National Rodeo Association Brookfield Show Bull Ride; Brookfield Showground; 16/5/2014
“the rider…is about as influential over the bull as a grasshopper is over the truck to whose windscreen it has attached itself.”
Report by Nicholas Turner
Ozone is led into a roofless cage of about his own dimensions, and then a man climbs over the cage and lowers himself down onto Ozone’s back. The man is skinny, dirt-faced and stubbly. He smells of cigarettes and gum, and he wears glittery chaps and a tight checked shirt and one of those metal-grilled goalie masks they wear for ice hockey. Ozone does not like being sat upon. And now lots of faceless people make themselves busy helping the man fix himself onto Ozone’s back, their limbs working through the cage like robot arms making a Japanese car part. Ozone would prefer not to be touched at all, not by any of them. One of the helpers, a burly fellow with forearms like Christmas hams, is using a leather strap to fasten the man with the chaps’ hand flat onto Ozone’s back, right between the shoulder blades; the strap goes all the way around Ozone’s ribs and is so tight it needs someone with forearms like Christmas hams to hold it. And plus the guy that’s getting strapped to Ozone is starting to clamp his legs around Ozone’s ribs too in a way that says he plans to stay there for a while. Ozone finds this both disagreeable and ominous, and he gives a little shrug that’s more ‘point of interest’ than attempt to actually fix things – Ozone’s own version of an omen – though when you’re weighing in at just under a tonne even a shrug is enough to make your metal cage and all the metal cages attached to it shake like shrubs so that everyone perched on them clings for life as they sway in the night air for a few moments. Now someone else is synching another strap around Ozone’s belly, just under his ribs. This strap is not the worst of Ozone’s issues but it’s annoying for sure, and the annoyances are really starting to stack up. Ozone’s eyes are slender and dopey, and amid all this the right one wanders out of the cage and to the big, floodlit expanse of dirt that’s all pocked and rippled and patterned with shadows like the surface of the moon, which Ozone, whose seriously disposed to the head-down comforts and general quiet of herd life, isn’t real keen on the ‘centre stage’ vibe of either.
Once they open the gate, Ozone troubleshoots all this with the efficacy of a high-priced consultant. First, he darts quickly right, buries his front legs in the ground, and then throws his head down at something invisible, like he’s head-butting a rat (to death, it probably goes without saying). The effect is that all of Ozone’s monstrous weight rocks forward and down and then shudders a little as he flicks his head just a little up and right (if you’re still following the imaginary rat, it’s landing in the next suburb by now) and stops dead, and the rider, who probably feels like he’s straddling a hi-speed train that’s just put on the emergency brakes, goes flinging forward and all but finds himself eye-to-eye with Ozone over the proverbial handlebars. Still, he clings on, uneasily, and so Ozone goes to the air, head first, and then the whole of him is suspended a metre off the ground. The rider’s thrown back and onto Ozone’s hind, which in turn kicks up and throws him forward again, and with a tiny rotation from Ozone he ends up slipping to the side this time, and once he’s off-centre, Ozone spins and kicks and finishes him off.
This all happens at the Brookfield Show Rodeo, in front of a small spectator’s hill with long runs of hardwood sleepers that sort the earth into tiers that make for rustic seating, behind which the woozy lumi-cocktail of sideshow alley throws a glow into an overcast sky of a morphing colour scheme best described as bubblegum rainbow. Experienced punters have brought along picnic rugs and arranged themselves in family pods on the grass, territory strewn with showbags and inflatable hammers and massive bears stuffed with squeaky Styrofoam balls. The suburb of Brookfield, nestled against a long, northward stretch of protected forestry, is surely the most convincingly semi-rural land within Brisbane’s sub-urban ring. It enjoys a glut of tall trees and clean air and windy, traffic-lightless roads, the kind you throw your high-beams across late at night while you flick the radio over to a mellower channel. It’s not any real surprise that it acts a little like its own small town in matters of spirit, and has a society that puts on a cosy weekend show every year with rides and candy, and where horticulture and woodwork and baking and all sorts of arts and crafts compete for ‘best-in-show’ sashes.
Moving down from the upper tiers toward the rodeo’s fenced arena, one first spots at its murky far end what looks like blood cells under a microscope – a sort of shifting huddle of pale, soft, ovalesque things that bump and move and spin. These turn out to be the near uniformly white cowboy hats upon the head of every rider, helper, gate-mover, prodder, wife and child of the good folk who’ve blown into town to put on the show. Though tonight will be a night on which the bulls do most of the impressing; by the time the emcee bids us adieu after two full rounds of competition, no rider in the adult classes of Novice or Open will have registered an eight second ride.
The ‘behind-the-scenes’ area is a labyrinth of tall fences and gates that somehow sort all the bulls into the places they need to be without anyone having the get in there and actually push them. When the cowboys (and possibly the cowgirls, though none was witnessed) climb over the fences they almost always balance a packet of cigarettes and sometimes a wallet on top of the fence while they straddle it, then pick them up again to jump back down. There’s a series of at least ten Australian flags raised at the opposite side of the arena and the emcee is a quick-talking funnybox of one-liners (e.g. “rodeo is all about thrills, spills and medical bills”, “he’s off like a five-day old hotdog”, “how about these hopping hamburgers”, “that bull’s got more moves than a King’s Cross pole dancer”, etc.) who’s both shamelessly partisan and seriously determined to spread the fairly implausible opinion that all the bulls are cranky tonight because of the recent federal budget’s general tight-assedness. Music over the loudspeakers ranges from AC/DC to country and back to AC/DC again. The country songs are thematically fairly one dimensional (e.g. ‘Ladies Love Country Boys’ and ‘Chicks Dig It’) and all songs, in terms of vocal delivery, lyrical dexterity and poetics, are largely Nickelbackian.
Like many capital cities in largely rural states, Brisbane is teeming with country folk who’ve made the move to the big smoke at some stage, and who tend to step out in boots and jeans and mingle with their own when these shows come to town. Your correspondent is fortunate to have tonight’s competition footnoted by one such farmer’s son who drifted in on the nor’ westerly for a decade of schooling from before the onset of puberty, and as yet has not returned. He’s a leggy blonde with big hands and a refined drawl, and though you’ll sometimes catch him in rolled-up chinos and suede loafers his preferred footwear is R.M. Williams and brown. He’s posted up in the bar area with a prime view of the bullring amid lots of real and current country folk with bull tags in their Akubras.
Which is helpful, because understanding what makes for a virtuous bull-ride is not something you can pick up by simply looking. It all happens so fast that your camera can barely get a still image, and there are virtually no clear moments at which one can analyse the decision-making of the rider, who really is about as influential over the bull as a grasshopper is over the truck to whose windscreen it has attached itself. According to the chaperone, a good rider will keep his eyes down on the bull’s head, reading and preparing for what its horns’ current direction says about the body’s next movement. And, of course, the rider must negotiate with gravity. Furthermore, he must keep his backside right down on the bull, because bulls have a lot of skin that’ll just roll around them like a loose sock unless the rider’s got his legs basically wrapped right around his belly and his heels digging back up at the guts.
When Ozone the bull finishes the first of his two rides tonight, a gate at the side of the arena is opened by a big fellow with a pink shirt, and since Ozone isn’t keen on the arena and its fishbowl atmosphere, he heads for the opening quick smart. There’s then another narrow passage through which he’d like to go, and since he’s got a clear run at it, he does. But suddenly a hidden gate slams in his face, and another right behind his rear, and now he’s got nothing to do but stand there and blow off steam in yet another enclosure that’s not big enough to turn around in. The wise, wily tricksters who managed to outwit Ozone here are around ten and twelve years old respectively, and they are wearing boots and cowboy outfits that one must constantly remind one’s self are not costumes.
It’s then, within spitting distance of your correspondent, that Ozone lets go an oozy stool about the colour of French mustard, which slides out of his anus and then cascades down the three or four metal bars of the gate behind him on its way to the ground. It’s at this very moment, and not before, that it becomes plausible to think of Ozone as a being rather than a bit of entertainment or a toy. To really actually admire the unfathomable physical display that this animal just smeared across three seconds of real time (the ride, that is, not the excrement). Because rodeo is one of those things that’s positively frozen in stereotype, and those (including your correspondent) who’ve seen it a thousand times on TV and movies probably think they know what it is. And even when you do sit in the stands and watch one jump and buck and throw a rider, it all seems to happen under a kind of anti-critical cinematic or televisual glass, and you really don’t allow yourself to be impressed the way you should be until you get up real close and just have a good old ogle at one of these things and a think about how unbelievable it is that they can move the way they do.
Ozone’s a creamy, yellowy, white colour with a strange dark shape that runs across his side like a long, low cloud. His eyes are cool and timeless and patient, like some kind of wet, black, volcanic orb that’s so svelte and soft you couldn’t hold it in your hand. There’s a deadpan look on his face, as inextricably sorrowful as the blues, and his forehead is wide and flat and as big as an opened hand, the place you’d most want to pat him if you could. Inside his ears is a kind of long mohair that stretches right across the funnel-like opening, which turns like a satellite dish sometimes. It’s not so much that he’s big but that he embodies a sort of compressed, concentrated, brutal brand of bigness. It takes a while to register that he is basically a muscle with horns, and then to further realise that all manner of machines have been built and then sculpted in a way that shamelessly emulates this kind of purity of power. That there’s a reason people stick horns on their rear-view mirrors, and talk about the ‘grunt’ of their ride. And that a muscle car is basically a mechanical tribute to a bull.
The sight of Ozone’s stool dripping from one metal bar to the next also jolts one into thinking about just how much real energy he spent in the few seconds it takes him to shrug off the guy in chaps. Because it’s just as easy to forget how much weight a tonne is, and that Ozone is not some kind of machine that exerts energy without suffering for it. This is an animal that can toss about ten refrigerators (its own weight) plus whatever’s on top of it (let’s say, another two-thirds of a refrigerator) into the air and around in circles at heights and speeds that leave an iphone with nothing but blurry Francis Bacon-type images. Another way of looking at it is that Ozone takes about four times the heaviest ever clean-and-jerk weightlift achieved by a human being, and repeatedly leaps into the air with it, for as long as required. We’re talking about an animal that weighs as much as a car and jumps around like a squirrel in a panic. What really seems to occur at his rear end in the few seconds after Ozone exits the arena is that a kind of thick, liquid adrenalin passes out of his system.
When you get your meat under plastic and on pillows that spare you the sight of blood, it’s actually very difficult to reengage with the living beings that get slaughtered to allow that to happen. And the same thing applies to the use of bulls in rodeo, wherein, whatever the semantic flim-flam of the devotees and promoters, these animals are taunted (or else stressed, at very least) for entertainment. The chaperone’s mum sends his raw meat down in Eskys every month or so with a handful of kangaroos tails for his dog. If you’re ever with him near a cargo train line and he suddenly lifts his head and takes a big breath and smiles like he’s just figured something out, it’s because a cattle truck is passing within nostril-shot. And tonight he watches the rodeo with almost no attention to the rider and serious admiration for the animal, trying to put words to his marvelling because he knows your correspondent needs help. And when – after a long and compelling conversation about the head-shaking magnificence of the bull – he’s asked about what happens to them when they’re retired, he shrugs and says ‘probably sausages’ without the nature of his smile taking any perceptible turn.
But when a cattle-truck passes what your correspondent gets in his nostrils is shit and grass and hair. And when he looks at a bull like Ozone, his mind flicks radically between a sort of spiritual admiration and/or affinity and a cold recognition of it as food and/or entertainment. And the conceptual middle ground is a moral mess, productive mostly of pity and guilt, the kind of feeling you get in your gut when a mentally retarded thirty-something man wanders away from his mum and tries to take your hand at the supermarket. A feeling of not knowing how to feel, which you just know is some kind of indication that you’re living in a state of quite unbelievable naivety and/or embarrassing privilege.
Match Day Burger Score: (Satay House Special Plate; inc. satay chicken, vegetable curry & rice) 8/10
MDSHSP Service Atmosphere: 8/10
MDSHSP Price: $12.00
Results: Open Division (1st – David Kennedy, 86 points; Tied 2nd – Fraser Babbington, John Foster, David Mawhinney, 77 points); Novice (No scoring rides)
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