Box Elder officials reconsider policy after Utah horse roping backlash
By Matthew Piper
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jan 17 2014 01:01AM
Part of the appeal of roping horses is that they present a fast-moving target for the roper, who is weighing down and slowing his own mount. It can be trickier than roping cattle.
But near the 2-minute point of a YouTube video posted by Utah State journalism student Robyn Van Valkenburg, that’s not evident.
A young horse stares out through the arena’s paddock bars while the roper heaves his wide loop and misses from a yard away. If there’s still fight in this animal, it’s deep in reserve.
Yet dozens look on and wait to rope its scruffy stablemates.
Four and a half hours after more than 160 registered teams began roping at the Box Elder County Fairgrounds on Nov. 23, organizer Shawn Judkins told Van Valkenburg to erase her video and leave, she said.
"He was very serious and threatening, kind of," she said. "I’m just this little 5-foot blonde chick."
She’s also a horse owner and a wild horse trainer — but a post on Van Valkenburg’s blog sparked an outcry that dissuaded Judkins from holding another horse roping event Saturday. And in light of her story, Box Elder County officials are now reconsidering fairground rental policies.
"Her facts are not correct on anything," said Judkins, who emphasized that cowboys were told they’d be disqualified for intentionally bringing down a horse. "Everybody thinks we’re out there roping horses and jerking them down and breaking their legs. We were not."
Van Valkenburg describes the action like this: "Teams of two ropers on horseback pursued the loose horse until one threw a loop around the horse’s neck. The foal buckled down on the choke and hopped a few steps forward. The other team member roped the horse’s front legs and it stumbled to the ground with a thud. It laid there for a moment, caught its breath and regained its senses. The colt was then dragged out of the arena by its neck."
Former Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association bull rider Sonny Munns says the goal, rather, was to rope the horses around the neck, lead them around as gently as possible and then rope their front feet. Munns and Judkins both watched Van Valkenburg’s video and said cowboys who dragged horses to the ground had simply made a mistake.
"You get told to leave if you’re rougher than you should be," said Munns, a Nov. 23 participant. "And nobody wants to be rough."
But roping horses by the front legs tends to result in their falling to the ground, said Van Valkenburg. She estimates that seven of 10 horses who were caught then hit the dirt. Horses are prone to injury during roping events because they possess finer bones and thinner skins than cattle, and they don’t have the same thick layer of fat to cushion their neck against a rope.
Horse roping was first popularized by Spanish conquistadors in 16th century Mexico. By most cowboys’ definitions, what happened in Tremonton differs from traditional "horse tripping," in which a rider simply lassos the front or back legs of the horse and sends it tumbling awkwardly into the dirt.
That practice is illegal in at least eight states, but not Utah. The first such ban came in California, where one of the bill’s leading supporters, Eric Mills, was upset by Van Valkenburg’s video, whether or not it qualified as horse tripping.
"Some of those horses were lassoed as many as eight times, and they were babies for Christ’s sake," Mills said. "To do it for fun and repeatedly … Most of those folks didn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. Those horses were brutalized."
California veterinarian Armaiti May agrees that it’s "inexcusable" to rope and pull down a horse. "It’s something that has no place in society." Tripping, in particular, can cause mouth fractures, weakened and pulled tendons, fractured limbs and broken necks, she said.
Judkins said he leased the 40 younger horses, although he wouldn’t say from whom. Asked about their condition, he started to say, "They were a little rough," but declined further comment. No horses were injured, he said.
A brand inspector for the Department of Agriculture and Food, Judkins says he’s trained horses for years and knows how to properly care for them. "I love horses as much as anybody else," he said. "The last thing I want to do is see horses get hurt."
Van Valkenburg reported that the horses arrived at the Tremonton arena on a double-decker livestock trailer — a method of transport opposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of its high potential for injury. Judkins says he never saw the livestock trailer, but Van Valkenburg found that notion laughable.
There was no food or water for the horses, Judkins said, because of fears they could get colic from all the activity. That’s a fair concern, says Van Valkenburg, but given the duration of the event and the time it took for the horses to be transported there and back, it was likely too long for the horses to go without water.
Her video received thousands of hits. Animal rights groups implored followers to contact Tremonton area lawmakers, and as a result, fairgrounds manager Jan Rhodes says ropers may have lassoed their last foal at the county-owned arena.
"It makes me feel like I can change something for once," Van Valkenburg said. "Whether this issue is right or wrong, it just depends on who you ask, but the fact that people are talking about it makes me feel like I have done something."
Rhodes doesn’t recall hosting any other horse-roping events and says they aim to "have something in place so that if somebody wants to have this again, we’re not discriminating against them," by denying rental. That’s tricky, says County Attorney Steve Hatfield, because "If you just say we’re not going to allow any events that cause cruelty to animals, who defines that?"
County commissioner Stan Summers stressed that the county — which charges $40 per hour to rent the arena — didn’t fund it or condone it, and they don’t deserve the "hateful, horrible things" that animal rights activists have said to him. "I’m just a father and a part-time commissioner," Summers said.
One constituent contacted state Rep. Ronda Menlove, who told The Tribune that despite having grown up on a cattle ranch, this is the first she’s heard of horse roping. She told her constituent that she’d look into other states’ laws during the upcoming session.
Munns said the draw of Judkins’ event wasn’t the chance to drag down some horses. The cowboys aren’t cruel people, he said. Judkins’ event simply offered the region’s ropers a chance to socialize during one of the slow winter months.
And Judkins says he hopes to do it again.
"I’m trying to keep the cowboy tradition alive, and I’m trying to go to bat and keep it."