Steers and Queers

Arizona's gay rodeo is one of the largest and most competitive in the country. And that's no bull.

Standing in the chute, brushing her waist-long hair, Bell watches Linda Peterson from Ogden, Utah, hold on to make the buzzer on a high-bucking bronco. Peterson gets kicked in the back getting off the horse, and leaves the arena limping. Everyone is talking about Peterson today, and her bull ride at the IGRA finals last year. She scored the highest ever of any bull rider, man or woman, on the circuit. Bell opted not to ride broncs today, but will join Peterson on bulls.

With two events to go before bulls, Bell says she is getting mental.

"It's 90 percent mental," she says. "Five percent being able to hold your own weight and 5 percent luck of the draw."

Rough stock rider Candy Bell holds a feather blessed by the medicine man on the Gila Indian Reservation where she works.
Paolo Vescia
Rough stock rider Candy Bell holds a feather blessed by the medicine man on the Gila Indian Reservation where she works.
Unlike the regular rodeo, women at the gay rodeo ride bulls, broncs and steers. Bell won the steer-riding buckle at this year's Arizona gay rodeo.
Paolo Vescia
Unlike the regular rodeo, women at the gay rodeo ride bulls, broncs and steers. Bell won the steer-riding buckle at this year's Arizona gay rodeo.

And a bit of superstition. Bell always wears one of the same two shirts when she rides. Both are rainbow-striped, one with white stars on a blue background. She wears the same blue hat. Always puts the right spur on first, then the bootstraps, butt pad, chaps, vest in sequence. Then she stretches, holding onto an eagle feather blessed by the medicine man on the Gila reservation where she works.

Bell is crouched in something that looks like a yoga pose, showing a belt with her name imprinted in the leather. She stands, revealing a smear of red paint on her chaps from where she hit the fence at finals. She then throws one leg up over the gate like a ballerina, and stretches.

"Watching Candy ride is like watching a dancer who loves dancing dance," says Jodi Hines, a former bull rider who coaches from behind the chute.

"Women find the center of their beings and put it on the center of the animal. Men try to overpower the animal. They think they're stronger than a 1,500-pound bull."

There was no gay rodeo back when Hines started riding bulls, so she says she rode in straight rodeos as a man. She competed up until about three years ago, when she broke her neck in a truck accident. Now she just coaches the riders. As the women prepare to ride the bulls, she says, "Now is when you mess with their minds. I can tell by the way they walk what their state of mind is."

One of the riders approaches Hines for advice. "I'm on Sandtrap -- which way does he circle? Where do I set my rope? I'm looking for the center -- right?"

"Sandtrap -- oh, I know Sandtrap. About two inches back -- you need it pulled just like Candy's. You don't want to ride him too tight -- it's all by feel," Hines replies.

The steers are gridlocked in the chute. Miss Patti, the assistant chute coordinator/drag queen from D.C., climbs atop the chute and steps on the steers' heads to push them back. There are cream and brown-sugar-colored steers. There are praying cowboys. There are pacing cowgirls.

The bulls are ugly with soft brown eyes. Blink, blink. There's Brahma Bull, Clinton, Sandtrap and Union. Union is Candy's bull. An interrupted meal of straw hangs from his mouth, and he doesn't look happy about his lot in life. There's the pre-rigging rope in front with a bell attached. The noise helps make 'em buck. The flank rope in back makes 'em buck, too, but doesn't tie up their balls like some people think.

Union snorts and butts his head against the side of his metal cage. Snot drips from his face, glistens for a moment in the sun shining through the chute slats before sliding into the mud. He treads muck with clumsy hooves, slips and slides, bumping his head into the chute.

The direction the bull is turned in the chute will affect how it comes out. Union usually comes out and circles to the left. Bell rides right-handed, but oddly enough she likes bulls that spin left.

Bell didn't get to ride bulls at rodeo finals because she was at the hospital getting her face sewn up after riding broncs. As she gears up for today's ride, Hines says to Candy, "This is the bull you didn't ride in finals. You're a pro -- ride like one."

This stock she rides at gay rodeos is not professional rodeo quality. These aren't the toughest, rankest, meanest bulls you'll find. But they're not lunch, either. These are bucking bulls. "If they didn't buck, they'd be at Wendy's or McDonald's," Hines explains.

Bell stands, head bent, arms braced against chute gate and wiggles her legs back and forth. Mouth guard in. Stroking the eagle feather. Claire Miller, a local bronco rider, helps brace Bell as she gets settled on Union. Hines pulls her rope. After a couple audible deep breaths, Bell gives the nod. The gate opens.

She holds on for a couple powerful bucks, but doesn't make the buzzer. Once she realizes she's out of harm's way, she gets up smiling, arms raised.

It's not the staying on; it's the getting on.

Back behind the chute, Hines asks the riders, "What do you think you did wrong?" It's a trick question. "Don't think -- that's what you did -- you thought."

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