Trigger Happy and Honey Badger are being loaded into the shute as Chad Ormsby slides his feet into a battered pair of leather cowboy boots. Currently leading the table, the rodeo star is eight seconds away from being crowned national bull-riding champion of New Zealand; but first there’s the ride.
“The first time I got on – I can still remember it now – it is just like a drug addict taking a hit,” said Ormsby, 28, a horse trainer and former jockey from Lake Karapiro. “Somehow it gets inside your blood and you just want to do it every day if you can. I describe it as being the best drug in the world – and it’s legal.”
A few hundred metres away, a dozen protestors from the Animal Justice League are standing outside the entrance to the Wanaka showgrounds, calling for rodeo to be banned in New Zealand.
New Zealand’s rodeo is a small circuit, with just 35 events a year and 500 competitors. During the hot summer season though, events can draw crowds in their thousands, as they are often staged around the holiday period.
“This isn’t an issue of town versus country, or rural versus urban; this is quite simply between right and wrong,” says Green party MP and animal welfare spokesperson Gareth Hughes.
Hughes has never attended a rodeo, but has seen “disturbing” footage from inside. “Rodeo only works because animals are scared, and showing a fear response or in pain – which I think has no place in modern New Zealand.”
In the last few years major New Zealand businesses such as Foodstuffs, Meridian Energy and House of Travel have withdrawn their sponsorship from rodeo events over animal welfare concerns.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Save Animals From Exploitation (Safe) have issued repeated and strident calls to ban the sport, calling the rural events “a terrifying and cruel experience for animals”, and saying New Zealand should follow the lead of the UK in outlawing them.
“Rodeo events are brutal and often disturbing exhibitions of human domination over animals,” says Mandy Carter, head of campaigns for Safe.
“It’s dumfounding that some New Zealand farmers are involved in this kind of animal abuse. Any decent farmer would be seeking to minimise stress to their animals, whilst rodeo does the opposite, seeking to rile them up so they ‘perform’.”
Animal rights groups say rodeo places undue stress on the animals, as well as causing a litany of injuries including torn ligaments, broken bones, bruising and internal damage, particularly in the rope and tie and steer wrestling events, which use calves.
But the new Labour government rejected a ban in March, as has the New Zealand Veterinary Association and the thousands of passionate rodeo participants and spectators around the country, who almost exclusively live and work in rural areas.
“May you be safe as we compete in the arena of life,” says the MC, reciting the Cowboy’s Prayer as bull-riders and bareback champions remove their hats, eyes lowered.
Circling the edge of the arena is a local vet, on duty all weekend as required by the animal welfare act. She conducts health checks on every animal before and after they enter the arena, monitors their food, water and stress levels, and is on hand to attend accidents or injuries, of which there are none at the national finals.
“It’s a hell of a lot better than it was 10 years ago; the intense scrutiny has made everyone sharpen up,” says the vet, turning her eyes up to the shade clothes stretched over the calves, and the padded head gear some of them wear in preparation for the steer wrestling and rope and tie events.
“People don’t realise that rodeos are testing the real-life skills of stockmen. If a calf gets stuck in a barbed wire fence, you have to get it out. I wish I had some of the skills these men do – it would help me in my job,” she says.
Ernie Rika, 25, has been riding bulls for a decade. He works as a horse trainer for Chad Ormsby, and introduced his boss to rodeo. Both of them hope to turn their passion into a profession by becoming cowboys on the professional rodeo circuit in the US.
Rika would like to see rodeos moved closer to towns to encourage more city dwellers to attend.
“A lot of them [protestors] haven’t actually been to a show, or spent a lot of time around it,” says Rika.
“I don’t know, it would be good if they came and looked for themselves, and had a bit of a talk to us. Rodeo has been around a long time, and I hope it continues even longer.”
By the third round of the weekend, cowboys are falling to their knees with pain and exhaustion.
“Right?” shouts a fan known as Abo, as a cowboy doubles over, spitting into the dust.
“Fuck yeah,” comes the strangled reply.
Pupils dilated with adrenaline, Ormsby steps up for his final ride, smothering the kick of fear he says proves how much he wants to win.
The sharp tangy smell of one-tonne bulls mixes with the sweat of the cowboys, and the dust, and the hay, and the dry heat of the central Otago bush.
“I see our animals like children, they need training, education and respect – then they learn their job and what is expected of them,” says Ormsby.
“It is silly to think about hurting the animals or doing harm by them because in this world, we need them, we need to look after them.”
Stinky, Blacky, Mongrel and Abo watch on as Orsmby lowers himself on to the bull, snorting in the shute as the crowd prickles with excitement.
“It comes down to a short period of time – eight seconds – and you can either really achieve something or really fail at it,” says Ormsby.
“But this is what we do. Cyclists get on a bike to go for a ride, we get on bulls.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010