Why Rodeos Make Me a Little Sad…

by Amy McGarry

Like so many little girls, from the age of about eight, I desperately wanted a horse. Right before I turned eight, we moved from Spokane Valley to a tiny railroad junction 15 miles outside of Ritzville. My father, who had begun his career as a telegrapher for the Union Pacific Railroad was now a communications clerk in the old Marengo depot. 

Moving to “the country” was a great adventure for this 2nd grade girl. There were whole new realms to roam and explore. I pretended I was little Laura Ingalls from my favorite TV show at the time, Little House on the Prairie. Living in the country meant I’d have chores and adventures. We’d go fishing and tadpole hunting. I started calling my dad “Pa.” Surely, living in the country meant I could have a horse. Alas, despite begging and pleading, the answer was always “no.” Some dumb reason having to do with money. 

The next best thing to having your own horse, is having a friend with a horse. One of my best friends was one of those horse-crazy girls named Val. Val lived, breathed, ate, and drank horses and riding. She was literally obsessed. She owned not one, but two, of her very own horses! That little eight-year-old Val took care of those horses as well as any adult. 

I thought nothing of that at the time, but in retrospect, that dedication and responsibility is nothing short of amazing. Here’s a little girl feeding, watering, and grooming her horses. She knew how to fit a bridle and a saddle. I’d visit regularly and we’d ride. She taught me how to use the reigns to guide the horse, how to use my heels to control the speed. We’d head off for the fields, wind in our hair, relishing the space and freedom, the feel of this massive beast beneath our bodies. It was heaven. For the next few years, I fancied myself a horsewoman. 

In reality however, the work of horse maintenance, so joyful and rewarding to my friend Val, seemed tedious to me. Plus, I had a secret. Galloping scared me. It felt too out of control. Then, one day, I got bucked off. Hit my head on a rock. I stopped asking for my own horse.

We were getting older, Val and I. By the 5th grade, my interest in horses shifted to boys and I experienced my first crush. He was the whole package; he was smart, funny, cute and a good athlete. Wouldn’t you know it, he was also a cowboy. We were friends, but he never liked me “that way.” 

I was a tomboy, because that’s how you got to interact with the boys. As a tomboy, I could play sports with the boys at recess without being suspect of liking them. As a tomboy, I could play on a Little League baseball team, which, at the time, was 99% boys. These tomboy tactics never achieved my goal of getting that cowboy to like me.

Then, on June 6, 1980, just as we were finishing 5th grade, the movie Urban Cowboy was released. I blush to remember how I fantasized that my cowboy was Bud (John Travolta) and I was Sissy (Debra Winger). Mechanical bull riding became a thing. Country music became cool. I started dreaming of life as cattle rancher’s wife.

And then the rodeo came to town. September in Eastern Washington means County Fair time. County Fair time means the rodeo. Like almost the whole of Adams County, I entered my baked goods, vegetables from the garden, and arts and crafts in the fair. For years I kept those ribbons of assorted colors as a testament to my worth as a country girl, a source of pride. 

Of course, my cowboy would have his own livestock entered in the fair. He might even be in the rodeo! I vowed to spend as much time as I could wandering around those fairgrounds in hopes of getting a glimpse of my cowboy. Maybe I could chat him up. Ask him about his entries. Tell him about mine. Find out when he’d be showing a cow or calf. 

After so much anticipation, always on the lookout for him, hoping for a chance to interact, I finally did see him. It was at the rodeo. I can still see in mind’s eye how handsome he looked in his cowboy hat and boots, a big silver belt buckle, kicking up dust as he walked to the bleachers. And I can still see the girl he was with. Also in cowboy hat and cowboy boots. Also with a big fancy belt buckle. I didn’t own a cowboy hat or boots. Didn’t wear a belt, let alone a big fancy belt buckle. I didn’t know her because she went to a different school. But her mom was my bus driver. I knew they were horse people. Cattle ranchers. I knew her reputation as a real tomboy, recall her mom telling someone that her daughter was actually the only girl good enough to play boys Little League baseball.  

Forty years later, I can still feel that first break in my heart. Of course there’d be more breaks in my heart. But there’s nothing like that first heartbreak. That’s why, as much as I still love the County Fair and get excited when each September rolls around, rodeos always make me a little sad.