Thrill of the ride a big drawcard
Luck of the draw keeps the sport of rodeo fresh for a 30-year veteran. Louise Risk reports.
After more than three decades in the game, the thrill of the rodeo keeps drawing New Zealand's Otorohanga-based current all-round champion back year after year.
For four-time champion Rex Church, nothing beats the excitement of trying to stay on the bare back of a bucking bronco, a challenge where points are accrued for both his talent as a rider, and the horse's talent as a bucker.
"It's still an adrenaline rush. I wouldn't give it up, anyway. It's the love of the sport really."
On Saturday, November 24, Church will compete in the bareback bronco category at the International Claudelands Rodeo in Hamilton and, with wife Dianna and children Dean and Holly regulars on the rodeo circuit as well, it will without a doubt be another family affair.
Quite a few members of Church's extended family also love the sport, with his cousin's wife and daughter, Mel and Cheyenne Church from Turangi, also competing at Claudelands in the barrel race and his cousin Paddy Church (Turangi) and his brother's grandson Johnson Davis (Rotorua) in the bull ride.
Entering a ring on an animal intent on making him eat dust is nothing new for Church, who was "seven or eight" when his older brother Mervyn's enthusiasm first spurred him into the sport.
And while that may sound young, Church was a relatively late starter when compared with his own daughter Holly, who at four years of age is already a regular barrel racing competitor on her miniature pony SpongeBob.
Family is important to the rodeo fraternity, and the ties extend well beyond the immediate.
"It's just like one big family really," Church said.
"You want everyone to do the best they can.
"It's not like we're competing against one another, we're all competing against animals."
He said the animal each competitor rides - which is literally drawn from a hat - can have a big impact on the outcome of any given rodeo event.
"It's luck of the draw.
"You're trying to do the best you can on whatever stock you get."
And with a hectic summer rodeo circuit lined up, Church will have little time to dwell on a bad day, if he has any.
Between now and mid-March, the Church family will attend approximately 25 rodeos, one most weekends.
From December 27 they will compete at seven rodeos in eight days - five in the North Island and two in the South Island.
"It's pretty busy around Christmas."
And in April his family will also make an annual pilgrimage to the Sydney Royal Easter Show, but at this stage that is the only overseas rodeo they regularly attend.
Church said all the travelling, accommodation and other costs associated with the sport meant it was "very expensive", and while a good sponsor would make a difference, he did not have one.
"I guess I haven't looked hard enough for one."
When not competing in rodeos, Church is busy paying the bills by working at the Otorohanga Timber Company, and he also enjoys rugby, rugby league and tennis.
Most of the rodeos fall on weekends and over the Christmas holiday break, but he anticipates needing to use a bit of annual leave in the coming months to make it to all the rodeos his family has lined up.
Church usually competes in four of the six men's categories, mostly on the broncos, but if the prize was big enough he could be enticed onto the bulls, an event he had twice been the national champion at.
Perhaps his general avoidance of the bulls has helped, but despite the physical and jarring nature of the sport, he has got away with just "bruises and scratches" over the years.
He said the bareback bronco ride - for which he was five-time national champion - was his favourite competition, and he believes the horses loved it too, as did the bulls in their events.
He knows not everyone agrees with rodeos, and said animal-rights protesters were as entitled to their opinions as anyone else.
But personally, he put little credence in what they had to say.
The protesters usually showed up only at international events, and he said his first encounter with them had been more amusing than anything else.
"It made me laugh really; they dressed their children up as cows and then went and sat in their cars.
"Why would they want to dress their kids up?"
Church believed animals on the rodeo circuit were doing exactly what they loved to do best, and it was a far happier life than the alternative.
"The way I look at it is if the bulls weren't bucking bulls they'd be in McDonalds, they'd be in hamburgers, and the horses would be cat food.
"Why not let them buck instead of making cat food?"