My First Rodeo 2

The Koboi Project centres on the question of identity and its relationship to authenticity. I dress as a cowboy, both in performance situations and in my private life. Indeed, I am very comfortable with this eccentricity of mine, so much so that, in some ways, I feel that I am a cowboy, albeit an urban cowboy who has never ridden a horse and has very little to do with cows. As a vegetarian, I do not even eat them. In my daily life, you could say it is my style. When I perform in Southeast Asia it stands for my return from the West. But what happens to the authenticity of my persona when I venture into real cowboy country.

Recently, at the Cloverdale Rodeo, I gained some insight into the nature of my Koboi persona and even the nature of cowboy persona itself. At the heart of the rodeo is the image of the pesky, spunky cowboy prevailing over the ornery Bronco, kicking and bucking to get him off its back. In my observation at Cloverdale, however, there seemed to be a little bit of a disconnect. Indeed, the horses buck violently, and the Cowboys hang on valiantly and skillfully, but are the horses bucking to get the cowboys off or are they bucking for some other reason? There is, in this context, a debate about the use of spurs and the application of pressure around the horse’s belly with what is called a flank strap. Some say the strap brings pain that causes the bucking and others that it merely gives form to the buck.

The BC SPCA says that the flank strap “applies pressure on their sensitive underbelly, causing discomfort. The rider also uses … spurs, to cause discomfort which leads to more bucking. While bucking is a natural behaviour of these animals, in rodeo it is a behaviour rooted in discomfort, not in play.” In other words, it is not as it appears, that the horse is bucking to get the rider off, but as a response to the discomfort caused by the flank strap. The cowboy’s art of hanging on is incidental or secondary to the main action. Proponents of rodeo however, counter with the argument that the horse bucks because it is in its nature and breeding to do so, and that the “flank strap alters the bucking action of the horse by encouraging him to kick out straighter and higher with his hind legs, thus making himself harder to ride. The flank strap stacks the odds in favor of the horse. It cannot make him buck.” With regard to the spurs, they insist that they are required to be blunt and spinning and that they also put the odds in favor of the horse, as the forward position of the feet required to spur the horse in the shoulders makes it much harder for the cowboy to stay on.

Even within the proponents’ terms, it can not be denied that there is a sense that the bucking is being induced and conditioned independently of the horse’s impulse to get the rider off its back. The horse is just bucking independantly and the rider holds in an illusion of relationship. The question of cruelty aside, the rodeo cowboy’s ride is a performance, and not unlike my own Koboi performance, an artifice or fiction of sorts.