Behind the pay wall - by Lynda DePillis
On Tuesday, opening night for Houston’s longest and biggest-of-them-all rodeo, in between the steer wrestling and the barrel racing, the lights in NRG Stadium went out and the announcer began a tribute.
“For generations, the Houston Livestock show and Rodeo has welcomed professional athletes from around the world,” the voice boomed. “But the cowboys and cowgirls admit they’d be nothing on their own.”
A spotlight shone on a chute at the end of the arena.
“They fully rely on their partners, the other part of their team that they love and fiercely protect, just like a part of their family.”
A big-barreled, sway-backed horse came galloping out of the chute, fuzzier around the edges than the sleek and pampered roping and cutting horses that cowboys and cowgirls usually sit on. This one’s never been sat on for more than a few seconds at a time, in fact.
“She goes by the name of Hostage,” the voice continued. “She was born a bucking horse, and a great bucking horse at that. “
Rodeo is usually a male-centered sport, with women competing in only a few events. But this year, it made room for a celebration of matriarchy: Hostage’s proud line of bucking daughters, who came galloping out after her.
Hostage Negotiator, 12 years old, is the spitting image of her mother. Hostage Taker, 7, has more white spread across her body, but the same stout body, short legs, and big head. And finally, Painted Hostage, born in January, came skittering out on long spindly legs to join his mom and grandmother and great grandmother.
As if they knew they were on stage, the four horses stayed together in a tight bunch for the spotlight until they were joined by dozens of their compatriots, which swept around the arena like they usually do on the plains of Northern Colorado, where they’re from.
“Some horses are born to run fast, some are meant to work with cutting precision, but this family of athletes was born to challenge its riders,” the announcer intoned. “Let’s give all of our human and animal athletes a hand!”
A first for the horses
It was a bit of cheesy theater — but also a crowd-pleasing way to celebrate the animals that show up in every stock show. The man who masterminded the production is Binion Cervi, Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s stock contractor, who manages the 350 horses that will come this year from all over the United States and Canada for one or two turns in the ring.
Cervi’s family company has been supplying the rodeo with animals for 50 years, and this is the first time the horses played a part beyond bucking. The choice for starring role was obvious: Hostage, who retired last year at 19 years old after bucking 168 times and winning most every major rodeo. (That happens when a horse’s rider has the highest score, since he wouldn’t have gotten it if his mount had turned in a bad performance.)
“When they wanted a special presentation, we were like, ‘This is the one we need to do,’ because she’s got such a legacy,” Cervi says, looking fondly at the family of mares and a filly, who share the same roomy pen under NRG’s stands before showtime, with a calm that belies their fury in the chute. “I cried when she retired. She was one of those rare ones. They’re not all as easygoing as her, and just honest.”
Contrary to popular belief, most bucking horses aren’t stallions — many are geldings and more than half are mares, who often perform while pregnant. One horse delivered a foal the day after winning a rodeo.
“Just like working women,” Cervi says. “They get maternity leave once they pop the baby.”
Hostage has delivered 12 babies, many of which have become champions in their own right. What made Hostage special wasn’t the elevation or torque of her jumps — it was the powerful kick she delivered with each one. That made her what’s known as a “hopper,” distinct from the more twisty buckers, which Cervi calls “eliminators.” He picks horses with a similar style to perform each night, so the cowboys get an “even pen.”
‘Kind of a big family’
That’s important, because these days, cowboys know a lot more about the horses they draw. Just like baseball players, there are websites that keep track of the buckers’ stats — their scores, their style. A savvy competitor will call up guys who’ve mounted their broncs before, just to see what they’re in for.
Though she’s done better than most, Hostage’s long career is not unusual for a bucking horse. Other equine performers start working at 3 and burn out by 10, but Cervi’s stock don’t buck in a big rodeo before 7.
One of Hostage’s brothers is still bucking.
“You want them to grow up strong, for their body to be fully developed, and their minds,” Cervi says.
That strength is built up over most of the rest of the year, during the off-season, when Cervi’s 850-horse herd ranges across hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Many of them have relatives in the herd to reinforce the instinct that drives them to buck hard fast.
“It’s kind of a big family,” Cervi says.