Chute ‘Em Up

The Cow Palace turns out for its original purpose: the Grand National Rodeo, complete with livestock show.

Bobby Kerr’s horse, Cinch, is coming along nicely. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

By his own admission, Bobby Kerr hasn’t been around as a rodeo performer much more than five years, but he still invented his own device to track his horses: a wheeled, mechanized critter with the head of a cow.

Kerr, who lives in Hico, Texas, calls it a “remote calf” — although it says “Jingle Bobby” on the side — and it’s about two feet long, two feet high, and a foot wide, like a miniature black lawnmower.

“I use it in my act,” he says, “instead of wearing out real cattle. My wife drives it, and I’ll rope it. I’ll string it and tie it like you would a real calf. It’ll fly. It’s basically four-wheel drive.”

He isn’t using it just then; I only ask about it because I see it sitting there in the Paddock Room at the Cow Palace, which happens to be full of horses at the moment. Kerr’s hands are full with reins attached to nuzzly 6-year-old horse named Cinch, who’s so named because he’s sponsored by Cinch jeans and shirts.

“He’s a wild horse, so I broke him to ride,” Kerr says. “Next year, I’ll be using him in my act. He’ll already lay down and sit. I work a cow on him. He settles in pretty quick. The one thing I read wrong when I first got him, he’s very herd-bound. When you take him away from other horses, he gets excited ’cause he’s not with his buddies, but he’s getting better every weekend.”

Kerr’s words are punctuated by frequent neighs from horses I can’t see, because they’re in their pens. No one seems to know how many are here, but the number is in the hundreds.

That’s because the rodeo is in town — the Grand National Rodeo, to be specific. The Cow Palace might be most familiar as the place where you watch Morris Dancers at Mad Sal’s Dockside Ale House during the Dickens Fair, or, if you’re a history buff, the place where Barry Goldwater extolled the virtues of extremism at the 1964 Republican National Convention. But it has always been home to livestock shows, and over two weekends in mid-October, the Cow Palace effectively went by its other designation as 1-A District Agricultural Association, showcasing the importance of the ag industry in the state of California.

Paige Ryan, a Southern California native with a natural speaking voice that sounds distinctly non-Angeleno, grew up on a 10-acre ranch with cattle, a couple horses, and “a hogtie here and there.” She points to the nosebleeds, such as they are, and explains that her parents used to sit up there in the 1970s “because they had no money and the seats used to be jam-packed.” As we chat, her father is driving a tractor around the arena floor. (The dirt — thousands of pounds of it — belongs to the rodeo and lives on-site.)

“Our athletes are the best treated in any sport,” she says of the rodeo’s bulls, who work two or three minutes a year over their 15-year lifespan.

“It’s the best job I’ve ever heard of,” she adds, “to get to do what they love.”

The Grand National Rodeo has seven events, including bareback riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, and saddle bronc riding. (One, barrel racing, is a women’s event.) While it might sound like a hyper-masculine environment, it’s not just roughnecks plus the occasional rodeo queen acting as ambassador; fully four in five people working today are women. Many people look like they’re from out of town. At one point, a couple of high-school-age boys pass by, one of them wearing an oversized Trump sweatshirt without a trace of self-consciousness.

Melanie Fowle is wearing a shirt embossed with a horned cowbell and some California poppies, the logo of California CattleWomen. An educator, she travels 350 miles each way from Siskiyou County to show her animals and to show suburban schoolchildren where their food comes from, giving them a personal encounter with the animals. They dissect thawed beef hearts and learn about the circulatory system. She speaks in such a calmly authoritative voice that you can easily imagine her getting her point across without any sensitive kids bursting into tears.

“We use a stun gun,” she says. “The animal never knows, and there’s no fear, and it’s OK.”

“And they understood it,” she adds. “We’re honest with them.”

There was a little classroom confusion over the words chute and shoot, however.

“I have to be careful,” Fowle says.

Because she lives on a historic ranch, she’s brought hand-forged 19th-century brands that would have been used over a wood fire. (These days, her cows are identified by ear tags.) Brands are still registered with the state, and Fowle and her friend Sheila share a little insight about how to decrypt the symbols. Dairy cows were branded on the right hip, for instance, and beef cows on the left. And a backwards B indicates that a woman whose maiden name started with that letter had taken her husband’s surname.

Fowle was set to be recognized for her years of service at a lunch that weekend, Sheila says. And it’s a particularly poignant award for her because she’d lost her husband only a few days before.

“Melanie is Queen of the Palace this year, because of her willingness to come the long distance to educate kids in the San Francisco area,” Sheila says. “She always comes over to the Cow Palace for the children, whether she has animals or not. It’s a labor of love — in fact, it costs her to do this.”

It goes without saying that animal husbandry is intrinsic to California’s economy, from the enormous dairy industry to the alfalfa crop. And as Bobby Kerr puts it, the arena is right at the center.

“I bring a different act every year, so when I entertain you, you can say, ‘I haven’t seen him do that before,’ ” he says. “I’ve heard about the Cow Palace all my life, so to experience it is truly an honor.”

You won’t hear sentiments like that at HempCon.

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