If you thought all cowboys lived in the Wild West, think again. The Cologne Rodeo is proof that, for quite a few in Germany, being a cowboy is not just a costume, but a way of life.
This isn't Texas...
Rodeo and Germany are two words that do not normally appear together in the same sentence. Yet in the western German city of Cologne, more than 20,000 people gathered recently to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the biggest rodeo in Germany.
It wasn't hard to find the rodeo - the folks dressed in western gear were a dead give-away. Some self-consciously carry their cowboy hats and only put them on as they approach the main gate, where they get swept up with all the other people dressed in Wrangler jeans and fringe jackets.
Some people even have a six gun strapped to their thigh. To see guns worn openly in Germany - a country with strict gun laws - is a bit disconcerting. Fortunately, all the weapons on the premises turn out to be for decoration only, although they look pretty darn real.
Inside the gates, Dusty Owen, wearing a red, white and blue shirt, white cowboy hat and jeans was singing a Garth Brooks tune. On the wooden dance floor in front, square dancers twirled and swayed, and line dancers demonstrated their best moves as the twang of a pedal steel guitar filled the air.
Good old county fair
Window shopping at the rodeo
Beyond the stage, booths were set up, much like a Sunday flea market, and couples strolled along, examining the wares.
The array of products was pretty impressive. There were enough western-style shirts with snap buttons, jeans, boots and hats to outfit hundreds of country and western bands. When the cowboys got the urge for some refreshment, they could just head over to the stands selling bratwurst, French fries, and "Koelsch," the local Cologne beer - not so different from the assortment you might find at a similar event in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Amarillo, Texas.
Yeehaw, ride 'em cowboy
Over by the large corral where the calf roping and bronco busting took place, the crowd filled the bleachers and there wasn't a single seat available. Many stood by the rail, and watched drill teams put their horses through the paces.
Soon, it was time for the bronco busting, and it was clear, that was what the crowd had come to see. Back by the pens that held the livestock, young men in chaps, and leather torso protectors checked their gear, tightened their gloves, and prepared to mount the wild horses.
Dan Woodring was one of the riders wearing a leather vest with a patch that read European Rodeo Cowboy Association. He is an American army officer who grew up riding in rodeos in Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota and he said he was pleased that so many Germans had come out for the traditional American event.
I's not just a costume party but a way of life
"You can tell they love rodeo as much as we do; they're just as excited as any crowd in the United States that I've seen," noted Woodring with a smile.
Kinship across the ocean
Perhaps that is the essence of the Cologne Rodeo: It is not make believe. The people who were there took it very seriously. Many of them are ranchers who work with cattle in Germany, or are serious equestrians who prefer the western riding style and use the opportunity to network.
One thing is for sure: Most of those in the stands truly believe in the philosophy of the Wild West.
"Just putting on the clothes and saying, alright, I'm a cowboy now, that's not enough," explained Torsten, a German man in his 40's who was dressed in a fringe jacket and expensive cowboy boots. "You really have to be able to live that life. You have to be prepared to ignore the fact that people who don't accept that lifestyle will stare at you."
That afternoon, at least, Torsten fit right in - just as he would in Fort Worth, Texas, or Laramie, Wyoming.
Author: Andy Valvur
Editor: Kate Bowen