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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In horse-tripping, a charro standing on the ground or seated on his horse tries to lasso the front legs of a passing horse, who is being chased around the arena by three other cowboys at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. The lassoed horse is usually a two- or three-year-old Arabian filly, chosen for her light weight. The charro's intent is to pull her legs out from under her so she will roll over her right shoulder, then flip back up onto her hooves. But it's tough to get this stunt exactly right, animal-welfare advocates say, and horses occasionally break bones and teeth, get burns and gashes from the rope, or suffer neurological damage from landing on their heads or necks. Mills says contractors rent these horses out until they're too injured to run, then send them to the slaughterhouse. Although California's Proposition 6, passed in 1998, made slaughtering horses illegal here, other states allow it, and horsemeat is still considered a delicacy in many countries.

In 1993, Mills approached Democratic Assemblyman Joe Baca of San Bernadino about a horse-tripping ban, figuring that Baca's Mexican-American ancestry would allay some of the protest the bill was sure to draw. But the bill still failed, so Mills took his proposal to the county level. That year, Alameda County became the first such jurisdiction to pass an ordinance requiring on-site veterinarians and banning the charreada events of horse-tripping and steer-tailing. Contra Costa County followed suit in 1994.

The following year, Mills' horse-tripping bill got another shot in Sacramento. He was aware that he was becoming a political lightning rod, so he kept a lower profile and the California Equine Council sponsored the bill. State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, then an assemblyman, carried the ban as an emergency bill, and this time, it passed by a stunning 117-to-3 floor vote. "I damn near fell out of the balcony at the hearing," Mills recalls. "I couldn't believe it."

Six other states quickly copied the new law. Today some Californian charros practice a modified form of las manganas, in which they lasso the horse's legs but then let the rope go slack so the animal remains standing. Animal-rights advocates consider the practice to be on the decline. "It's not something that's very popular anymore," PETA's Rhodes says. "I think people have come to realize how cruel it is."


Mills had the element of surprise with the horse-tripping bill -- the charros hadn't expected anyone to successfully challenge their practices. But his success struck a nerve; the ban was seen as an assault on Latino culture. Rodriguez, who ran the Los Alazanes charreada in El Monte, blames the passage of the horse-tripping bill and the resulting media coverage for the demise of his business. "They almost made it seem like going to a charreada was illegal, like going to a cockfight or a dogfight," he says, adding that attendance at his charreada dropped from 1,800 people a week to 200 or 300, and Los Alazanes eventually went out of business. And many other people lost money, from feed suppliers to saddlemakers. "The arenas in Escondido, Coachella, Bakersfield, they went away," he says. "People went from training horses to working as truck drivers. A lot of people that were living well went from being on top to being on the bottom. ... Mr. Mills shoots that gun up in the air and doesn't see where the bullet falls, how many lives it destroys."

Truth be told, there are other factors influencing the closure of charreadas that have little to do with animal welfare, and more to do with human behavior. As urbanization encroaches upon ranchlands, it has put one lienzo after another out of business. The remaining ones contend with urban problems such as traffic congestion or parking, which has bedeviled the Franco family's lienzo in Sunol. Due to neighbors' complaints, the facility is currently only used for small, private events. Other venues have had problems with alcohol and rowdy patrons. There hasn't been a charreada allowed at Hayward's Rowell Ranch since 1995, when the Alameda County sheriff's department was summoned to deal with a melee that broke out in the stands. Patrons threw rocks and bottles at security guards, injuring six of them.

Nevertheless, charros believe they're being picked on because they don't have the deep pockets or political sophistication of organizations such as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, racehorse associations, or the cattle industry. "We're like the 99-cent store for the animal activists," Franco says. "Eric Mills and these animal activists, that's all they do, they're at the state capitol eight hours a day, but I lost time at work and money going back and forth to the state capitol to lobby."

In 1994, when the charros went to Sacramento to protest the horse-tripping bill, the president of their association spoke no English and needed a translator, and the membership showed up in the costumes of charros or their female counterparts. "The presence was kind of carnivalish," Rodriguez recalls. "The senators thought the guys were mariachis." They were no match for the animal-welfare activists, who were more familiar with lobbying. "They really decimated us, and at that time we weren't prepared," he says. "We didn't know why everything was happening."

It looked like history might repeat itself last year when charreada organizers found out about Mills' proposed bill to organize a ban on steer-tailing, or las colas. Steer-tailing is an event in which a charro rides alongside a bull, grabs its tail, wraps it around his boot and stirrup, and rides his horse off at an angle. The bull gets knocked to the ground. Although the event is not sanctioned by charreada's American counterparts, and animal-rights advocates claim that it has never been an accepted ranching practice, Rodriguez says steer-tailing was originally used to subdue ornery bulls; after being knocked down a few times, they'd hide in the middle of the herd and stop causing trouble. But animal-rights activists condemn the act as violent and inhumane. State Senator Liz Figueroa of Fremont, who carried the bill, described the practice on her Web site, saying, "Sometimes both the steer's and the horse's legs are broken. The tails of the steers are sometimes broken also, even torn from the animal's body."

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