My family are all rodeo tragics. An uncle of mine rode in small town show rodeos when he was younger. He's small and skinny and wiry. I remember my mum's hands shaking as she took the stitches out of his face on the back verandah one afternoon after he got hung up on a bad ride. I think she made him promise to give it up after that.
Years later, we camped in swags in the pouring rain outside the Longyard at Tamworth to see the National Finals.
From the spectator seats, rodeo looks like a loud sport. The bull riders often walk out from the chutes to a blaring AC/DC song. The hosts constantly work the crowd for support.
I remember once watching a cowboy ride eight seconds on the last bull of the night, as the arena rose at the sound of the buzzer. It felt like the roof might lift off. In the dark, behind the chutes, it's a different world.
As a storm rolls over head, a bronc rider sits in his saddle on the floor - eyes ahead to the light from the arena and the sound of the breakaway roping or steer wrestling.
The cowboys tell quiet jokes, make smalltalk about work they've picked up, bum the odd cigarette and strap their arms in bandages.
But for the rain, and the distant announces calling another event, it's quiet - slow and still and sensitive, as if every nerve is tuned to what's going on out there under the lights.
Kerry Wellington, a five-time Australian saddle bronc champion, puts his boot into the end of his rope, pulls it tight and throws his arm back.
"They all have their rituals," the on-call paramedic says, leaning on a gate.
Outside, veteran rodeo clown Big Al Wilson fills time with the crowd between events. The power would go out twice during the ABCRA National Finals rodeo at Tamworth's AELEC arena, grinding everything to a halt.
"It doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it," Wilson says. He keeps a rodeo barrel at the side of the arena, inside which is his hobby horse, lasso, and ostrich - which, at one point, he rides through the ring to the tune of Rhinestone Cowboy.
In the dark, the riders turn restless. Their stock is ready - primed like a cannon - but the rhythm has been upset and it feels like the gears are spinning. They kick spurs into their boots, throw their arms as they slide into rodeo vests - going through the motions again.
The lights come back up and the routine snaps back into place. Saddles and straps are fitted. A rider uses a pocket knife to trim an overgrown mane away from his rope. The whole thing seems to run on muscle memory.
Wellington, 49, steps over the top rail and slides into the saddle. He leans back, nods his head, and the chute gate cracks. As the horse, Carana Jan, leaps forward, Wellington seamlessly lets go of the rail.
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