If you’re due a break from the wine and cheese world or in search of a local antidote, look no further than the annual celebration of rodeo skill, speed and power under way the near the Russian River in the tiny town of Duncans Mills.
An homage to the cowboy life past and present, the Russian River Rodeo is a far cry from the finer trappings of Wine Country so heavily promoted around these parts. Instead, it takes its cues from the dusty, sweaty, muscular traditions of the Old West that, for some, never fall out of style.
Between coastal hills with their own grazing cattle, this small-town spectacle draws competitors from across the state, though many on the rodeo roster are from local ranching families that have been at two or three generations.
Windsor’s Blake Bishop, 13, for instance, was already sitting astride his steer when his mother, Lisa Bishop, straddled the pen to cinch the strap around the animal’s middle so her son had a shot at a solid ride.
“I grew up riding bulls,” Lisa Bishop said. She broke a leg on one occasion but otherwise suffered mostly bruises. “It’s a lifestyle, and it’s fun.”
Now in its 51st year, the rodeo, which continues Sunday, features many of the same contests that would have cast one cowhand against another a century ago, trying to best each other in roping, riding, and wrestling livestock they tended across the west.
For guys like Clayton O’Malley, a wrangler from Emmett, Idaho, rodeo competition still is a useful way to hone skills needed for work. In the arena Saturday, before a crowd of about a thousand fans, that meant dismounting a speeding horse directly onto the back of a steer, then, as quickly as possible, wrestling it to the ground so its feet were in the air.
Flying hooves sometimes return the favor. “Like I said, it helps in this line of work,” O’Malley said.
The allure of cash prizes doesn’t hurt and the adrenaline rush for competitors is palpable even from the crowd.
It’s “the thrill,” said Santa Rosa resident Peyton Larsen, 19, who heads off to college in Bozeman, Mont., this fall, where she’ll ride rodeo.
Many young women participate in barrel racing, riding their mounts in tight circles around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern before sprinting at top speed toward the finish line. Other events featured over the weekend include calf roping and bull- and bareback bronco riding
Entering the grounds in Duncans Mills is a little like stepping onto a movie set, filled with scores of majestic steeds, penned steers, bulls and calves, and riders done up in western wear, some of them twirling ropes overhead.
There’s the sound of nickering horses, metal gates swinging open and closed, and pounding hooves as some combination of rider and four-legged athlete enters the arena for a brief, explosive display of prowess.
Jake Peterson, 19, of Livermore, said he does rodeo for the excitement, the fun.
He started out as a kid riding steers but Saturday rode a bull, though briefly and not as well as he had hoped. Perhaps that had something to do with his still-cracked ribs, broken three weeks ago in a rodeo by a different bull that came down on his chest.
But it’s not all about bruises and beatdowns.
It’s also about partnership with majestic horses whose power and strength is paired with precision footwork and spur-of-the-moment teamwork with their riders.
“I love my horse,” said Hannah Wolmuth, 18, of Windsor, after circling the arena on her spunky 4-year-old, Brandy. In an earlier, grand entrance as this year’s Russian River Rodeo Queen, the horse threw her just inside the gate. “She just bucked me off,” Wolmuth said, “and I was petting her and giving her treats.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.