There's no other rodeo like it anywhere on earth. And while the grass arena is the most-mentioned novelty of Oregon's world-renowned Pendleton Round-Up, there's a lot more to its one-of-a-kind billing than that. Especially if you're a timed-event contestant who's used to conventional dirt arenas and standard barrier setups.
I spent some time during this year's 94th annual Pendleton Round-Up visiting with a couple of this year's hottest teams-Jake Barnes and Allen Bach, and Blaine Linaweaver and B.J. Campbell. Both teams placed in the first round at this year's event. Most people will never have the chance to rope on grass, so I thought it'd be interesting to hear what they think about it. One thing they all agree on is that the Round-Up's "Let 'er Buck" slogan is appropriate and well-deserved.
While I've always thought it was fun to watch the team roping at Pendleton, I also always find myself holding my breath a lot more often there-when someone slips and the wreck's on. It has that Wild West flair to it, but at the same time I lost a personal friend there in 1995. So when it comes to feelings, I should probably disclose up front that mine are mixed on this one.
Mike Boothe was a tough, buckaroo type of cowboy who could run wild cows off a rocky, brushy, vertical mountain with the best of them. In fact, that was his idea of fun. He was only 25 and a couple National Finals Rodeos into his bright young career when a head horse went down with him on the Pendleton grass. They both broke their legs, and a rare complication cost Mike his life. So if you ever see a cowboy cringe at this one, don't for a second think he's a sissy. The danger of barreling out through there wide open on that glass grass is real.
"Every year I come here I say it's my last year," said seven-time World Champion Team Roper Barnes. "This grass is dangerous. It's slick, and every year there's some kind of wreck here. Mike Boothe lost his life here, and there are always horses and cattle slipping. This sport's dangerous enough as it is, and it's hard for me to do something that's not sensible. To run a horse as hard as he can run on slick grass is not sensible.
"That's kind of hard to say about a rodeo I've had success at. I've won it twice, last year with Boogie (Ray) and another year with Clay (O'Brien Cooper), and the atmosphere is great. Everybody makes a big deal out of Pendleton. It's a Tour rodeo, and you can win some good money here. There's a lot of prestige to it, and it's really good watching. But make no mistake-what we're doing here is dangerous."
Barnes opted not to ride his main mount, Barney, on the grass this year. He instead hopped aboard a yet unnamed little 13-year-old sorrel horse he bought during Salinas in July.
"Horses are not made to run and turn on slick grass," Barnes continued. "The footing's just not there. You put ice nails in to help secure their footing somewhat, but it's tough. And you never know what the steers are going to do. They tend to slip and go down here a lot more than usual, too. The grass gets chewed up by week's end, and that does help.
"By no means am I putting this rodeo down. It's just against my common sense to do this. I'd never let my kids go out there and rope. It'd be like saying, 'OK guys, let's go rope on asphalt.' "
Cowboys can now count 10of the 12 Wrangler ProRodeo Tour events in each series toward their points standings and qualification for the major tour events. But because of the added variables, many of them don't choose to count Pendleton. They enter, mind you, they just don't figure their odds of winning are quite as high as they might be under more standard conditions.
"Guymon's (Okla.) the same way, because of the muleys," said Barnes, who calls Scottsdale, Ariz. home. "A lot of guys don't count it as a Tour rodeo. It's hard enough to win when the conditions aren't this tough. The odds aren't very good to win. The luck of the draw has a lot to do with it, and you really have to factor in the footing deal, too."
Barnes' current partner, Bach, knows all about the footing firsthand.
"I roped calves here a few years back," said the three-time champ of the world. "When I roped, stepped off and started down the rope, my horse started sliding and flipped over backwards. By the time I got to the calf's head, he'd scrambled, got back up and started working the rope. I never knew he flipped over. After that run, I rode back and talked to Clay (Cooper). He asked me, 'Do you know your horse flipped straight over backwards?' I said, 'No. You're kidding me.' I couldn't believe it."
Like Barnes, Bach notes the rodeo's many strengths.
"The hill (they ride down after they nod, as they cross the dirt track and hit the grass arena) is a real novelty and I love that part of it," Bach continued. "And Pendleton has a great committee. It's pretty rare that a rodeo ever gives a saddle away anymore. It's very unusual for us to win a saddle these days."
He sees the slippery hazards similarly, too.
"The ground is really hard," Bach said. "It depends on the amount of moisture. If it happens to be fairly dry, the ground is so tight and it's really hard, like cement. When it's like that, it's slick. I remember lots of horses and steers losing their footing here, almost like they were on asphalt. It's scary.
"The novelty of coming off that hill is fantastic. It's a lot of fun and I'm all for doing different things. But I see a lot of horses swishing their tails when they're trying to gather up and turn off, because they're not real comfortable with it. If it wasn't dangerous, every good calf roper would ride his best horse. But rarely do they use their best one here. They'll leave him tied to the trailer and go get on another one. That's why Jake and I tied our No. 1 horses to the trailer and rode our second-stringers."
Millsap-Texan Bach noted that some horses handle the grass better than others, based on their natural styles of moving and working.
"A horse that can really collect and gather himself up more is worth his weight in gold on the grass," he said. "But, say, a head horse that wants to drop his shoulder and make a pretty strong move-you don't want to ride a horse like that here or you'll end up on your side. Same with a heel horse. If one doesn't collect himself, he'll run by the corner. We help them all we can, but they need to take care of themselves, too."
Kansas-raised Linaweaver set the 3.5-second world team roping record with Jory Levy in San Angelo, Texas, in 2001 en route to their first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualification. Levy won the tour round and placed third in the average at this year's Round-Up with Devin Hayes. Linaweaver's headed back to Vegas next month, this time with Northwesterner Campbell.
"When you nod, you can't see the steer because he's coming from behind you, down a lane," Linaweaver explained of the most unusual 15-foot score in rodeo. "Once you nod, they'll say, 'Turn him out.' There's a guy horseback running that steer down the lane, and the chuteboss will yell and tell them to turn the steer out. Then the chuteboss says, 'He's three quarters… he's halfway… he's here!' When he says 'he's here,' you look behind you and see the steer coming. The steer goes by you-some coming hard, others trotting and looking around-then he takes off.
"So it's a guessing game right there how close you are to the barrier. The trick is to be close to the barrier, but when you get to the bottom of the hill you want to be going full speed. You have to be going full blast, because the steers are running once they hit the grass. If you aren't running full speed, you're going to be way behind."
The box itself is anything but typical.
"The box is dirt and it's banked, like the upslope on a racetrack," Linaweaver explained. "There's not really a box, there's just a corner back there you set your horse in and all the guys are standing on the left side to line the steers.
"The first time I came to this rodeo, I was so worried about not breaking the barrier (an electric eye and string barrier are used), and I was way late. It's really intimidating, especially when you hit that grass. It's kind of spooky, really, when you hit the grass at the bottom of the hill. This is a whole different ballgame."
Campbell of Benton City, Wash., has worked all the timed events at one time or another, and was cut from the same basic country-cowboy cloth as Boothe. "Wild" and "fun" are synonyms in the vocabulary of guys like them. Campbell's had a lot of success on the Pendleton grass, including the 2002 Round-Up all-around championship and the 2001 team roping title. He won that with Richard Eiguren right before roping with him at that year's NFR.
"I wrecked and killed a bulldogging steer here once," Campbell recalls. "Me and (NFR header) Chance Kelton (who was hazing) were running off the hill and kind of ran into each other. When I got off, Chance bumped the steer, I lost my feet and we houliflipped. That was in 2001. I lost a boot here once, too, sliding a steer, and lost a heel off my boot another time because we were going so fast. The grass is so hard and there are some divots. It doesn't give.
"I haven't had any major problems in the team roping, but guys who've ridden my horse here have slipped and fallen over backwards. They lose their legs underneath them and have nowhere to go. If a horse slides a lot when he stops he's more apt to fall down here, because it's so slippery. When the grass is wet it's better, because the ground's softer. Your horse can get into the ground with his shoes and nails. It's when it's dry that it's really slippery."
The turf does get chewed up as the week progresses, so the footing tends to improve toward rodeo's end, Campbell said.
"The key here is not so much the draw, but how your header handles it," Campbell said. "You have to know what you're doing here, like the heeler hazing steers down the lane and knowing how to rope on the grass. A lot of times if you try to set a trap, your rope will slide on the grass. So I try to rope all my steers out of the air, when they're feet are off the ground. That's how I try to rope them everywhere, but it's especially important here.
"I like steers to go left here, and I like to ride higher and wider than I normally do. Your header's going to hold his horse up more on this grass, so the steer goes down the arena more. That position is faster when that happens, because you can get in your spot quicker. A lot of guys don't realize that, because they've only been here once or twice. But I've been coming since I was 18."
Surely, then, you must love the grass.
"I don't love it, but it doesn't bother me," Campbell said. "I like the rodeo. They give good prizes and the money's good. It's not far from home, and I've won four saddles here. (In addition to the heeling and all-around saddles, Campbell won the Mike Currin Memorial Award saddle in 2001-02, which goes to the hottest Columbia River Circuit hand.) I held the arena record in the bulldogging here for one steer, too. In 2002, I was 4.4. K.C. Jones was the next guy out, and he was 3-something."