Oregon town holds historic rodeo; fights horse roping ban

May 27, 2013

In many ways, Jordan Valley, OR, is a lot like other small ranch towns in the Great Basin: a filling station, a Basque restaurant, goosenecks and pick-ups rumbling up and down the main drag. But each May, Jordan Valley undergoes a dramatic transformation as thousands of rodeo fans descend on the town to witness the Jordan Valley Big Loop Rodeo, a three-day rodeo extravaganza, the premier event of which is a traditional buckaroo-style horse roping in which horses are roped around the neck and front feet by a two-man team. The ropers must use loops that measure 20 feet across, hence the moniker “Big Loop.”

The Jordan Valley Big Loop was held May 16-18 in much the same festive spirit as it has since its inception in 1962; however, tensions were running higher than normal due to legislation currently being considered in the state’s capital that would make roping a horse’s legs a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to six months in prison.

The bill, which is heavily supported by animal rights organizations, has made the Big Loop a magnet for animal rights activists wielding video cameras hoping to document the event, which they claim is abusive. Several such videos and slideshows have surfaced on YouTube purporting to catch mistreatment of horses at the Big Loop on film. One such video shows a horse falling over; the most graphic, of a horse with its leg badly broken, is not of a roped horse, but of a saddle bronc.

To avoid what they are calling an intentional misrepresentation of their event, the rodeo board banned all videoing at the Big Loop this year. The ban didn’t stop several animal rights activists from attempting to video anyway; several were escorted out of the grounds by Malheur County sheriff’s deputies. One, Adam Fahnestock, a volunteer for Illinois-based animal rights group Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and booked into the Malheur County jail.

In April, the anti-horse roping legislation (S.B. 835) flew through the state Senate with a 22-6 vote; it is currently being considered by the House Judiciary Committee (Committee). If the bill passes in the House unamended, Jordan Valley, along with a few other Oregon towns that have traditional horse ropings, will be barred from holding what many view as a culturally iconic Great Basin rodeo event.

Twice this month, Jordan Valley Rodeo board members, veterinarians, cowboys, ranchers and local politicians have trekked to Salem to testify before the Committee, urging House members to reconsider the legislation. Among them was Jordan Valley Rodeo board member Jerry Raburn, who took strong exception with calling the Big Loop event “horse tripping”—as it has been by supporters of the bill.

“Horse tripping is when you run a horse by you and then you rope his front feet and pull rope tight and tip him over,” Raburn said, maintaining that horse roping at the Big Loop is different. “Just as soon as the ropes come tight, the time stops,” Raburn said. Although horses occasionally do fall down, Raburn emphasized that intentionally jerking the horses to the ground is not tolerated.

“Any intentional ‘tripping’ would not only mean immediate disqualification, but the contestant could also be banned from competing at our rodeo for at least three years or maybe more, depending on the degree of the infraction,” Raburn told the Committee.

Raburn also pointed out that, typically, less than 10 percent of the 90-some teams that participate each year actually get their horse necked and front footed. This year, only 5 out of 95 teams made a qualifying run. Raburn also noted that since 1995, the rodeo has only had to pay for (and put down) two horses due to injuries sustained in the horse roping.

Testimony was also given by Russ Mead, general counsel for the Animal Law Coalition (ALC) headquartered in Seattle, who told WLJ that he didn’t see a significant distinction between horse roping events and intentional horse tripping.

“These horse roping events are cruel,” said Mead. “Anytime a horse is roped by the legs and that horse comes crashing to the earth, that’s horse tripping, no matter what you call the event.” Mead also indicated that roping horses around the neck was abusive because it caused them to gasp for air, and that horses used in roping events were cruelly “tumbled to the earth.”

Not everyone agrees. Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, who would be responsible for enforcing the horse roping ban in Jordan Valley if the legislation passes unamended, rejected the idea that the rodeo’s event constitutes animal cruelty. “We take animal abuse and animal neglect very seriously,” said Wolfe, “and we know what abuse and neglect is. It is my opinion that horse roping in neither abusive nor neglectful.”

The key question now, as the Committee wrangles over the specifics of the bill, is whether the legislation can be amended in a way that would allow Jordan Valley to continue the Big Loop. One such amendment currently under consideration would make intentional horse tripping an offense, but would still allow a horse to be roped around the legs. There has also been interest in adding language that would protect the Pendleton Round-Up’s wild horse race.

Indeed, a “right to rodeo” clause, introduced by Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Pendleton, has already been added to the bill. However, the clause is extremely general, stating that rodeos can exist in Oregon and will not be outlawed, but providing no protection for specific events.

Critics of the legislation are concerned that a horse roping ban—in addition to extinguishing a culturally iconic event and an important source of revenue for Oregon ranch towns—would constitute the first step down a slippery slope of regulating and banning other rodeo events, and possibly even activities on ranches. If causing a horse to fall over, or roping a horse around the neck is deemed abusive, it is unclear how similarly roping cattle could be considered non-abusive. Yet core rodeo events, such as calf roping and team roping, not to mention any number of essential ranching activities, involve roping cattle.

Mead of ALC says these fears are groundless, pointing to the “right to rodeo” language in the bill (which he supports) as a guarantee that other rodeo activities will not be affected. Yet it is unclear how ironclad the protection is, given that only “rodeos” are protected, but not specific events. Some critics, like Jordan Valley’s Raburn, remain highly skeptical.

“We’re just kind of the soft underbelly that’s easy to get to first,” said Raburn. “But it won’t stop with us.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent, andyrieber.com