripping upwards and goring him.
That was before protective vests became a standard part of bull riders’ outfits. But the danger remains. So, too, does Poe’s unflinching passion. He paused his rodeo career years ago when he joined the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan. After 23 combat missions – “and not a scratch,” he said – Poe was planning to return to the rodeo.
It wasn’t to be. Poe returned from his deployment to Alaska, where he was stationed, and got in a cab at the airport. Less than a mile into the ride, he was hit head-on by a drunk driver. His shoulder, hip and pelvis were broken – and his rodeo career was gone.
“If I didn’t have rods and pins, at 40-some years old, I’d try to ride again,” Poe said. “Even though the body says, ‘That’s enough,’ the heart and the mind say I can still do it.”
In Alaska, Poe formed a company called Arctic Extreme Rodeo that provided bucking bulls. He sold it when his wife, who is still active duty military, was transferred. Now that the family is based in upstate New York near Fort Drum, Poe is looking to start dealing in bucking bulls again. And he’s waiting for A.J., at 7, to start riding, too.
“If you teach somebody the right way, they can have so much fun,” Poe said. “I’d rather see him do this than run the streets, getting in trouble. This gives him an outlet, man.”
The ultimate worry
The only individual aspect of rodeo is the competition itself. In most events, the rider is solo atop the animal. And even then, help is standing by in the form of bullfighters and a rodeo clown, whose job is not only to provide comic relief, but also help protect fallen riders.
Beyond that, everything is family. In Gerry, that’s true of the organizers and volunteers, with three or four generations of children and adults working together to help serve and clean up the pre-show barbecue. It’s also true of the cowboys and cowgirls, who gather together for a 5 p.m. supper, and continue that fellowship even when the competition begins.
Two weeks ago, at a separate rodeo, bullfighter Phil Hussmann’s chin was ripped open by the horn of a raging bull. Rather than leave for the hospital, he packed it with gauze and returned to the ring, where his job is to jump in front of the bulls after a rider has fallen.
“I could easily walk out and say I’m too hurt, but those guys are counting on me to come back,” he said. “They signed up knowing we were going to be here to protect them, and that’s more important. I can get fixed up later, and I just want to make sure those guys get home safe.”
Still, safety is an elusive concept for people who devote their lives to the rodeo.
“We could die today,” said Haley Ganzel, a 21-year-old trick rider from Oklahoma whose specialty act includes “Roman riding” two horses side by side, standing with one foot on each. “We could. It’s a possibility. Where are you at in your faith?”
Ganzel, a born-again Christian, has the word “faith” tattooed on her forearm, with the scripted “f” shaped like a cross. Every night before performing, she calls her boyfriend, Cody White, a professional bull rider, to say a prayer. She doesn’t worry much about the ultimate danger – not for him, and not for her.
She’s aware of it, but what seems to a non-cowboy to be a much lesser concern is the one that actually rattles her.
“I don’t necessarily think about him getting hurt and dying,” she said. “Yes, it could happen, but that’s a very rare thing. But I think about, if he gets hurt, what are we going to do financially? What are we going to do if it hurts us emotionally, not just physically, and it takes a toll on our relationship because he’s sitting at home while I’m still going? You’ve got to be down and out a little bit if you’re seeing everybody around you going.”
Cowboys and cowgirls have a deep-rooted purpose, and injury can strip it away. Sebben, the 19-year-old bull rider, knows that well. When he got hurt in the spring, he almost couldn’t accept it. Neither could the people around him. While he was face-down in the dirt, wheezing and struggling to breathe, not yet realizing his lung was collapsed, an older cowboy came up and whacked him.
“Breathe, you’re fine,” the old-timer said.
Later, as Sebben stumbled around the arena, another cowboy asked him, “Are you in pain?”
“Yeah, I can’t breathe,” Sebben said.
“Happens all the time,” the cowboy responded. “Take some Advil.”
Maybe not. More like tough love. Tough cowboy love.
But the toughest love comes from the animals themselves. By the time he got to Gerry, Sebben was physically healed. His lungs were full. But his nerves were still a bit deflated.
“It’s a funny thing about rodeo,” said Sebben who, later that night, would be thrown from the bull almost as soon as it left the chute, then get up, dust off, and look to do it again. You can buck the rider. But you can’t buck that inner cowboy.