Ride ’em, Cowboy!


Justin Wilson took a fall during the saddle bronc riding competition Sunday at the San Benito County Saddle Horse and Rodeo Show. Photo by Bryce Stoepfel

As the 85th rip-roaring San Benito Saddle Horse and Rodeo Show at Bolado Park in Tres Pinos closed on Sunday, Hollister natives Cash Robinson and Will Centoni rode home tall in the saddle after winning money in two of the show’s toughest events, bull riding and saddle bronc riding.

Nothing bucks tradition at the rodeo. The past of the old West lives today through the pageantry, the dust, the snorts and the neighs, the roping and riding, along with the bumps and bruises. The rodeo is a show, sport, western tradition and family reunion rolled into one jam-packed weekend in late June.

“I’ve been coming to this since I was a kid,” said 25-year director and local veterinarian Charlie Tobias. “This is a tremendous asset to the ranching community. It takes us back to the history we grew up with. The unique thing about us is that we have kids here starting out at 4 years old, and we have people that are 80 years old. It’s maybe two or three generations of families competing against each other.”

Except for rough stock events, where out-of-towners can enter, activities at the rodeo are limited to current or former residents or those who work full time in San Benito County.

“For our rough stock events, we just don’t have enough kids growing up on ranches anymore,” Tobias said. “We’ve also added some cash prizes for the rough stock events. But we’ve opened it up a little to continue the legacy. We’re getting a lot of new developments, and we’re kind of becoming a suburb of San Jose, so we want to keep as many people who moved away or can’t afford to stay here, they can come back. It’s like a family reunion.”

Change, like everywhere else in the country, is having an impact on the rodeo.

“There used to be many more families and kids working on ranches, and now the ranchers have become much more efficient, so they’re not hiring as many cowboys,” Tobias said. “Overall, our numbers are down.”

Settled between browning hills of chaparral and shrubs at Bolado Park, the rodeo has seen changes. The organizers have maintained the spirit of the event. Aside from the large screen video board, digital timers and speakers, and music over stadium speakers, the show and rodeo are still focused on rider and horse, and on cattle. It’s a symbiosis that’s remained constant since the Spanish vaqueros of old.

Over the weekend, 406 riders and ropers entered in events such as bull riding, saddle bronc riding, cattle sorting and roping, single or in a team. Kids as young as 3 entered the mutton-busting event, riding atop sheep let loose from a chute. The sheep are naturally tame and the fall is roughly a foot into soft, thoroughly churned dirt.


Like NFL players, careers in bull and bronc riding tend to favor the young. Injuries are common. The rider is pitted against a force of nature with an unpredictable brain, determined to get the rider off its back. When a bull collides head-on with the very sturdy railing that rings the arena, the loud bang reverberates throughout Bolado Park.

Robinson has been riding since he was a little boy, partially motivated by his father and by what he saw on television. For Robinson, 22, bull riding is a weekend sport. Time on the bull isn’t long, but those few seconds are terrifying, and Robinson doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. For bull and bronc riders, the pay is good for a few seconds’ terror.

“It’s actually terrible; it feels horrible,” Robinson said. “It’s pretty scary and not that fun. I just do it because it pays good and it’s a job. I’ve got roughed up a little bit, but I need to take advantage of my youth and do it while I can. I’ll do it for five or six more years; then I got to grow up and do something else.”

It’s been a good rodeo month for Centoni. Earlier in the month, Centoni, a junior at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, was the men’s all-around champion at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming. Centoni, 21, is relatively new to the sport, having started in his senior year in high school.

“I’ve been on that horse in a stock saddle, so I knew it was pretty strong,” Centoni said. “You need to be aggressive enough not to fall off, but you need to be calm enough to think about what you need to do. A lot of it is muscle memory, but you need to be all there, it’s a rough sport.”

“Right now I’m healthy and young. Right now, I feel like I can go on forever,” Centoni said.

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