A rodeo festival in the Philippines celebrates cowboy culture

A honky-tonk twang echoes through a fairground while cowherds squabble cattle in a dirt-floor stadium. The scene would be typical of Texas, but this rodeo takes place about 8,000 miles away on an island in the Philippines.

Almost every spring for the past 30 years, the country’s best wranglers have traveled to the island province of Masbate to test their skills at the Rodeo Festival in Masbate City. It is both a sporting event and a celebration of Filipino cowboy and cowgirl culture.

“Where there’s cattle, there’s rodeo,” said Leo Gozum, 51, a cattle farmer who directs the festival’s rodeo events. “It’s not necessarily American.”

In the juego de toro, or game of bulls, people chase about 30 cattle through closed streets the way bulls are chased through Pamplona in Spain. The rules state that you can keep any cow you catch – as long as you catch it with your bare hands.

Some travel to the Masbate rodeo, usually by boat, from other islands in the Philippine archipelago. Others work on ranches in Masbate province, one of the poorest regions in the country.

The participants, mainly farmers and students, compete for a prize money of US$23,000, an average of US$250 for each of the approximately 90 winners. Many of the skills on display have been practiced in the Philippines for centuries—long before the country gained independence from Spain in 1898 and the United States in 1946.

One of the toughest events is the carom, where teams of men or women restrain an unruly cow in the rodeo ring. Of course by hand.

Masbate province, like other places in the Philippines, has a violent history and an ongoing communist insurgency. “Here you get bribed and then intimidated,” said Manuel Sese, a retired judge who owns a ranch outside of Masbate City.

Judge Sese said Masbate’s rugged culture and rolling grasslands helped produce legions of capable cowboys, some of whom work on his ranch.

One of them is Justin Bareng, 26. Mr Bareng said he gets up at 4am most days to feed his little mare before saddling up. With the $100 he earns a month, he feeds his six children and sends his 19-year-old brother to high school.

The rodeo’s overall prize pot is an incentive for the participants, who sometimes call themselves koboys, the Filipino slang for cowboy.

But money isn’t her only motivation.

“To me, rodeo is a game of strength and only for the brave,” said Kenneth Ramonar, 50, a businessman and evangelical preacher who leads a rodeo team from the southern province of Mindanao.

Mr. Ramonar said he used to be a drunkard and drug addict. Then he started a family, found the Bible, and found a new use for his ranch skills: rodeo driving. Now he runs a ranch resort where visiting tourists can learn the Koboy way.

Masbate City is a former colonial port that had stockyards near its docks until the 1970s. The rodeo arena is adjacent to a fairground where fans in jeans, flannel and cowboy hats roam.

Vendors grill beef and pork over smoky grills beneath colorful tents. There is also line dancing and a honky tonk number written especially for the occasion.

“Row-dee-oh Masbateño,” sings the singer.

On a recent morning, a cowherd was lounging in dusty jeans. Another shook off the sluggish dampness by dousing himself with water.

In a cattle yard under the grandstand, some cowherds were cooking fish for breakfast just after sunrise.

When the rodeo started a few hours later, they were busy feeding the cows, choosing the right ones for specific events, and herding them in and out of the ring.

The rodeo features seven cattle-related disciplines, including bull riding, lasso throwing, and “shedding,” in which teams of four attempt to lasso a particularly large specimen.

The organizers of the event are experienced farmers, farmers, veterinarians and livestock keepers who are experts in handling animals, said Mr Gozum, the event director.

He said the key to good competition is choosing animals that are temperamental enough to make the action interesting but not too dangerous.

“What I’m looking for is the line between the playable and the non-playable,” he said.

This year’s event, the first after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, saw more than 300 participants compete as professionals or students. Many in the second category were women.

“A woman can do what a man can do,” said Rosario Bulan, 25. She was part of a team that won first place in two all-women carambola competitions.

Ms. Bulan, who has a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences and is pursuing a master’s degree, added that while she’s delighted with the win, her primary goal is to avoid injury.

Religious landowners established ranches around Manila in the 17th century, said Greg Bankoff, a historian in the city. In the 19th century, horses were used across the country to transport sugar, coconuts, and other commodities.

In Masbate, cowboys herded cattle to the stockyards around the harbor. From there the cows were exported to ranches across the country.

Mr. Gozum said that while Filipino cowboy culture is rooted in Spanish traditions and heavily influenced by American ranching techniques, it now embodies the Filipino virtues of patience and perseverance.

The cowboy culture in the United States, popularized by figures such as actor John Wayne and musician Jimmie Rodgers, also drew on Spanish influences. But early Texas cowboys deliberately distanced themselves from the Mexican vaqueros from whom they learned, said Sarah Sargent, a scholar in Britain who is writing a book on Spanish horsemanship in America.

“The cowboy character that became the iconic symbol of American national identity was thus stripped of any association with Hispanic origins,” she said.

For Mr. Bareng, the Masbate ranch hand, such distinctions are not important. He just likes to ride.

The seventh of nine children, Mr. Bareng moved to Manila at the age of eight to live with two older siblings after the death of his mother.

Bored with city life, however, he spent his time watching gunslinging horsemen in Filipino cowboy films inspired by Hollywood westerns.

At the age of 18 he came home to herd cattle.

To him, the only unusual aspects of competing in a rodeo ring are the spectators and the cash prizes. “Rodeo,” he said, “is what we do here every day.”

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