Rodeo Chute Dogging: Bronson Wrestles a 700lb. Steer

We landed in Phoenix at 10pm, with only the clothes on our backs and a small bag containing cameras, deodorant, chewing gum, and two DC comic books. We bought toothbrushes at a 7-11. In contrast to the choked freeways and side streets of Los Angeles, Phoenix roads are a dream: broad and mostly empty – as if they’re expecting a bigger turnout – and they connect adventurers to the vast, emotionless grid of strip malls and stucco-walled subdivisions, barren of any real landmarks, that is Phoenix, Chandler, and Mesa, Arizona.

We navigated the grid for about an hour before we found the little rundown area on the edge of Guadeloupe: home to the ‘neon’ motels and specifically, the Aloha Motel, wiped clean of all of its tiki motel-era details over the decades but still seedy enough to give us that rodeo authenticity we were after. The man at the front desk did a double take when we two strapping cowboys asked for a king-sized bed. The room was large and clean, and nothing says “welcome home” like slightly pink wood paneling, faded fake florals, and a filthy yellow flyswatter. We settled in for a restless night.img_0024.jpgSleepless Sam roused me around 9 with coffee and donuts, and soon thereafter we braved the Arizona landscape in search of Rawhide – not a gay bar, but a fantastic, acres-large, authentic wild west town built with exacting detail in the relative middle of nowhere.Our timing was perfect: they were serving lunch. We mixed into the crowd of cowboys on their way to the lunch trailer, and for a second I thought that Sam and I were the only gay men there. I thought the gay rodeo class must have been a small subset of a larger, mostly straight class, because I didn’t see any gay men. You know you’ve lived in Los Angeles for too long when you don’t recognize your brothers unless they’re shredded and shirtless.

When we got to the catering table, to get our sandwiches and chips, a guy who could have passed for a Colt model, read out the ingredients on the wrapping, saying, “Cilantro. You know it’s a gay rodeo when there’s cilantro in the sandwiches,” and I heaved a sigh of relief. We were in the right place after all.

There were about thirty cowboys and cowgirls having lunch, and Sam and I resisted our natural urge to sit on the outskirts. I figured if we’re gonna be trampled by livestock with these people, we’d better know them by name: quiet Wes, chawin’ Todd, flirty Scott, and wounded Sherrie, an adorable, not exactly athletic girl with a significant limp and some equally obvious road rash. She’d been thrown from a bull just an hour before. If this girl can do it, then I can, I thought.And then the question was asked: “Are you going to ride bulls?”The question circled in the air like a vulture. We all heard Sam‘s teeth clenching.img_0021.jpg“No, just chute dogging,” I said, and grinned at Sam, who gave me that I know you’re tempted smile. “But I’d probably ride steer if I got the chance,” half serious and half to get Sam’s goat, “Nah, I’m too old to start doing that now.” Quiet Wes spoke up, “I didn’t ride my first bronc until I was 40, and I’ve been doing it for 13 years.” He took another bite of his sandwich, heaved the mouthful to his cheek and went on, “My boyfriend pulled me out of the arena and took me to the hospital more than once,” he laughed, “And there’s nothing they can do for broken ribs but Vicodin.” Just what Sam needed to hear, no matter how much fun a Vicodin is. We talked and laughed through the rest of lunch and on the way back to the end of the arena, Sam made an observation, “You like danger. It makes you feel alive.”I guess I do.

When lunch was done, we gathered in a paddock behind the chutes at the end of the arena: 15 students, and as many handlers. The instructor walked us through the simple instructions for chute dogging:

  • When the animal (and he very specifically called it ‘the animal’ every time) is loaded into the chute, drop down into the chute with it at the animal’s shoulder; further forward and you might get horned.
  • Rub the animal’s neck gently to calm it.
  • When ready, put your left arm over the animal’s left horn so the left horn is under your left armpit. Your left arm then wraps under the animal’s jaw, and your fingers go into the back corner of the animal’s mouth, where there are no teeth.
  • Grab the right horn with your right hand, palm up.
  • Give the signal when you’re ready to go. Some animals are obstinate and won’t move; others bolt out of the chute, so hold on.
  • Hold the animal’s head up, so you’re in control, and point the animal straight out of the chute, so that you cross a line 10′ out as quickly as possible. Once the line is crossed, the clock runs, and you TURN LEFT.

The guy must have said ‘TURN LEFT’ a hundred times. He made us repeat it. He said it some more, and the reason why is the last thing Sam needed to hear.

  • The animal weighs between 600 and 800 pounds, and has a lower center of gravity. The animal will instinctively want to run (in its perception, for its life) away from you, and into the center of the arena. You want to TURN LEFT so you are never (standing or lying) directly between this heavy, horned animal and the place to which it is headed quickly.

After a few minutes and a little practice using Sam as the steer, and vice-versa, flirty and cute Scott lent me his Kevlar vest and I was ready to go. We paced, and watched the others, and made small talk and acquaintances. A lanky cowpoke blurted out, “Damn y’all’s teeth are white!” Sam elbowed me when I said it was because we were from L.A. “Pasadena,” he corrected. He wanted to make sure we were taken seriously.The questions that run through your head at times like these are pretty damned funny, mostly because they’re strangely and universally familiar.

How do the other cowboys do it? How big and heavy are the animals, really? Can I do this without getting gored? Is the exhilaration worth it? What if I get an ornery one, or even worse, a boring one? How can I make sure I don’t become a casualty to this crazy lust for excitement? Once I’m in the chute, is there any turning back? Am I really in the chute with this big animal? Then there’s the inevitable: What the hell have I gotten myself into?And there’s only one way to find out.

Every cowboy is different, and so is every animal. Every cowboy dogs the animal differently: different grips, different strategies, different experience. There’s no telling how it’s going to come out: you could “dog” the steer in no time at all and be showered in cheers, get “dogged” and have your boyfriend pull you out of the arena, or a million things in between, and as scary as the unknowns are, they drew you to the arena, and they are the reason you’re gripping the horns of something that could change your life – or not.

That’s why I did it, and with the result that you can see in the video above, that’s why I love it. It is something that I’d love for Sam and I to do together whenever we can; something I believe we could love doing and be really good at; something at which we could be healthily competitive and mutually encouraging; something that helps us reshuffle our priorities and erases any cares we may have; something that reacquaints us with danger and therefore, even in a small way, with life.

It might have been a randy cowboy with dubious motives to suggest that I get into rodeo, and since then we’ve met Sonny again, and we’re becoming friends. But it took Sam, the best pardner a cowboy could wish on the north star for, to not only make the adventure a reality, but to faithfully record it. Just another reason to be grateful for him. He’s accustomed to being the one in the arena, and frankly, I’m not so comfortable with all those eyes on me, but Sam’s good at making a reluctant cowboy feel like a rodeo star. With that kind of love and support, I could have dogged a bull in four seconds flat. I hope the future finds Sam and me in more arenas, in more rodeos, on or with livestock, and with both of us taking our turn in the arena. I want to – no, I swear to – make sure he always feels like the star of the show.

4 Responses to “Rodeo Chute Dogging: Bronson Wrestles a 700lb. Steer”

  1. Monday, February 11, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Excellent! Absolutly a great story..and it’s all TRUE! I was there.
    -Flirty Scotty

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