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Pas de Rodeo: Dance critic discovers ballet moves at Bareback, Saddle Bronc and Bull Riding competition

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Slideshow
Winn Ratliff, cowboy, rodeo
Bareback rider Winn Ratliff shows off his winning smile. Photo by Mike Copeman/Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association
4, Nancy, RodeoHouston, wrestling a bull
Steer wrestling is for the quick and brave. RodeoHouston/Facebook
Nancy, RodeoHouston, bullrider
Bull riding is all about hanging on, to the bull and your life! RodeoHouston/Facebook
1, Nancy, RodeoHouston, bullrider
The cowboy shows off elegant balance while bull riding. RodeoHouston/Facebook
Winn Ratliff, cowboy, rodeo
4, Nancy, RodeoHouston, wrestling a bull
Nancy, RodeoHouston, bullrider
1, Nancy, RodeoHouston, bullrider
Nancy Wozny, head shot, September 2012

Shortly after I moved to Texas from California, I ran into the trail riders on FM 249. "Mom, I accidently moved to the set of Bonanza," I screamed into the phone. "There's even a guy called the "Trail Boss." I might have to cop to the fact that I also thought "Go West" meant dress like a Californian.

Two decades plus later, I still don't own boots, a hat or anything with fringe, but I can "y'all" like the best of them.

As I passed the mark in my life where I have lived in Texas longer than my hometown, I thought it was a good time to bite the The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo bullet once again. (Last time I was there my sons were petting zoo material.)  

 Two decades plus later, I still don't own boots, a hat or anything with fringe, but I can "y'all" like the best of them. 

And I'm not talking about country stars, but the actual Rodeo, where young, fit men and women risk life and limb with some frisky looking animals that don't seem all that happy about having a human perched on top of them.

I got there early so I see the livestock, sparkly goods and cars. Yes cars, why not? They look good next to the diamond encrusted boots.

I had a chance to congratulate Angel and Ellie on their new baby sheep. I watched a sow nurse nine of her babies, also adorable. I passed over the bacon cotton candy to visit the Wine Garden for a glass of Vin Du Lac, Cab Franc before the action began.

Oh, and I got a Texas-size hug from the Rodeo mascot. I think it's supposed to be a cowboy, but I'm really not sure.

Sparkle, flash and fireworks

Backstage at the Reliant Stadium I chatted with the lovely Niki Flundra, a Liberty trick rider who opened the show riding Zyada bridleless and bareback (that means no saddle, and that had to be explained to me, come to think about it, mostly everything about the Rodeo had to be explained to me).

She does this while carrying the flag during the National Anthem. Lithe, blonde and dressed head to toe in sparkles, Flundra combines the grace of a dancer with the fearlessness of a top athlete.

 Lithe, blonde and dressed head to toe in sparkles, Flundra combines the grace of dancer with the fearlessness of a top athlete. 

During her effortless ride, she didn't appear to be holding onto anything. Indeed, she looked one with her horse. Talk about knowing your partner.

"It's a bit similar to ballet," says Flundra, who is enjoying her 10th appearance at the Rodeo. "I stay in shape doing yoga, running and chasing after my two-year old."

Flundra hails from Calgary and is a regular at the world's other megasized rodeo, the Calgary Stampede. She works extensively with her horses to develop trust, and her work has been seen in such films as Shanghai Noon and Broken Trail.

"Every horse is different," says Flundra. "I've always been a little bit of a daredevil."

Her lightning-fast performance ended in a blast of pyrotechnics as Flundra was transformed into a human sparkler. These Rodeo folk know a thing or two about making good theater.

Bareback riding will not make your mother happy

Bareback horse rider Winn Ratliff seems like a typical Rodeo athlete, buff, not too tall, polite and can totally rock a pair of colorful chaps and hat. "It's getting off the horse that's dangerous," Ratliff tells me. "Injuries are just part of any sport, though."

The bareback riders draw for the horses they ride in his event. "We want one who has good timing and rhythm, that leaps high and kicks," he says. "It looks good, and the crowd really gets into it."

 I wondered what his mom thought of his chosen profession. "She would rather I was riding bulls," offers Ratliff. 

"What's with the one hand in the air?" I asked the Leesville, La., native.

"It's how we balance, and it shows how well we are in control,"  he says.

Ratliff won the all-round title while in college at McNeese State University and admits he would be playing baseball if he weren't in the rodeo.

I wondered what his mom thought of his chosen profession. "She would rather I was riding bulls," Ratliff says.

"Is that safer?" I ask.

"She thinks it is."

Ratliff is all business, after all, this is his day job. He has come here with big ambitions. "I hope to place and win a pay check." 

This horse wants you off his back

Watching the Bareback, Saddle Bronc and Bull Riding drives home the point that a lot is required of the human body when it is plunked ontop of a bucking, large mammal. The athlete leans back to be in contact with the animal's spine, then all hell breaks loose, most often, the rider.

 The athlete leans back to be in contact with the animal's spine, then all hell breaks loose, most often, the rider. 

If he or she manages to stay on long enough, it's like watching a human get tossed to and fro in fast motion. You can actually see the force of motion traveling through the athlete's skeleton. It's as exciting as it is dangerous. For those seconds that the rider stays on the horse, he or she almost looks like a cloth doll. Loud music and the announcer's animated narration add to the drama.

It all went by so quickly I truly felt out of my element. With Flundra, at least I had time to observe her approach. I blinked and a steer got wrestled to the ground.

Barrel Racing gave me time to watch these mighty women race at top speed around barrels. After watching the bull riding, I can't imagine thinking it's a remotely safe thing to do, but it is thrilling. As for the calf scramble, imagine a piñata full of baby calves let loose while a group of teens run after them. Total mayhem!

Isaac Diaz looks like the poster boy for Saddle Bronc Riding, his event. He competes in about 100 rodeos a year. The Desdemona native grew up breathing rodeo air. His brother, aunts and uncles were part of rodeo culture. Diaz doesn't romanticize the process and gets me out of my "Horse Whisperer" state of mind in a nano second.  "There's no reading the horse. They change direction a lot, they are not really rider friendly."

I am starting to get it by now. It's more about hanging in there than any instant bond with a cranky horse. "It's only eight seconds," he says. "But when you are in middle of it, it can last a long longer." 

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