Modern Rodeo brings ranchers together

By Åsa Björklund
Staff Writer

The car stirs up a cloud of dust on the road through the pale plains outside Chino Valley. Tumbleweeds roll across the parking area of the Livestock Auction.

Awaiting the events, four young boys of different heights but matching cowboy hats manage to keep their white shirts spotless as they play next to an enormous haystack. Angus and Hereford bulls shy away from anyone who approaches their wooden corrals. Smart move, because people here have steaks on their minds, not cute pets.

It is the 2011 Cattleman’s Weekend, 18 to 19 March, and people have come from all over Arizona to participate in the rodeo, to sell and buy bulls and horses and, of course, to socialize. As local longtime ranchers, Galen and Rodella Neshem, greet an infinite number of friends with their warm smiles and strong handshakes. With a common profession they all share similar joys and troubles. While the meat currently sells high, taxes and prices have gone up, challenging ranchers’ livelihoods.

“The taxes on agricultural properties just increased by 16 percent,” says Galen. “And ranch hands charge $85-125 a day.” They are also hard to find.

Galen recalls how he used to find ranch hands looking for work simply by walking into a grocery store. “When we got here [to Arizona] it was easy to get a job at a ranch. It wasn’t much money but you got housing so you didn’t have expenses.”

The rodeo has just started. With colorful boots and shiny spurs, the riders wait on their anxious horses, ready to show off some high-quality cattle roping.

One by one, each man or woman gets a chance to prove their abilities in the sandy arena. A buzzer sounds, a gate opens and a calf is let loose, sending rider and horse galloping after the animal. As they catch up, the horse darts sharply around the sprinting calf and the cowboy releases the lasso, which falls in a perfect circle around the creature’s neck. Done deal. The roper gets off his horse and ties up the calf with moves so swift that it looks like magic. [All done completely stone-faced, of course.] A loudspeaker crackles out a judgment, and the next rider spurts out through rows of cowboy hats.

Despite what many of us laypeople might think, a rodeo is not just a fun event where testosterone-filled men challenge gravity and destiny. Many women compete in roping and barrel racing as well. But most important, the event demonstrates the real ranching capabilities of the riders and their horses. At this rodeo, the horses are for sale, giving people a chance to see which one fits their needs.

The Neshems watch the show intently, searching for the perfect horse to buy for their daughter, a skilled Western rider. At the Neshems’ ranch at Bagdad Hillside, elevations that vary from 1,800 to 4,000 feet make motorized access difficult. Instead, they have to use traditional ranching methods.

“We can use vehicles to place protein blocks in certain locations, but the roundups we have to do on horseback,” says Galen. Twice a year, spring and fall, they gather their cattle to wean the calves, vaccinate the animals and keep health records. The endeavor takes six weeks, working outside from sunrise to sunset — carrying food, tents and other supplies on the horses. Complaining about fatigue simply does not work among the Neshems.

Breakfast and dinner are prepared at the campfire, and lunch is leftovers. [If there is time, that is.] Rodella recalls when a friend of their son from the city joined them to try out the cowboy life.

“He was a big guy, who liked eating. We were so busy working that day [that] we didn’t have lunch,” says Rodella. The guy looked a bit shocked and the following day he stuffed his pockets with bread, she recalls and laughs.

Modernity has of course made its way into the Neshems’ lives just as it has with other ranchers. Long ago, trucks replaced the need for long cattle drives. Electricity, drilling technology and solar panels have also done their share to lighten the load of a cowboy.

The Neshems consider themselves lucky to have a big family and many friends who are willing to help out during the spring roundup season, which takes place from mid-April until the end of May. Their oldest son will one day take over the ranch. Their other six children have different professions, but still love to make the trip home to live the ranch life.

“They all know how to rope and used to rodeo all the time,” says Rodella with a proud smile. “So if we buy a horse for our daughter today, we have to buy one for each of them,” says Galen, laughing.

With dusty hats and boots, cowboys filter in and out of the arena. Rodella greets a rider by his first name and hands him her water bottle for a sip. The Cattleman’s Weekend is not only about cattle — it offers camaraderie and fun.

This article appeared in the May 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.

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