Tradition and Local Talent Dominate the Fiesta Rodeo
by Bob Isaacson
Fiesta, as a celebration of California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage, has always been a dramatic and large-scale equestrian event at its core. Both the parade and the rodeo reflect the profound influence of an equestrian culture in both the tri-counties’ past history and the present day. It is the rodeo that most closely brings alive the tradition of the extraordinary skills of the Spanish- and Mexican-era vaqueros of the early 19th century. Anglo travelers to the then-remote land of California were amazed at the horsemanship skills of the Californios. Anglos then tended to ride with snaffle bits, pulling their horse’s head to one side or the other to turn it, but the Californios rode using the Spanish hackamore and spade bit, neck-reining their horses, teaching them to turn and spin when the rein lightly touched the opposing side of their horses’ necks, and, of course, to stop on a dime. After watching the vaqueros gather and work large herds of wild cattle on the old ranchos with ease and great style, these early travelers often declared the Californios to be the best riders in the world.
Back in the ’50s I used to go with my family to the Fiesta rodeo when it was held in a wooden, green painted corral complex down near the sea where the City College baseball field is now located. I can vividly recall seeing saddle broncos dumping their riders in the dirt, like scenes from an Ed Borein sketchbook. The contestants were generally cowboys from the large cattle ranches over the mountains to the north and up the coast to the west.
Today’s Fiesta rodeo still showcases this long tradition of including a great deal of local talent. Of course, each evening the rodeo programs will offer the high-quality Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) events, which let us watch competition at the national level, along with some of the finals of the local competitions. Not everyone knows that during the daytime — each day of Fiesta — the local elimination performances are held and are open to the public at no charge. Many of these events closely resemble everyday ranch work. The Alisal, Open Stock Horse, and Fiesta Ranch Horse classes, for example, allow tri-county riders to work and rope cattle, much as they are called upon to do on a daily basis on today’s ranches. Watch for the teams of Dennis Domingos and his son, Jason, of Buellton; or John and Shannon McCarty of the Hollister Ranch, testing their skills in the Open Stock Horse Class, during which contestants sort and rope range-cattle.
The Hackamore Class has always been my personal favorite. The Californios trained their horses in distinct stages, starting with a hackamore, which consists of an intricately braided rawhide noseband called a bosal that was tied to horsehair reins. When the young horse was turning, backing, spinning, and stopping well in the hackamore, it would graduate to the double reins (los dos reinas), in which the young horse would then carry both a bosal and a spade bit, and the rider would hold two sets of reins at the same time in one hand. As the horse got used to the bit, the vaqueros would very gradually use the reins attached to the bit more and more, until they could remove the hackamore and just use the reins attached to the bit. This process might take a long time, perhaps as many as eight years, as the vaqueros were in no hurry to finish a horse. The young horses in the hackamore class are a joy to watch as they turn cattle and run through different patterns controlled expertly by the rider, with only a rawhide noseband.
The Stock Horse Class features finished, polished stock horses that have graduated through this age-old process, demonstrating the same skills. A horse is considered a finished horse when it is controlled by a curb bit. Traditionally, local cattle-ranching operations, like the Hollister Ranch, have sponsored this event, donating the trophy saddles. Watch for seasoned trainers and riders including Sandy Collier, Ted Robinson, and Tom Shelley, in this event.
The Hackamore and Stock Horse classes are generally dominated by local professional trainers who have devoted their careers to turning out finely tuned show horses of the highest caliber. The Open Stock Horse Class and some of the other events, on the other hand, permit talented non-professional riders from local cattle and horse ranches to enter horses that are used to do daily ranch work. In these events, riders and horses are judged on their ability to sort cattle, rope a steer, and other typical tasks associated with managing cattle. They are exciting to watch and offer viewers a window into how horses are actually used on our local ranches today.
For all of these events, the cow horses selected for the evening rodeo performances have been through a rigorous and formal selection process. This process of elimination effectively narrows each class down to five or so finalists to fit them into the rodeo performance.
On Thursday, August 3, the Tri-County Stock Horse Show will bring in local riders to compete in the Alisal Ranch Horse Class, the Fiesta Ranch Horse Class, and the Buckaroo Class. Old-timers will also be team roping and steer stopping on Thursday. Next, on Friday, August 4, beginning at 7:30 a.m., tri-counties junior riders will compete in breakaway roping, tie-down roping, team roping, and barrel racing. On Friday at noon, riders will compete in the Open Stock Horse and Hackamore class eliminations. On Saturday, August 5, starting at 7 a.m., you can wander through the stable areas and see the riders prepare for competition and then later you can sit comfortably in the stands and watch the performances for hours, free of charge. Local riders will be roping in various events during this time as well. For horse and history lovers, these free performances are the best chances to experience what it was like in the original competencias de los vaqueros of the 19th century, when the old ranchos informally competed against each other to determine who had the very best horses and riders at cattle gatherings (rodeos) and fiestas.
If you can only spare the time to go to only one of these free Fiesta week rodeo performances, you should watch the calf-branding event. To really get a sense of the work and life and real talent in our local cattle culture today, one could do no better than wake up early Sunday morning and go down to the Earl Warren Showgrounds at 9 a.m., to watch this unique competition. It is a pity that this event does not make it to the formal rodeo performances. In it, local horsemen and women, generally from our many North County ranches, work in teams of four to rope and brand (with paint) two calves. The event is a timed one, but more important than speed is the talent, fluid roping styles, and fun. The calf-branding competition is as close to the real thing as you can get. You will see local teams like that of Austin Campbell, Donald Woodward, Corbet Smith, and Nick Bailey competing with teams from all over the tri-counties. Perhaps this part of the show is only for insiders; nonetheless, La Competencia de Los Vaqueros will offer you the best glimpse into the skills that were developed and celebrated by the old Californios and that are still required to work and manage livestock than those in this event. Come on down and take a look inside.