“The county fair is pretty laid back here. Feel free to take breaks and explore around, but you absolutely must see the rodeo”. These were the final instructions given to my partner and I before we stationed ourselves at the fair’s Bureau of Land Management booth. We thanked our boss for the advice and looked out from our booth to the fair grounds.
The Harney County Fair is one of the largest events in Burns, OR. With hundreds of people frequenting the fair-grounds daily, in a town of roughly 4,000, the annual fair is a highly anticipated event. On the premises there isa row of food trucks serving meals ranging from smoked-ribs to shaved-ice confections. There is a carnival section, containing classic rides and deceptively difficult games. Another section of the fair features wall-less barns for 4-H animal competitions (e.g. largest pig, cutest rabbit, wooliest sheep, etc.). There is also a main stage, in the center of the fair grounds, which features three main acts, each taking an hour in the lime-light, twice a day. The acts consist of a Japanese taiko drumming performance, a magician, and a hypnotist.
In addition, there are several rows of booths for selling of merchandise or providing public-information. There is a booth representing the Oregon Hunters Association, a custom cow-boy hat maker, a mini-market of gag-gifts and fake weapons (and some real ones too), dozens of other vendors, and our humble BLM booth. Our booth has traditionally been passive in nature; it typically has been a table full of pamphlets and maps regarding different activities or programs available in the local area. This year however, my fellow intern and I were tasked with making the booth more engaging for kids. After a day of brainstorming, planning, and shopping, we devised a scavenger-hunt, with a fire-roasted s’more being the reward for completion (we were only given permission for this because the fire-fighters’ booth was directly next to ours).
Now, this is all good family fun; an excuse for parents to let their kids run around while they catch-up with old friends. However, to many this also just fluff, filler to kill time until 7:00 PM when the rodeo starts. There is a professional rodeo tomorrow, were seasoned cow-boys will travel cross-state to come and compete for glory, and many will go see it, but tomorrow night is not the event that has everyone excited. The true attraction people are talking about, the one that has everyone coming out in their nicest hats, is the local amateur rodeo.
The local rodeo has no limits on age or skill, just a willingness to hang on tight to a bucking bronco or one majorly pissed-off bull for as long as you can. In addition, there is a lassoing competition to see who can catch a run-away horse the quickest, and Barrel-Racing, where cow-boys and cow-girls run their house through a path set by barrels in an effort to complete the course in the quickest time.
The rodeo commences with an announcer, possessing a thick drawl, leading the crowd in prayer and the National Anthem. After this, a tractor carrying a large rake attachment clears the field in neat linear paths, reminiscent of a Zamboni at hockey games. When the tractor’s job is complete, the bucking-broncs begin. Without warning, a gate is flung open and a cow-boy is sent out on a riled-up horse. The horse sprints and flails, in an effort to launch the cow-boy clean off its back (what is done to upset the horse in the first place is beyond my knowledge). After only 5 seconds, the cowboy is flung forward, and the horse runs over him, but he appears to be uninjured and quickly gets up to run back outside the fence. Not entirely sure what to make of the whole thing, I look around and see people looking slightly disappointed and shaking their heads.
“What went wrong”, I ask a local man behind me, wearing an immaculately white and large brimmed hat.
“They have to stay on for at least eight seconds, or the score is no good”.
Immediately after, the score-board flashes “No Points Awarded”.
The next cow-boy manages to hold on for about 9 seconds before being flipped over the side of the horse. The score-board reads “65/100”.
“Not too bad”, the man behind me says, while clapping his hands.
“Why only 65”, I ask.
“Well, there’s two judges and they each give up to 50 points. 25 for how well the guy holds on, and 25 for how well the animal does. Then they combine their scores for a final number out of 100”.
“How well the animal does”?
“Yeah. A calm horse is much easier to ride, so they’re not going to give it many points. But if you get one really worked up…well I’d be sorry to be the guy on one like that, but at least you could make a better score. This is just amateur though, the scores will probably stay in the 60’s all night”.
And on it went. The highest score wound up being 71.
Next they begin the lassoing. I start feeling bad for the horses in this one and decide to leave for a bit to grab a drink. When I get back, the final event has started, barrel racing. The first few racers go through, all making decent times and showing good control of their steeds. Suddenly, the announcer brings special attention to the next racer, a small boy who is doing his first barrel race. I stare at the boy amazed and turn to the white-hatted man behind me.
“How old is that boy”, I ask wide-eyed
He lets out a deep laugh and informs me, “he’s probably four. We like to start them young around here”.
The boy looks like a small doll riding on-top of a full grown horse. While not the fastest, the boy manages to complete the correct path of barrels in a reasonable time. I genuinely doubt the child’s ability to talk in complete sentences, yet there he is, confidently riding an animal easily 4 times taller than him. Everyone enthusiastically cheers him on, as do I (more out of awe than excitement).
The barrel races conclude and awards are given out. Trophies are in the form of large and ornate belt-buckles, decorated on intricate designs of silver and gold colors (belt-buckles, like hats, are worn as a status-symbol and essential accessory here).
Everyone begins to trickle out of the stands. I follow suit and return to my car, where I plug in my phone and start playing Glen Campbell’s cover of Rhinestone Cowboy, as I begin my ride home.