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A Closer Look Yippee Ki Yi Yay: Ropin’ a Good Time at the Mesquite Rodeo

By D Magazine |

You wouldn’t think of touring London without seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. And, judging from the popularity of the Herd on the Street, the sculptured cattle drive near City Hall, many visitors to Dallas wouldn’t think of visiting our city without seeing some cattle. While a trip to the Fort Worth Stockyards would certainly satisfy an appetite for things Western, you can also see plenty of cowboys every weekend at the 39-year-old Mesquite Championship Rodeo, an event that blends the pageantry and ritual of the changing of the guard with the down-home folksiness of opening day at a Texas county fair.

Every Friday and Saturday night from early May through Oct. 5 the rodeo kicks off with a grand entry parade-a Western band complete with horns plays “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” while men, women and children on horseback stream into the arena. Some wear elaborate spangled Western wear and carry the U.S. and Texas flags and banners proclaiming affiliations and sponsorships. The horses trot around once as the announcer pronounces the names of guests, who raise their hats as their names are called.

The pomp and circumstance continue as Mesquite Rodeo founder Neal Gay rides into the arena. Gay developed his passion for rodeo into a successful business and still runs it with the help of his wife Kay and some of his children. The Gay name has become synonymous with rodeo-son Don was an all-time world bull-riding champ, and the Gays provide stock for many other PRCA {Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) rodeos.

Then the real fun begins, as cowboys and cowgirls compete for points in bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping, bronco riding with and without a saddle, and barrel racing (the only women’s event here). Competitors accumulate points at PRCA-sanctioned rodeos such as this one over a year-long season that begins with the Fort Worth Stock Show in January and continues through two- and three-day outdoor rodeos at county and state fairs all over the country, ending with the annual December finals in Las Vegas.

Many attendees on any given night are first-time rodeo watchers, most of them visitors to Dallas, according to rodeo spokesman John Painter. Knowing many in the audience are unfamiliar with rodeo, the announcer explains each event’s rules and scoring procedures, so you’ll know that the score for a successful bull ride is determined not just by whether or not the rider can stay seated on a 2,000-pound bull named something like “Chill Dog.” The rider earns points for style and skill as well as for simply staying on, so drawing a lethargic bull does not help; if the bull isn’t pitching and bucking, the cowboy can’t show his stuff.

Steer wrestling, where the cowboy ropes an 800-pound steer and then hand-wrestles him down, and calf roping, where the cowboy ropes a calf, then gets off his horse and ties the calf’s front and back legs together, particularly harken back to rodeo’s beginning as an event that tested the cowboy’s ability to tackle everyday ranching tasks.

Yet today rodeos are more entertainment than a demonstration of work skills, The Nashville Network frequently airs Mesquite Rodeo performances, with commentary by former champion barrel racer and Miss Rodeo America Pam Minick, who with her husband Biliy owns Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth.

TV monitors hang from the ceiling of the open-yet-roofed arena, so you can see close-ups and slow-motion shots of rides. An outdoor buffet serves excellent barbecue that would hold its own with Sonny Bryan’s, and the rodeo ropes in the kids with a halftime “calf scramble” event, a petting zoo and pony rides. Halftime might feature a trick rider or a group like the Upshur County 4-H Club taking their horses through complicated routines reminiscent of drill teams.

The real Western action at the ]Mesquite Championship Rodeo has drawn celebrities from Mick Jagger (brought by his Mesquite-raised wife Jerry Hall) to the members of the rock group Pink Floyd to Prince Rainier and Princess Stephanie of Monaco. Even actor Dennis Hopper has visited; he watched with other proud parents as his young son Henry participated in the calf scramble.

For more Western fun, trek to Fort Worth, which does have cattle-trail history: The city was a stop on the Chisholm Trail. The Stockyards Rodeo takes place each weekend from May to September at the Cowtown Coliseum. Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show offers Annie Oakley, trick riders and Indian ceremonial dancers.

The Stockyards are a frequent site of Western festivals and rodeo events such as Pioneer Days (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) and the Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering (Oct. 25-27), includinga cowboy poetry festival and a Western swing music festival. -Renee Hopkins

Friday & Saturday through Oct. 5; 6:30 p.m., gates open; 8 p.m., rodeo begins. Take 1-635 east to the Military Parkway exit. The arena is on the right behind the Trail Dust. Steakhouse, Information: 222-BULL or 2858777.

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