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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Even when animals aren't visibly injured, Rhodes says they may still be hurt. "A lot of times the animals suffer internal bruising or hemorrhaging and it may not be outwardly obvious," she says. Other hard-to-spot injuries include bone fractures, muscle pulls, and ripped tendons or ligaments. Animal-welfare advocates also find many routine rodeo practices to be inhumane. "They use electric prods, bucking straps, spurs -- anything to provoke these normally docile animals into aggressive behavior," Rhodes says. Advocates are troubled, for example, by the use of five-thousand-volt electric prods, or "hot shots," to make animals move. They say cowboys sometimes resort to twisting the animals' ears or tails to get them out of the chute. Horses are outfitted with a fleece-lined "flank strap" around their midsection to encourage them to buck; while Fox says it's a mild irritant like "tightening your belt too tight," Mills says animals sometimes get so frantic to get the strap off that they don't look where they're going and "buck blind" into fences.

Some also object to the age and relative powerlessness of the animals involved. For the calf-roping event in American-style rodeo, the animals are only four or five months old. In calf-roping, a cowboy on horseback lassos a running calf, bringing the animal to a standing halt. The cowboy must then jump off his horse, run to the calf, pick it up and throw it to the ground, tie three of its legs together, then jump back on his horse. The event is timed, and the calf's legs must stay bound for at least six seconds. Rodeo advocates say that when the event is done properly, the calf is not injured by being thrown into the arena's soft dirt. But things don't always go well. A "jerk-down" happens when the calf goes flying and lands on its back; cowboys are disqualified when this happens, and fined if it is determined they did it intentionally. Nevertheless, jerk-downs are not uncommon. "Calf-roping is particularly cruel," Rhodes says. "Oftentimes the calves will suffer broken necks or legs when they're thrown to the ground. I've seen so many photos of these baby animals' faces -- it's indescribable, they're in such pain and so fearful. It's just unbelievable that anybody could find it entertaining."

But Cindy Schonholtz, animal welfare coordinator for the PRCA, says the organization has sixty strict rules to prevent animal abuse, including prohibiting sharpened spurs, requiring on-site vets at all rodeos, and ensuring that cattle used in team-roping events wear wraps to protect their horns. They allow the use of electric prods on chute-stalling horses only on the hip and shoulder, where the animals have fewer nerve endings. And they say that the animals they use are bred to buck, not forced into it. "You can't make a horse or bull buck if they don't want to," she says. "If they were in pain or didn't want to do it, they wouldn't move."

She also points out that rodeo staff have a financial incentive for keeping their animals in good condition; stock contractors who rent animals to rodeos depend on having healthy animals, and cowboys' own horses are dear to their hearts. "To think an individual is going to pay $50,000 for a rope horse and then abuse it is mind-numbing," Fox says. "Some of them take better care of their horses than some people take care of their kids. If their horses get hurt, they're out of business."

Mark Franco, national director of the Federación de Charros, says that no animal cruelty suits have ever been filed against a lienzo charro in California. "Contrary to what Mills and a lot of activists think, we charros do care about the animals. We have very strict rules not to hurt them," he says. Franco is also one of the pillars of the East Bay's charreada circuit; his family has run the Camperos del Valle lienzo in Sunol since 1974. He chalks much of the criticism up to city folk misunderstanding how things work on a ranch. "From what I know of Mills, he's trying to do a noble thing," he says. "What happens is we're having a cultural break between farm and ranch and city dwellers."

Many charros and cowboys say that animal advocates get upset because they assume that animals feel pain and discomfort the same way humans do. But Fox and Franco say that livestock's tougher hide, which allows them to survive outdoors, also enables them to endure a hot shot or a fall much better than a human could. And Fox points out that cattle mature much faster than people do. "We hear constantly that ... we've taken this little baby away from its mother and roped it," he says. "Those animals weigh 240, 260 pounds. They're not little babies, they're livestock."

However, it's clear that at least some criticism is sinking in. Within the last several months PRCA officials have taken to calling calf-roping by the less inflammatory name "tie-down roping." This rankles Mills. "Why don't you call it 'Grandma's Cinnamon Buns?'" he demands. "Change the damn event, don't change the name."

Nevertheless, the PRCA is unlikely to get rid of what is literally a cash cow. "Some of the biggest stars we have in the sport of rodeo are calf ropers," Schonholtz says. "When done under the right conditions with healthy animals and rules in place, it's one of the more exciting events we have. When you look at the skill of the horse and the contestant, it's a real exciting event. It's very popular for us."

Mills would like to ban calf-roping, no question about it. But so far the only event he's managed to ban throughout California is a charreada practice called horse-tripping, or las manganas.


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