Ay Chihuahua, Carlos Ochoa

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A rodeo trip one weekend like no other. The beginning of a nationally recognized sport in Mexico

Submitted: April 08, 2017

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Submitted: April 08, 2017

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“Ay Chihuahua, Carlos Ochoa!”

by Myles Culbertson

 

In 2014 an old friend of mine was honored in Mexico for his pioneering leadership in promoting the rodeo sports in that country.  The news release credited Carlos Ochoa for his dedicated work over the past 40 plus years, inspiring rodeo popularity in a country that always revered ranching and horsemanship, but whose style of competition was very different.In his homeland, the Charro was, and is, the historic icon of the competing horseman and “ranchero”.  Over the years, Carlos had a lot to do with bringing another venue to Mexico.  As I read the article, my memories found their way back to the Chihuahua rodeo of 1966.

 

Carlos and I became good friends during my first year at New Mexico State University, along with a number of other Mexican students, mostly from Chihuahua, coming off ranches and farms to attend the College of Agriculture and become proud Aggies.  Over the years NMSU became every bit as much Chihuahua’s Ag School as our own.  Carlos was the consummate Mexican gentleman; self assured, energetic, enthusiastic, able to handle any situation well, whether an academic project, formal public meeting, or pugilistic barroom contest.

 

NMSU was populated by plenty of restless cowboys, and Carlos took advantage of the opportunity by inviting a bunch of us to enter the rodeo he was organizing in Chihuahua City.  My college roommate, Ron Lamb, and I decided this sounded like an adventure with our names on it, especially with Carlos’ offer of fun, hospitality, culture, and roughstock.  That was enough for us, so several carloads of “hats & boots” college students lit out for a rodeo 300 miles south.  None of us had ever been to Chihuahua, and few spoke Spanish, but these were minor impediments, compared to the notion of roping & riding in an exotic setting.

 

In those days, the highway to Chihuahua was a long narrow two-lane no-shoulder pavement with lots of wide buses and big trucks, so there was sure no sleeping in the small caravan of cars on our Friday after-dark trek.  We hit town sometime around midnight and spotted a sign with the name of the hotel Carlos told us to look for, checked in, and turned in.  Morning light introduced us to a sprawling city of plastered buildings on meandering streets that all seemed to lead to a distant skyline dominated by the twin steeples of a massive old cathedral, declaring the city’s plaza.  Carlos arrived, and over breakfast laid out the plan for the rest of the weekend.

 

The rodeo was going to be just one performance on Sunday afternoon, so our Saturday was filled with touring, matched horse races, mariachi music, food, and an abundance of beverage.  The local crowds were hospitable, getting a curious kick out of this little band of Aggie vaqueros.That night, at the hotel, the music didn’t end until sometime in the late dark hours with a couple of gringos standing on a table, dramatically belting out vocal injustice to a traditional corrida (no, not me).

 

Finally, the next day, we were about to get on with what we had come south for.We arrived late morning at a traditional keyhole shaped arena for the charreada that had been modified to hold an American style rodeo.  It was pretty small, at most 30 yards across the round part with some homespun bucking chutes cobbled together on one side, and a roping box in the end of the long part of the key.  A shaded grandstand surrounded the walled circular area, which was already filling with spectators and, of course, an always-present band of musicians. 

 

Ron, Ralph Murray, Victor Karnes, Charlie Oney, and I strolled over to the corrals to get a look at the roughstock.  The bucking strings we’d been around in our short careers were typically gentle, or at least unafraid of their two-legged opponents, but when we stepped up on the fence, these horses fled to the other side of the pen, bunching up in a corner.  The pen of bulls was not so timid. They were mostly crossbred brahmas, but not very big, apparently somebody’s range bulls.  It was hard to say whether they would have much buck in them, but they were sure showing some snort.  We found out later that they were off a couple of area ranches, but the horses were wild, having been trapped in the mountains and brought here for the event.  This was going to be interesting.

 

The atmosphere was festive as the crowd grew, music played and abundant BBQ and beer was consumed.  The folks were from all walks; ranchers and cowboys, folks from the city, Mormons, Mennonites, rich, poor; all there to see what this American style rodeo was about.  Time didn’t mean much, and there was no way to know when everything would get started.  It didn’t really matter, other than the longer it took, the later we’d be getting back home for class the next day.  College wasn’t going to wait on us, and our plan was to head north as soon as the rodeo was over.

 

In their own time, things started happening.  The crowds filled the stands and workers started filling the four hastily built bucking chutes.  Instead of drawing for horses, we drew chute numbers.  As we climbed up with our riggings, the horses started trying to climb out.  Small by bucking horse standards, the horses rattled around and fought the chutes, making pulling the rigging and finally getting set to call for the gate a dangerous exercise in itself.  When the gates opened it was a wild show, with some running, some bucking, some falling, all hard to score.  Each ride was accompanied by the shouts of the spectators and the trumpets of the mariachi.  The quality of a high scoring ride was pretty much lost on this crowd, but the bigger the crash, the more thunderous the applause of the packed grandstand.  Among the biggest crowd pleasers was Ron’s ride when the chute gate came off its hinges and all three, high spurring rider, wild bucking horse, and tumbling pipe chute-gate all piled out together into the center of the tiny arena.  Had prizes been paid for the wildest wreck, Ron’s ride would have been voted the winner.

 

My first horse wouldn’t stop fighting whenever he felt me on his back, so I had to take my hand-hold while standing over him and then get set as the gate opened.  I was off the rigging a little when we came out and didn’t know if I got him marked out.  The horse was small and not very stout, but jumped high with head out of sight, twisting all over the place under me.  I spurred over his neck, turning sideways in the rigging just as we hit the wall of the grandstand.  Next thing I knew I was on the ground, against the wall, scrambling out from under the bronc as he bucked away while the crowd applauded and the mariachis played.

 

Victor and the other bull riders weren’t having much problem making their rides, but had their hands full getting away from these high-horned head slinging brutes that made up for their lack of mass with testosterone driven anger.  The same principal of proportional applause-to-wreck applied, as one after another found themselves in a race for the fence after their ride.

 

The calf ropers were using borrowed horses because of the problems they would have had getting their own across the border and then back home.  Pat Trujillo caught and tied his calf in the long part of the keyhole-shaped arena, and few spectators saw it, so the rules were changed on the spot that the roper wasn’t allowed to catch until he was in the main part, in full view of the crowd.  The calves were good, running fast and giving the ropers a good shot at the catch and tie-down.

 

The riders and ropers were able to get two or three head that afternoon, and all came away without serious injury, so for all the Aggie cowboys it had been a good run.  We piled back in our cars and turned them northward, and by the time we pulled off the highway onto the NMSU campus sometime in the dark on Monday morning, we were completely spent from a day we couldn’t have made much longer.

 

So went Chihuahua’s second annual Carlos Ochoa Rodeo, probably no less wild and exciting as the one a year previous.  It wasn’t really a rodeo as much as an exhibition and, looking back, I don’t recall if they were even judging the rides, but for Carlos it was a good start as he strove to introduce this new style of competition to Mexico.

 

Today, almost 50 years later, the American style of rodeo is entrenched in the culture of Mexico, thanks to Carlos’ early exhibitions, wild and unconventional as they were, and his decades of unremitting support and promotion.  Mexican cowboys and cowgirls are now prominent in both their own country and the United States, expressing skill and bearing common to the typical world-class rodeo athlete.  Some are champions and role models in both countries. 

 

In that single week-end experience, a few of us had the privilege to see the early seeding of a nationally recognized sport in Mexico, and to have a special appreciation for the dedication of those who brought it into prominence. 

 

Thanks, Carlos.  Saludos, y Que le vaya bien…


© Copyright 2017 Myles Culbertson. All rights reserved.

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