Rodeo In New Hampshire
Our state was once dubbed “Cow Hampshire,” so perhaps the number of real cowboys and cowgirls who work here shouldn’t be a surprise, but a trip to the Cheshire Fair last year was an eye-opener for our correspondent. Here’s just some of what he saw.
Roger Packard was the first person I met when I arrived at the Cheshire Fair in Swanzey last August. He’s a retired professional photographer who has been running emergency medical services at the fair and rodeo for the past 58 years. I’m a photographer too, so he was the perfect person to happen upon. He gave me a history lesson and a tour of the fairgrounds, showing me how the labyrinth tied together. His hospitality and relaxed demeanor as he introduced his legions of volunteer co-workers, welcomed me to a world full of characters who have spent lifetimes in fairs and rodeos. I listened to their action-packed stories while extreme rains turned the fairgrounds to mud, and the threat of a tornado almost shut the whole thing down.
Even in the rain, Cheshire Fair has the raucous appeal of a big community parade, but instead of proceeding down the streets of America, it creates its own town square in which the participants, spectators, contestants and crew all interact and mix freely. The local native who hasn’t missed a fair his entire life stands in line next to itinerant rodeo hands who were born to ride or train large animals. The riders show no fear of bucking bulls or threatening tornadoes. They travel the fair circuit up and down the Eastern Seaboard and take whatever challenge each rodeo has to offer in stride. It’s an uncommon lifestyle in these days of light-speed electronics and global commerce, and they love it.
As cowboy/bull rider Abbott Hughlett says, “We are trying to keep the cowboy way of life alive.” Some days that mission is tougher than others. On this day, mud was hurled everywhere as bulls and horses moved chaotically. Expectant fans, bundled against the weather, dotted the dark and rain-filled stadium awaiting the action. “When you climb down onto a bull, it’s more of a mental thing than a physical thing,” says bull rider Dustin Tobin. And while that’s what the audience is waiting for, it’s really the end of a long process of preparation. “The rodeo is a family affair: sharing equipment, helping each other getting ready,” he says. But the moment when the gate opens and the ride begins is the test, “Either you have the grit to get on or you don’t,” he says. At the point they can compete at the Cheshire Fair, cowboys and cowgirls have shown they have the grit, the desire, the need to experience a way of life that few can relate to.
Throughout the day, rain showers paused the fair like a freeze dance where the rhythm was hard to find. Then the sky started turning a hue somewhere between purple and black. Warnings of a potential tornado crackled from the intercom. I waited inside with Packard and his emergency crew, hoping that the whole show wouldn’t be canceled. When the threat was past and the riding resumed, I went to work, joining the riders in a thick soup of mud, feeling like a part of it all for least one fleeting summer night. Bodies snapped backward and forward like broken catapults from the backs of bulls and horses, but these animals are the true foundation of the sport. Rider Hannah Ruth LaBarre says of her horse Triscuit, “He’s a great horse and gives his heart every single run, for that I can’t thank him enough. We ask these animals to do more than they were created to do.”
Men, women, animals and at least one photographer — all were working at the extremes of their abilities alongside all the elements of nature under the canopy of a stormy summer night in New Hampshire.