When a rodeo cowboy flies out of the gate on a bucking, raging 1,500-pound freight train, there’s little room for error, or people get hurt.
Safety for riders and volunteers lies in the details — gates and latches on the stockades and chutes need to work perfectly, despite punishment from bucking bulls and broncs. Earth in the ring is prepped and obsessively picked over for rocks and debris.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into the arena,” says Mike Cooper, part of the ring crew and a three-year volunteer with the Luxton Pro Rodeo. “The ground’s got to be the right consistency for barrel racing horses and so cowboys don’t fall on hardpack.”
Cooper and his buddy Billy “Wild Bill” Blore understand this from personal experience. Both rode bulls through the 1990s, but Blore’s career was cut short on Aug. 16, 1997, after an animal named No Mistakes crushed his skull.
Cooper held his friend’s head in the ambulance and he was pronounced dead twice. Blore was unconscious for six weeks. “No Mistakes made no mistakes,” Blore quips. “It took 2-1/2 years of rehabilitation.”
Volunteering at the Luxton rodeo allows the men to stay close to the tough-as-nails culture they love, and to support the next generation of cowboys.
“It’s a way to still be a part of rodeo. I’m too old for competition and it’s a way to give back to the community,” Cooper says. “And we get to be up close to the action like way-back-when.
“Either people love rodeo or hate it. There’s no in between. I don’t love much, but I love my truck and I love rodeo.”
Dozens of volunteers — rodeo diehards, urban cowboys and cowgirls, and guys who tinker with antique farm equipment — offer their sweat and toil at the Luxton Fairgrounds each weekend months before the event. Many book holidays from work to sleep, eat and work at the fairgrounds.
“We ask an awful lot of our volunteers,” says Bill Bennett, president of the Metchosin Farmers’ Institute, the non-profit which owns the Luxton Fairgrounds. “We call and they show up and give all their time. In this economy today, it’s pretty impressive.”
Nancy Elzinga, 59, is happy to hop on a rider mower or lend a hand in any way she can — preserving the Luxton Fairgrounds is preserving a slice of old Langford, when Happy Valley was rural.
“My mom and dad worked the grounds here when I was a baby,” say Elzinga, sister to Sandy West, one of the key volunteer organizers of the rodeo. “We are trying to hang onto these grounds, and the volunteers put on the best rodeo you’ll ever see.”
The Luxton Pro Rodeo, now in its 36th year, remains the only Vancouver Island venue on the pro circuit, and for years was the only rodeo on the Island. Coombs has revived an amateur rodeo event this year.
Organizers expect more than 200 rodeo competitors will funnel through Luxton over the weekend, with many moving between rodeos in Falkland B.C. and Redding, Calif.
Dedicated volunteers and generous sponsorships from local businesses has helped keep Luxton pro rodeo alive, Bennett says, where so many others have folded.
Even with free labour, he estimates the rodeo costs $100,000 — prize purses, the stock contractor, ambulance service, veterinarians and rodeo judges add up.
“Rodeoing is a way of life. It gets in your blood. But without volunteers or sponsors, we’d have no rodeo. That is the bottom line.”
Weather also plays a key factor in the success of each year’s rodeo. Rain can drive away all but the most dedicated of rodeo fans, but not the cowboys.
“Last year was the best year we’ve ever had. It was three good days of weather,” says Charlie Price, a long-serving Luxton rodeo manager. “But it doesn’t matter if it’s muddy or rainy, the cowboys ride no matter what.”