Kissimmee Sports Arena's Rodeo takes place every Friday at a corral of dirt just south of Highway 192. On a recent rodeo night, when he wasn't coaxing animals or conferring with ranchers, horse trainers and miscellaneous cowboy-hat wearers, Jed Suhl, whose father owns the rodeo, explained the goings-on and delivered friendly warnings. "You come to a rodeo, you gotta expect to get a little dirty," he said with a smile.
Well, spectators might get their cuffs smudged on the way to the stands, but they'll be treated to the jaw-dropping sight of bull and bronc riders bouncing as hard as paddle balls for a few brief seconds. After trying fiercely to stay on the animals the riders then must try desperately to get off, avoiding bad landings and flailing-around hoofs. The rodeo also features calf-roping, as well as riders skidding their horses around barrels in impossibly tight turns. Everything looks like a high-wire walk between control and wreckage, animal and man briefly balancing but any moment ready to slip. And indeed it's mostly men here (though not exclusively) -- honest-to-goodness cowboys, each one terribly nice. They say "ma'am" and spit and step in the path of large animals without a thought.
On this particular drizzly Friday night Suhl led the way around the arena to where the horses, bulls and riders mingled, all impatient in their own way. Here the dirt became pretty much unavoidable. Horses trotting to their holding pens toss up lordly amounts of mud, and when a bull kicks the walls of its pen, dirt cascades.
Suhl suggested that a seat atop a 7-foot fence, looking down on the chutes, would be an especially good vantage point. He was right. Still, nobody could be properly prepared for the words, "Stay up there for now, I'm gonna run some bulls under you." Seconds later huge masses of muscle, horns and hoofs shuffled into the chutes, then waited there for riders to toss around.
The first competition was for the junior class -- four boys hoping that in a few years they can make it to the professional circuit. They were all slight, affable, polite to a fault and inexplicably willing to lower themselves onto a bull that's slamming against the walls of a very small stall. Ten-year-old Caleb Sanderson was too shy to talk but remained unfazed by what he was about to do. When asked about his first ride, Wade Lassabe, 14, shook his head in disbelief and said, "The first bull I ever got on was the rankest one ever." Jay Welker and Matt Spencer, both 15, plan to be in the pro circuit as soon as they turn 18. What did Spencer's girlfriend think of this bull-riding stuff? "Girlfriend?" he responded, like the word didn't make sense.
While getting ready, Lassabe admitted to a little nervousness. Welker said that after a ride he can recall every frenzied moment, though "the first couple times you don't remember anything. It's like a dream." Most of the cowboys coolly downplay any danger. Gene Cox, one of the evening's two pick-up men, who protect the riders and herd the animals out of the arena, said of his job, "It's not dangerous. It's all horsemanship." Pick-up man Shoat Montsdeoca agreed: "Eighty percent of it is your horse and getting in the right position."
But Jay Welker's father, Gary, who was helping with the animals, used to ride bulls. He matter-of-factly mentioned that he broke bones 142 times before quitting. "One rodeo," he said, "I broke my leg between here" -- he pointed to his kneecap -- "and here" -- his ankle -- "in five places at one time."
The rodeo begins at 8 p.m. Fridays, rain or shine; 958 S. Hoagland Blvd., Kissimmee; call 933-0020, or check the website.