Eric Mills and the Horse He Rode in On 

Eric Mills was the most effective critic of rodeo in California -- at least until he lassoed the charreada.

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Both sports celebrate rugged individualism. Contestants pay their own entry fees, and the winner-takes-all system means that an unlucky cowboy or charro may go home poorer than he arrived. Many who aren't members of the association work without health insurance, and some pile into vans and hit as many rodeos as they can in a weekend in order to make the job pay off. "In the rodeo industry if you don't win, you don't get paid," Fox says. "And think about the travel expenses! Fourth of July weekend, they call it 'Cowboy Christmas' -- they may compete in five or six rodeos on that weekend."

For their fans and participants, both forms of rodeo possess a certain macho thrill, something to do with the connection between man and beast and the ability to dance with danger. "I myself have broken all my fingers doing las colas, my saddle has broken, I fell under the horse, my hip has dislocated twice," Rodriguez admits. "I can't really tie my shoelaces any more because of that. But it's a rush. My saddle is my executive chair, my rope is my keyboard, and my arena is my screen."

But despite their many similarities, American and Mexican rodeos exist in very different universes. American rodeo is much wealthier than the charreada; it's televised on ESPN and attracts high-profile sponsors such as Marlboro, Dodge, Coors, Wrangler, Skoal, and Coca-Cola. A top contestant can take home as much as $200,000 a year in prize money, not to mention what they rake in from sponsorships. It's also a much more politically savvy entity: the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association was established in 1936 and employs professionals like Fox to lobby at the state level.

Charros, on the other hand, compete mainly for trophies and bragging rights. In their quest for historic authenticity, modern charreadas not only require participants to wear period costumes, but use only traditional wood and leather saddles and woven grass ropes. Publicity comes mainly through word of mouth and Spanish-language media, although Rodriguez does run a popular Web site called Many charreadas are hosted at small family-owned lienzos, or arenas. Charros say that while the American rodeo has the glitz, the charreada has the grit. American-style bucking events have a time limit of eight seconds, but in charreada there is no limit. "You ride until the animal gives up or until the rider is thrown," Mills says. "It can go on for several minutes at a time, so it's rougher on the animals and probably the riders, too. The livestock used in the charreada is not nearly as good athletically as American-style rodeo, and the cowboys are not as professionally trained."

But from Mills' point of view, the most crucial difference between the two is that they share only three events in common: bull-riding, team-roping, and bareback bronc-riding. Because California law currently defines a rodeo as having four of six listed rodeo events, charreadas are not bound by state rodeo laws, and have evaded much of Mills' regulatory reach.

While California law currently regulates American-style rodeo more tightly than it does charreadas, Mills believes that both kinds of rodeo are equally dangerous to animals. His critique generally focuses on individual events such as calf-roping (a centerpiece of American-style rodeo) or las colas (a charreada tradition) that he believes pose a very high risk of animal injury. But these events are generally huge crowd-pleasers because of the derring-do involved in performing them, and they are considered cornerstones of their respective rodeo styles. As a result, Mills says, both cowboys and charros turn a blind eye to the risks posed to animals by their particular traditional events. "It's very subjective," he says. "The cowboys think that the charreadas are very cruel especially because of steer-tailing and horse-tripping. The charros think American rodeo is far more cruel because of the calf-roping and steer-wrestling, which they do not do. From the animal's point of view, it's all cruel. This is just a day's amusement for the cowboys of every stripe, but this is the animal's life."

It's hard to argue that when you have large animals moving at a high speeds, gory accidents can happen. But because such a huge number of rodeos and charreadas happen each year, many of them small and independent, it's difficult to get a clear picture of how often they occur. One barometer is the PRCA's annual injury survey, which only covers a sampling of PRCA-sanctioned events, but there is disagreement over how to interpret these statistics. The association's 2001 survey, the most recent available, tabulated 25 injuries at the 67 rodeos surveyed. Its 2000 survey found 38 injuries at 57 rodeos. Animal advocates consider numbers like these and conclude disapprovingly that between one third and two-thirds of rodeos end with injured animals.

The way the PRCA looks at it, what's important is the ratio of injuries to "exposures," or times an animal performs in the arena. Fox says that when calculated this way, the injury rate at PRCA rodeos is less than five hundredths of 1 percent. But Amy Rhodes, the Animals in Entertainment specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says that estimate is highly suspect. "They always say they have very few injuries, but there's no one fact-checking it. They don't show specific instances," she says. And since rodeos are generally not required to report injuries to animal control or other authorities, she says, "because the participants and spectators are not likely to be the ones to call PETA about it, unless it ends up in the media we typically don't know about it."

Instead, the debate centers largely around anecdotal evidence compiled by witnesses like Mills, listed on Web sites like PETA's, or filmed in documentaries put out by groups like the Humane Society, which showcase rodeos' worst moments. These are little more than bovine snuff films, filled with images of animals breaking their legs, necks, and backs, or gashing themselves running into fences. Sometimes network television runs similar exposés. In 1993, when Los Angeles journalist Christine Lund went undercover to film charreadas, she stunned the world with slow-motion shots of horses crashing headfirst into the dirt or trying desperately to vault over fences.


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