Sixteen photos that capture the adrenaline-fuelled action of the GTA’s wild rodeos
You expect to find rodeos in rural parts of Canada, but just on the outskirts of the GTA there’s a pack of daredevil riders willing to risk their necks in the arena to prove their mettle. Toronto Life photographer Daniel Neuhaus spent a couple of weekends at the Grand Valley and Markham Fair Rodeo to capture the action. Here, he discusses some of his favourite shots.
Riders are paired with broncs at the beginning of the day using names pulled from a hat. A rider never knows which horse he’ll get until the draw, which happens two hours before the rodeo. In this photo, 19-year-old Mason Duijsens, who is originally from Holland but now lives in Erin, Ontario, is competing. The goal is to stay on the horse for eight seconds with one hand while keeping your feet in the stirrups. Afterward, the judges reveal their scores based on the rider and horse’s performance. The winner receives money and sometimes a belt buckle. “He is a tough horse to ride and is getting better at his job at each rodeo,” says Duijsens. “He acts up in the chutes and has a couple smart moves. Unfortunately, I did not stay on him for eight seconds that weekend.”
Duijsens learned to ride at a farm in his hometown. During practice one night, he overheard that they were going to be short on bronc riders at an upcoming rodeo. “I wanted to impress this girl, so decided to give it a go,” he says. “I got on my first bronc and I was hooked. I impressed the girl, but didn’t last much longer after that.”
Duijsens says the most difficult part of competing is the mental aspect: “When you barely have enough money to pay your entry fees and food, miss your family at home, and on top, of that you’re still in pain from the previous rodeo, it’s hard. With all that on your mind, you have to be able to stay focused and maintain a positive attitude. Luckily, my rodeo family helps with that.”
Twenty-three-year-old Shelby McGowan and her horse, Dee, are barrel racers. In this competition, the rider and horse attempt to navigate a set of three barrels set up in a cloverleaf formation. The fastest time wins, and seconds are deducted for running into the barrels. “Keeping your head where it needs to be, even when you and your horse don’t get done what you wanted, helps you pick yourself up and try again,” she says.
Sixteen-year-old Brad Vanuden, who lives in Nestleton, Ontario, rode a bull called Beach Bum. Here, Brad is pictured with the Roughtstock Crew just after making eight seconds at the Markham Rodeo. “We met at the rodeo. We do everything together, and I wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”
Here are the Brazilian full-time professional rodeo riders. “In Brazil, the rodeo is one of the most popular sports,” says Warlen Velton. “What hockey is to Canadians, the rodeo is for us in the rural areas. Back home, riders are committed to a single rodeo for several days. But here in Ontario, I can ride in four different rodeos in four days,” he says.
Nineteen-year old Andrew Deschamps is a bullfighter hoping to make a career of rodeo. The bullfighter uses himself as bait to distract the bulls from fallen riders so they aren’t trampled. “My job is to protect the bull rider at all times and no matter what,” he says. “Last year, there was a cow with only one horn in the junior bull riding, and she was a bit mean. When the rider came off, she went straight at me, and I was like, ‘no problem, it’s just a cow, and she’s only got one horn.’ But then she threw me up in the air, and just embarrassed me.”
Here, 18-year-old Ally Mackey rides her horse Hannah Brown. “The craziest thing that’s happened to me during a rodeo was when Riker, one of my horses, reared up before going in the chute for our run and the buttons on my shirt got caught on the horn of my saddle… I didn’t realize, until I got passed my first barrel, that my shirt was half-open and flapping away, so for a good part of my run I was just trying to keep my shirt on.”
The strap you see coming off the back of the bull is a flank strap, which is made from soft cotton. The strap encourages the bull to use its hind legs and buck the rider. Contrary to popular belief, it does not hurt the animal. Rodeo bulls are essentially treated like athletes, receiving high levels of care and attention.
The two cowboys in the background are the “pick-up men.” They work in teams of two, and their job is to assist the bronc rider after he’s made it to eight seconds by pulling him off the bronc and onto his own horse. The other pick-up man removes the flank strap from the bronc and herds him back to the chutes. In the case of a fallen rider, their job is not unlike the bullfighter—to protect the rider.
Jess Brock’s horse, Toad, is a 13-year-old half-standardbred, half-quarter horse. Standardbreds are not common in rodeo. “I have owned him since he was a year old, and I trained him myself,” she says. “His personality makes up for his lack of blood lines. He’s taken me to the winner’s circle many times in the seven years I’ve been competing. As much as I love the competition of the sport, my horses love it more.”
Being behind the chutes at the rodeo is an emotional roller coaster. While most pray and focus themselves before their ride, others hype themselves up by pounding their chests like silverback gorillas, pacing or chanting. Sometimes, you’ll see someone lose their lunch.
Bull riding is dangerous and dirty. Most riders wear hockey helmets and Kevlar vests to protect themselves from being impaled by the bull’s horn. More experienced riders wear nothing but a western shirt and cowboy hat. The average bull “works” about 10 minutes of the year—in eight-second shifts, of course. That’s the amount of time they are able to maintain their adrenaline and competitive edge. After that, they lose interest.