The Bigger the Buckle, the Better the Cowboy?

There is a charisma that cowboys possess, a romance to the idea of rodeos.  Those of us who are city slickers often long to meet (or even be) a real cowboy.  It’s quite a fantasy: the laconic drawl, the loping stride, the tilt of the hat as they say, “howdy, ma’am”, the twinkle in the eye, the lonely silhouette as the faithful steed is ridden into the sunset…. 

The image of the cowboy hero is long established: the Lone Ranger, Annie Oakley and the Wild West Show, John Wayne’s characters, the movie ‘Shane’, all those western movies of the 1950s, the western action novels that are ever popular.  Even the movie ‘Toy Story’ had a cowboy!  Little kids often play at being cowboys, and it is always a popular Hallowe’en costume. 

So with all this in mind, it is no wonder we get excited when we meet someone who purports to be a real cowboy.  But are they a REAL cowboy?  And how would a city slicker know?  It’s not like they would just announce it, is it?  Aren’t real cowboys strong and silent, like in the movies?  (Lol)  If they look good in the boots and the hat and talk like we think cowboys talk, then can we believe them when they say they are a cowboy?   After all, anyone can buy boots and a hat.   So are we doomed to be fooled by fakes?  Maybe not.  Here’s the secret. 

The real trick to knowing if someone is a real rodeo cowboy (aside from attending the rodeo and watching them in action) is his or her belt buckle. 

Yep, the belt buckle.  Not the boots, not the hat, not the way she or he walks or talks.  Yes, it could be a little risqué when your eyes stray to their belt buckle, but it’s what you gotta do to know for sure. 

You cannot buy a real rodeo buckle.  You have to earn it.  You have to beat out all the other cowboys and win your rodeo event, whether it’s cattle roping, barrel riding, or any one of the other dangerous sports cowboys love. 

Step one:  Check out their belt buckle.  I’m not sure how you’re going to get close enough to read it, so I advise caution!  Okay, let’s assume you can see the buckle clearly.  (Please don’t tell me how you’ve managed this….)  Real rodeo buckles are awarded for winning First Place in a sanctioned rodeo event.  They are usually accompanied by a cash prize as well.  Bigger buckles and bigger bucks are awarded for more important events with tougher competition.  Some buckles seem so big that the cowboy almost cannot bend forward!  When a cowboy dresses up western-style,  their best buckle gets worn.  So if your putative cowboy is all gussied up and there is no buckle evident, something is amiss.

Clues to real rodeo buckles:  They are usually a horizontally flattened oval shape, and attached to a belt that the cowboy already owns.  It’s common to see a shiny new buckle on a beat up old leather belt.  Rodeo buckles are silver metal, and sometimes trimmed in a brass or gold-ish colour.  Real rodeo buckles have engraving on them.  The engraving indicates information about the rodeo and the event that the buckle was awarded for, proving that it’s authentic and not a wannabe dude purchase. 

Rodeos which award buckles as prizes must be sanctioned by the local geographic rodeo circuit.  For example, the FCA refers to the Foothills Cowboy Association of southern Alberta.  The geographic rodeo circuit also indicates the level of skill competition.  The CCA refers to the Canadian Cowboy Association. 

Some professional level rodeos are actually smaller affairs, held in rural outposts, and the competing cowboys sometimes fly their own small planes in just to compete.  I have attended a few of these small but fierce and prestigious rodeos, as well as larger rodeos at Ponoka, AB and Calgary (of course! Stampede Fever! Yahoo!).  And I have seen the same cowboys competing.  What matters is not the publicity or the audience, but the skill level and the ’points’ they can earn toward competing at ever higher levels. 

Most events are divided by gender, usually due to the competitors’ choice, rather than being mandated by rules.  So usually barrel racing is a female competition, and bronc riding is male.  But not always. 

Once you have read the information on the buckle, you will still be wise to research it to make sure it’s accurate.  Fake rodeo buckles will earn derision from those who know, but could still fool the rest of us greenhorns.  Most official rodeos have websites, and archives online so you can check out past winners’ names.  Some even post photos of event winners so you can see.

I am not sure just how much it matters to you that the cowboy is real, but at least you now know how to find out!