Ever wonder what it’s like behind the scenes of a Mexican rodeo, where the bulls come from, and how they’re raised and trained? We interviewed a Mexican cattle rancher to find out what the traditions of Mexican rodeo and bull riding mean for his community and how bulls move from the ranch to the rodeo ring.
How are bulls trained for the rodeo?
Traditionally, we haven’t personally trained our bulls for the rodeo. We sell them to people that take them and test them in all the different rodeos that happen year-round in the State of Oaxaca. The bulls are tested for their temperament in the ring and they learn how to “play” on the go as they move from jaripeo (rodeo or bull ring) to jaripeo. A bull performs well in the jaripeo if it goes out from the cage and straight into the middle of the ring to jump there [and] to try to get the rider [off] his back. When a bull is frightened, it will just try to run around in circles trying to find a way to escape the ring.
How long have you been raising bulls?
Our family has had a herd of cows ever since the Spanish arrived to these lands and introduced cows to the Anahuac (North American) continent, as it was known to our ancestors 500 years ago. Traditionally, we have bred cattle to produce oxen to plow the lands and pull carts. Our cows and bulls live long lives and are only killed for meat when they are too old to [keep] breeding or working the land.
What is the history of the jaripeo tradition?
Traditionally, the jaripeo is part of a village festival in honor of a saint or virgin. The organizing committee would ask villagers to participate as madrinas—single beautiful women that hand out prizes to the jinetes, the riders. The jaripeo is constantly evolving and is influenced by the many variations of jaripeo from the very north to the very south of Mexico (including parts of Mexico that are now part of the US).
It is said that the word jaripeo derives from the indigenous language of the Purépecha people of Michoacán: [the original word was] xarhipiti, a sour or rotten place. The style of jaripeo from this region has become the most popular form and now it is widely practiced across Mexico. These days, there is a professional form of jaripeo carried out in tournaments with teams of bull riders facing off against bulls from famous ganaderías (cattle ranches). Big cash prizes of up to $80,000 pesos ($4,300 USD) or even brand new pick-up trucks are offered in these tournaments and villages take a lot of pride in hosting these big events.
Jaripeos are like a local sport—just like some people gather to play football on the weekends, there are people that go from village to village every weekend to watch jaripeos. And just like football, there [are] local riders that become idols and [are] famous for their feats. I have met some that have made small fortunes and retired from bull riding and moved on to other businesses where they don’t have to risk their lives every time they go to work.
What qualities make a winning bull?
Most importantly, a winning bull must be brave and majestic when it performs. The bull should not run around the ring in circles while jumping. Ideally, it should be released from the cage and run straight to the middle of the ring to try to buck off its rider as fast and as majestically as possible. The jury evaluates not just the number of jumps, but also the way the bull jumps. It is generally acknowledged that a straight line jump is boring. If a bull goes around in a twirl of jumps and twists its body while doing so, that bull is a qualifier for the winning prize. Ideally, a winning bull should be able to buck a talented, big-name rider after a short period of time, but sometimes very good riders are able to hold on and remain on the bull and the bull still wins. You can only imagine the number of informal bets that take place in and around the jaripeo ring.
Have you ever had a winning bull?
We bred two bulls that we heard won big prizes in the state of Oaxaca, one is called “El Marihuanito”, the Stoner (as in weed smoker), and [the other] “el Corita”. These two bulls were of an ancient pure breed that the Spanish brought to our Zapotec lands. There is even a herd of wild cows that roams our lands and it is said that when these Mustang bulls known as Mesteños or Cerreros breed with our domesticated cows, the resulting offspring are brave and have the strong temperament needed for the jaripeo ring.
How do you ensure good treatment of the animals and avoid any kind of cruelty?
A bull that wins cash prizes is generally treated very well because of its inherent value. We acknowledge that the animal is forced to play this game and some bulls initially resist or don’t understand what is going on. It really depends on the individual ganaderos (ranchers) and how they treat their bulls. A good ganadero makes sure that his bull stays healthy and strong and safe for the jaripeo; he or she will make sure that the rope tied around the chest is not tied too tightly so that it can breathe freely for a good show. Of course, the rider would want to ride a bull that puts [on] a good show and wins a prize, but he has to make sure that the rope is tied strong enough to stay in place. The same goes for the rope tied around the groin area: this rope doesn’t need to be [very] tight, but just tight enough to stay in place. The bull will try to kick the small bell attached to the rope and buck more while doing so.
There is a style of riding called a Pretal de Grapa in which riders use spurs that hold their legs in place and help maintain their balance. This is the most dangerous form of jaripeo for the bull—sometimes the rider falls in a way that [makes] the spurs get stuck in the bull’s skin, which could hurt both the rider and the bull. Ganaderos make sure that a standard size of spur is used. They know big spurs will hurt their animals and cause them to underperform.
I have to say that some inexperienced ganaderos are irresponsible in the handling of their bulls. Some use the cattle prod (a device that gives small electric shocks to the bulls) way too much or unnecessarily.
Some ganaderías specialize in handling and breeding bull riding bulls. Some of them have become famous nationally: Ganadería los Destructores travels across the country to put on spectacles for large audiences and is reputed to have great bulls for the jaripeo spectacle, while other small ganaderías, like us at Dixza Rugs & Organic Farm, are working hard to preserve the ancient breeds and produce oxen to plow the land for native corn. We sell the occasional bull that becomes a prize winner.
How do Mexican rodeos differ from others in the world?
The jaripeo is just one of the many facets of the Mexican Charrería, which is a competitive event that includes: reining horses, heeling horses, steer tailing of bulls, bull riding, team roping, bareback riding on a wild mare, forefooting of horses, forefooting on horseback, the pass of death, and the skirmish. In 2016, charrería was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
The main difference is that bull riding in other countries is based on scores and not on the spectacle of the bull. Riders in other countries have to stay on the bull for eight seconds without couching [themselves] on the bull. In the jaripeos in and around Oaxaca, riders can touch the bull lightly and have to stay on for the full set of bucks from the bull. After the first set of bucks, the bull is allowed to rest for 20 seconds before the second round of bucks [begins]. If a bull isn’t willing to do a second round of bucks, it scores less points and if the rider stays in after the second round of bucks the rider is qualified as having stayed on, [which is called] monta quedada.
How do you prepare the bull before the fight?
It is recommended that the bull should not go to the rodeo on a full stomach, but besides that, it’s just making sure that the bull is healthy and strong for the event.
What do you do with the bull after the fight?
After the performance, the bull is put back into a pick-up truck and sent back to the ganadería (ranch) to relax and feed. Some bulls are traded on the spot. A winning bull that we sell for $10,000 pesos ($540 USD) can duplicate its prize [amount] every time it goes to a new rodeo and performs well or wins. Some of our bulls have sold for $80,000 pesos ($4,300 USD). Famous bulls can easily go for $150,000 pesos ($8,000 USD). Good bulls are prized and kept for breeding in the herd.