Calf pusher, of course. What other kind is there?
Breakaway roping is the fastest event in rodeo. You nod, you swing, you throw, you stop, and if you catch, the rope breaks the string that attaches it to your saddle horn. Time stops when the string snaps. All within two to four seconds. There is very little margin for error. (Never seen it? Watch this: Vegas and Me ) Therefore, the calf pusher is vital. A stall or a false step by the calf can cause the roper to break the barrier, a ten second penalty.
The pusher’s job is to be sure the calf stands straight and leaves when the gate opens. To achieve this outcome, the pusher must climb into the chute behind the calf. This is where the job description gets dicey. There are sewage ejection devices at the back end of a calf. This area is guarded by a set of sharp hooves mounted on spring-loaded levers, which are triggered by touch, movement or sound. Thanks to the above mentioned ejection of sewage, even in the midst of a ten year drought the bottom of the chute will be ankle deep in pungent muck.
Above the pusher’s head there are additional levers, bars and bolts, ideally situated for removing hide from scalps. These mechanisms are operated by a gate man who habitually drops the rear gate just as the pusher is ducking under it. To avoid all this hardware, the pusher is forced to assume a hunched position, which brings his face in closer proximity to the sharp hooves and the raw sewage. Then they close the rear gate and lock him in.
As romantic as it sounds, people are rarely standing in line to push calves. Finding a pusher can be especially problematic for a woman. The issue is the lack of reciprocity. If my husband needs a pusher, he simply rides up to another calf roper.
“Give me a shove?” he asks.
“Sure, what out are you?”
“Fourth. You need me to get you?”
“Yeah. I’m gunner.”
Translated: “Will you push my calf?” “Sure, what number are you on the list?” “Fourth. Do you need me to push your calf?” “Yes, I’m first.” Even trade, all parties satisfied with the transaction. But in one of the finer chauvinistic traditions of rodeo—and I say that in all honesty, having no love for calf poop running down the front of my jeans—women are hardly ever expected to push a calf.
Which is great, except it means in lieu of trading pushes, we have to resort to asking favors. Breakaway roper says, “Uh, Jim? Could I get you to push my calf?”
Jim looks around wildly, realizing he has somehow allowed himself to be the only fool who didn’t vacate the roping chutes well before the breakaway roping. He heaves a resigned sigh. “Yeah. Sure.”
The woman can, of course, sweeten the pot by rewarding her pusher with the alcoholic beverage of his choice after the rodeo, but this strategy has its pitfalls. The biggest being Jim’s girlfriend.
After many years of scavenging for pushers, imagine my delight when I realized that I now had one under contract. If it isn’t in the wedding vows, it should be, right after that ‘cherish and obey’ part. Not only did I not have to worry who would push my calf, but I knew he would do it well. After all, my winnings were his winnings. Or so he seemed to think.
A good pusher can make all the difference. We once rolled into Buffalo Gap, SD only minutes before the performance started. The arena was knee deep in mud. I checked the stock draw and noted the number of my calf. Then I went looking for someone who’d watched the morning slack. As soon as I said the number,
Billy gave me a pitying look. “Piece of junk. Ducked left both times he was run this morning.”
Crud. I might as well have mailed my entry fees and saved the gas money.
“I’ll talk to your husband,” Billy said. “Be ready to get your rope out of your hand in a hurry.”
He and Greg had a quick consultation. Greg climbed into the chute to push the calf. Billy strolled out to help the liners whose job it was to make the calves go as straight as possible. My mare and I slurped through the mud and into the box. When all was set, I nodded. Greg shoved the calf’s butt so hard to the left that it staggered out of the chute sideways. Billy fired a mud clod across its bow for good measure. The calf spooked to the right, in front of my horse. I took one swing and threw before it realized it had made a wrong turn. Snap! Second place.
If only it was always that easy.
Later the same summer, we were in Taber, Alberta. Breakaway roping hadn’t caught on up there yet, and only seven ropers entered the rodeo. The committee rounded up a handful of feedlot yearlings so fat their bellies hung up as they tried to leave the chute. There was barely room for Greg to squeeze in behind. I backed in the corner and nodded.
The calf bailed out of the chute in one long lunge. I roped him quick and looked back to see if I’d broken the barrier. My husband was prostrate in the dirt, blood running down the side of his head. It seems some teenaged kid who knew nothing about cattle got the bright idea to prod the calf when the gate opened. Startled, the calf jumped, kicking with both hind feet, one of which connected squarely with Greg’s eyebrow.
My dad helped him stagger to his feet, then dragged him from the arena before he could choke the chute help. I met them at the camper. Greg was still bleeding. His eye was swelling shut. We were in Canada, we had no idea whether our insurance company paid bills that were submitted in loonies, and a visit to the emergency room would definitely cost more than the hundred and ten bucks I’d won.
Here’s where the day job in sports medicine came in handy. After determining that any brain damage appeared temporary, I slapped an ice pack on his head. Then we found a drug store. I bought Steri-Strips, benzoin and iodine, cleaned the wound, and reattached his eyebrow to his forehead. Did a pretty good job if I say so myself. Strangers hardly ever gawk at the scar when they meet him on the street.
The whole experience put a damper on Greg’s enthusiasm for pushing calves, though. At the next rodeo, he eyed the chute, eyed the calf, then looked at me and said, “Maybe I’ll just stand outside and tail him.”
Obviously, it was time to review his contract.
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