Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The goat outside the UNLV rodeo team’s practice arena was no bigger than our family’s lap dog, but it scared me half to death.
With the 2012 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo about to begin, I’d been assigned to attend a team practice and let them teach me how to ride a horse. The idea came from some editor who, knowing I was a city slicker who knew nothing about farm animals, thought it’d be funny to see how I’d do on horseback. Actually, I think he thought it’d be funny to see me fall off.
Anyway, to get to the arena, I had to go around the goat. It was tied up with a rope at the entrance, black and pointy-eared and satanic-looking. For all I knew, the thing was a farm version of an attack dog.
Would it charge me if I tried to squeeze by? Would it gore me with the weird horns sticking out of its head? Do goats bite?
No clue, and I wasn’t about to test it. I ran outside and warned my colleague, photographer Sam Morris, to be careful.
He walked up to the goat and started petting it.
OK, so it turns out that goats aren’t barnyard pit bulls. Duly noted. Embarrassing way to start an assignment.
But listen, I was born and raised in east Las Vegas. Not a whole lot of barnyard animals there. A lot of wildlife, maybe, but not the animal type.
So I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this assignment. And things only got worse.
Trying something new typically carries an element of fear. When that something new involves a 14.1-hand quarter horse named Anson, the fear spikes. When a photojournalist is documenting with stills and video, it’s time to panic.
I was as out of my element as a person could be.
I’ve witnessed the Cowboy Mafia take over town each December (table game felt at Strip casinos are even NFR-themed), bringing an awesome boost to our economy, but knew very little about what makes rodeo so popular or about the people making a living working on the circuit.
For a couple of hours, I got an up-close look.
The UNLV team practices at a ranch in the northwest part of town that I didn’t know existed. Dirt roads, tons of land, animals, a worker loading hay into a Ford truck and white fences resembling an episode of “Dallas.” I exited the 215 Beltway, made a few turns and was lost somewhere in the middle of Wyoming.
Everyone drives an American-made truck and wears Wranglers and boots, which isn’t part of my wardrobe. So, I paired some old jeans with Dr. Martens shoes and one of those pearl-snapped shirts that resembles a cowboy shirt. My thinking was to look the part — without having to buy chewing tobacco — with hope of gaining some credibility.
Aside from limiting injury, my No. 1 goal was to not embarrass myself. (Yes, I know, my outfit was pretty embarrassing.)
Ric Griffith, the UNLV coach, and his athletes were more than accommodating in letting me interrupt one of their workouts. They are a collegiate powerhouse — always in contention for the national championship — and value each minute of practice time.
I’ve worn shoulder pads at a high school football practice and felt like the entire team was laughing at me. That wasn’t the case in my horse-riding adventure with the UNLV cowboys and cowgirls, who were more genuine in helping me overcome my fears.
First, I had to get on the horse, which, for an out-of-shape first-timer in his mid-30s with limited flexibility, was easier said than done.
That’s when I surprised myself. With the help of Griffin and Anson’s owner, Tyler Mitchell, I successfully made it on the horse on my first try. (Watch the video for proof!)
Griffin is a polite, no-nonsense man who, like most involved in rodeo, has been riding horses since he was a toddler. Getting on and off a horse is comparable to tying your shoes and riding a bicycle.
“It’s a lifestyle. This is second nature,” said Mitchell, who, like most cowboys on the UNLV team, aspires to compete in the NFR and has the ability to potentially do so.
After a quick tutorial on how to control Anson’s movements with the horse reins, and with Griffith nearby as a precaution, I took a spin around the practice arena. In all honesty, it was like a pre-teen girl riding a horse with her grandfather at the state fair.
The fears I had were replaced with enjoyment. Sure, I was going at a snail’s pace with an escort, but that didn’t hinder my feeling of accomplishment. Pull the reins and the horse stops; use the reins to command Anson to turn, and he magically obeys.
After two spins around the arena, and the adrenaline replaced with minor discomfort in my lower back from the activity, my experience was over. I held my chest out in confidence after what I had just accomplished.
That’s when the team started its steer wrestling practice. The steer weighs 450 to 550 pounds, and the cowboy jumps off his horse, grabbing the steer by the horns and wrestling it to the ground. They playfully asked if I wanted to take a turn.
I passed. I didn’t tell them about the goat.
Overcoming one fear was enough to call this day a success for this city slicker.