|Virginia Dibblee Hoyt, T. Wilson Dibblee and Other Riders, Santa Barbara Fiesta Parade, 1940s|
The Fiesta, as a celebration of California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage, has always been a dramatic and large-scale equestrian event at its core. Both parade and the rodeo reflect the profound influence of an equestrian culture in both the tri-counties’ past history and the present day, but it is the rodeo that most closely brings alive the tradition of the extraordinary skills of the Spanish and Mexican era vaqueros, In the early nineteenth century. Anglo travelers to the then remote land of California were astounded at he horsemanship skills of the Californios. Anglos then tended to ride with snaffle bits, pulling their horse’s head to one side or the other to turn it. But the Californios rode using the Spanish hackamore and spade bit, neck reining their horses, teaching them to turn and spin when the rein lightly touched the opposing side of their horses’ neck, and, of course, to stop on a dime, After watching the vaqueros gather and work large herds of wild cattle on the old ranchos with ease and great style, these early travelers often declared the Californios to be the best riders in the world,
Back in the fifties I used to go with my family to the Fiesta Rodeo when it was held in a wooden, green painted corral complex down near the sea where the City College baseball field is now located, I can vividly recall seeing saddle broncos dumping their riders in the dirt, like scenes from an Ed Borein sketch book, but little else, as I was only five or six years old at the time. Since that time, after talking with some of the old timers, I have learned that the rodeo then was largely a local affair. The contestants were generally cowboys from the large cattle ranches over the mountains to the north and up the coast to the west.
Today’s fiesta rodeo still showcases this deep and abiding school of horsemanship. The ranch horse class, for example, allows local riders to work and rope cattle, just as some of them are still called upon to do on a daily basis on today’s ranches.
The Hackamore Class has always been my personal favorite. The Californios trained their horses in distinct stages, starting with the hackamore, an intricately braided rawhide noseband tied to horse hair reins, When the young horse was turning, backing, spinning and stopping well in the hackamore, it would graduate to the double reins (dos reinas), in which the young horse would then carry both a small hackamore and a spade bit, and the rider would hold two sets of reins at the same time in one hand. As the horse became more at ease with the bit in its mouth, the vaqueros would very gradually use the reins attached to the bit more and more, until they could remove the hackamore and just use the reins attached to the bit to send signals to the horse as to what to do, This process might take many years, perhaps as many as eight years, as the vaqueros had a great deal of time and were in no hurry to finish training a horse, The young horses in the hackamore class are still in the first stage of this process and are energetic and a joy to watch as they turn cattle and run through different patterns with only a rawhide noseband, a minimal instrument of restraint as compared to having a bit in the mouth.
The Stock Horse Class allows one to watch a finished, polished stock horse, one that has graduated through this age old process, demonstrate the same skills. The horse is considered a finished horse, controlled by a curb bit. Traditionally, local cattle ranching operations, like the Hollister Ranch, have sponsored this event, donating the trophy saddles.
The Hackamore and Stock Horse classes are generally dominated by local professional trainers who have devoted their careers to turning out finely tuned show horses of the highest caliber. The Ranch Horse Class, however, permits talented non-professional riders from local cattle and horse ranches to enter horses that are used to do daily ranch work. In this class, riders and horses are judged on their ability to sort cattle, rope a steer, and other typical tasks associated with managing cattle. It is a fun class to watch, less polished and formal than the Hackamore and Stock Horse classes, offering viewers a window into how horses are still actually used on our local ranches today.
In all of these events, the cow horses selected for the rodeo performances have been through a rigorous and formal selection process. This process of elimination effectively narrows each class down to five or so finalists to fit them into the rodeo performance. Nonetheless, I recommend dropping in and watching the elimination sessions between the shows. One can wander through the stable areas and see the riders prepare for the competition and then later sit comfortably in the stands and watch for hours the tryouts for free. For horse lovers, this time is probably the best chance to experience what it was like in the original competiciones de los vaqueros of the 19th century, when the old ranchos competed informally against each other to determine who had the very best horses and riders at public events, cattle gatherings, and fiestas.
If you go to Earl Warren between the performances, you can spend a lot of watching talented riders and horses competing for the few top slots. Moreover, you can also watch the calf-branding event as well. To really get a sense of the work and life and real talent in our local cattle culture today, one could do no better than wake up early Sunday morning and go down to the fairgrounds to watch this unique competition. It is a pity that this remarkable event does not make it to the rodeo performances. I am not sure as to why it is absent from the formal rodeo schedule; perhaps because it simply is not dramatic enough to be a crowd pleaser for today’s action-craving audience. However, if I do nothing else during fiesta, the one event I will see is this one. Local horsemen and women, generally from our many north county ranches, work in teams of four to rope and brand (with paint) two calves. The event is a timed one, but more important than speed is the talent—the fluid style, grace and fineness--demonstrated in this remarkable event. The calf branding competition is as close to the real thing as you can get. Perhaps it is only for insiders; nonetheless, La Competicion de Los Vaqueros will offer you no better glimpse into the skills that were developed and celebrated by the old Californios and that are still required to work and manage livestock than this event. Come on down and take a look inside.