Taking the steer by the horns
EAGLE ” Nothing in rodeo is easy. Staying on a raging bull and roping a calf aren’t walks in the park.
And when it comes to jumping from a horse to bring down a 600-pound steer, there are a lot of challenges.
If all goes right, months of offseason practice will translate into fewer than four seconds of glory.
“When you whip (a steer) and wing him, that’s a real good feeling,” said Shawn Mills. “You know you won some money, and you’ve got adrenaline that you carry around for a while.”
For a 200-pound man to make an animal that weighs three times as much to leave all four legs, it takes more than just brute strength.
“Be aggressive, hustle, keep your left elbow out, pull across with your right shoulder, keep your feet and pay attention to your footwork,” said Brian Snell of the technique.
Wrestlers approach the left side of the steer and look to grasp the near horn with the left hand, and hook the right horn with the right elbow. When the wrestler’s feet hit the ground, he looks to dig in his heels and bring the steer to a stop. Then, the wrestler twists the head of the steer toward his body by pushing down with the near hand and pulling up and in with the far elbow, which causes the steer to become unbalanced and fall to the ground.
Even before the gate opens, there’s work to be done. Once the wrestlers, who are also known as bulldoggers, have an idea of which steers they’ll be chasing, they do their homework.
“There are books on the steer, and what cowboys have done on them in the past,” Snell said. “We talk to each other, and have a fairly decent idea on most of the (steers).”
And even the best riders can be put in a tough situation by a bad steer.
“Sometimes you don’t draw a steer that can win you any money,” Mills said. “Some don’t run hard. You just do the best you can with what you got.”
Wednesday night at the Eagle County Rodeo, Mills found himself weighing in on his chances, and hoping for a good draw.
“There are only six steers left in the pen, and three of the six you can win money on,” Mills said.
Another variable the wrestlers have to deal with is the hazer, who rides parallel to the steer once it exits the gate to make sure the steer runs in a straight line.
“Hazing is a tough job,” Mills said. “Everybody misses a haze. It comes with the territory. You’ve gotta take it in stride and move on.”
Not one path
There isn’t a traditional route into steer wrestling, although most of the competitors found their way through other parts of the rodeo.
“I had a buddy that wanted me to come haze, and after I hazed he asked me if I wanted to jump one, so I did. I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Bill Clunch.
Snell first tried steer wrestling on a dare.
“It was kind of, ‘Yeah, you can. No, you can’t,'” Snell said. “I did it, and I liked it.”
Eric Brynildson is one of the few who started steer wrestling without have much experience riding horses.
“I practiced shoot dogging, with the (steer) coming at you out of the shoot, then on a horse,” Brynildson said.
Most bulldoggers practice about three times per week when they aren’t traveling.
“I run three or four steers a practice,” Mills said, noting that it’s important not to overwork the horses. “If you got one really good horse, you don’t want to run a bunch on him in the practice pen. You kind of save him for the rodeo.”
Mills, who played football and wrestled in college, knows it’s important to stay in good physical shape.
“I still work out and lift weights as much as I can,” Mills said.
Quick and slow
With the glory of steer wrestling comes pain. Shoulder injuries are pretty typical and there are tons of other bumps and bruises along the way, but sometimes the mental sting of a bad ride hurts more.
“You have five minutes to get rid of it. Then you go on to the next one,” Clunch said.
A short memory is just as important as a loose mind after a missed steer.
“You gotta go back to basics,” Mills said. “There’s an old saying in bulldogging, ‘You’ve gotta slow down to be fast.’ You can’t get in a hurry on the steer. You’ve gotta catch them at each moment, and if you get in too big of a hurry, you can mess up a good steer.”
And when the steer goes belly-up, the wrestlers can relax even more.
“When you hear the crowd roar, you know you’ve made a good run,” Brynildson said.
Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or email@example.com.
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