By BRYN BAILER
The last bucking bull burst from the chute…the final cowboy scrambled through arena dirt to dodge the Brahma’s crushing hooves…and another pro rodeo has come to a close.
The sweaty, bruised, rough-stock riders spit the grit from between their teeth, grab their gear bags and head for the parking lot, where another sport has just begun: open season on Bunnies.
Buckle Bunnies, that is.
The women, nicknamed for their fervent attraction to championship bling – namely, the big, shiny trophy belt buckles worn by top competitors – haunt sporting arenas and rodeo grounds around the nation, and perhaps in Tucson.
They are the dirty little secret of pro rodeo.
Quick to open their homes, wallets (and sometimes, much more), Bunnies are ever ready to provide a few hours’ distraction from a rodeo competitor’s life of punishing travel, chronic injury and uncertain financial rewards.
Their services range from the domestic – like fixing home-cooked meals or making transport runs to the airport – to the erotic, replete with birthday blowjobs and hotel room romps.
Bunnies seem driven by a need to feel part of the rodeo world, even though they may have absolutely no connection with the lifestyle, said USA Today sports reporter Josh Peter, who traveled the national pro bull-riding circuit in 2004.
“For the tried-and-true cowgirl, there is something romantic about that lifestyle,” he said. “And then there are those drawn to novelty, the attraction of danger: If you can’t ride a bull, you might as well try riding a bull rider.”
The Colorado-based Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association officially sanctions more than 600 rodeos in the United States and Canada – including Tucson’s La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, a winter rodeo ranked among the nation’s Top 25 in terms of prize money.
The nine-day event is held outdoors, making it especially popular with fans because the open-air grounds provide better up-close-and-personal access to competitors than high-security indoor sports arenas.
Most Bunnies hang out on the “back side” of rodeo facilities. At the Tucson Rodeo Grounds, the prime cowboy-chasing real estate for fans is located behind the rank livestock pens.
Despite the muck and stink, the girls wait and primp patiently … because that is where the baddest of rodeo’s bad boys – bull and bronc riders – gather.
The young women, most in their 20s, wear taut tie-up tops, barely-there denim shorts and high-heeled fashion boots that try hard to look “country” but don’t.
Waiting for the cowboys to appear, they toss their blonde-haystack hair, swig bottles of domestic beer and flash long, airbrushed fingernails that almost certainly have never guided the reins of a horse.
They already know which cowboys have the highest status.
As befits a virile sport like rodeo, judging a cowboy’s prowess involves scrutinizing his crotch: A few inches above it sits his belt buckle.
Trophy buckles, glittering like metallic codpieces, are helpfully engraved with a competitor’s name and event, as well as the rodeo where he won it.
Champion cowboys stand out, especially if they wear a handcrafted buckle won at the big-money National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
The elaborately engraved, Pop-Tart-sized works of art are made of 14-carat gold backed with sterling silver and inset with two brilliant-cut diamonds.
Cowboys call ’em “bitch getters.”
Of course, athletes have taken advantage of starry-eyed groupies for generations. Ball players shag Baseball Annies. Ice hockey players pass around Puck Bunnies.
But rodeo – starring fearless athletes with rugged names like Pistol Robinson, Twister Cain and Jesse James Kirby – drips testosterone like no other sport.
The men crisscross the country from rodeo to rodeo, and the most dedicated Bunnies follow them doggedly.
“There are those who stick close to home, traveling the rodeo circuits in a particular area,” said Craig J. Forsyth, a professor of sociology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“And then there are those who chase a particular cowboy as he competes in rodeos across the country.”
Forsyth knows Bunnies better than most. He studied the subculture at rodeos in Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
The research eventually became “Buckle Bunnies: Groupies of the Rodeo Circuit,” a study published in 2000 in the respected academic journal Deviant Behavior.
Forsyth also encountered a different breed of Bunnies, who were known – through the complex, word-of-mouth cowboy grapevine – for providing almost motherly support.
They mend torn shirts, offer free meals, lend extra cash for rodeo entry fees or medical expenses, or simply open their home as a quiet place to rest and recover from a literally bruising day of competition.
“They just love cowboys and being around cowboys,” Forsyth said.
The life of a circuit rodeo cowboy, after all, isn’t an easy one.
There are no guaranteed salaries and no “disabled list.” If a competitor gets injured and can’t ride, he doesn’t earn anything.
Moreover, he must spend hundreds of dollars in entry fees at each rodeo – and can lose it all with one bad ride.
At the same time, bills for lodging, transportation, horse feed and veterinary bills keep coming due.
In contrast with groupies who chase cowboys brazenly and offer little more than no-strings-attached lovin’, a kind-hearted female fan can literally enable a cowboy to continue down the arduous rodeo road.
Even if it leads straight into the arms of another Bunny.
Some Bunnies become celebrities themselves. Cowboys can tick off the nicknames: There was Whorey Lori, Nasty Wendy, Mustang Sally and Big Tits.
Speedbump Sue was a party girl who got so drunk one night that she passed out under a pickup truck.
Mo’ Betta liked an audience and would take on several cowboys at once. There was also a lusty lass dubbed Penicillin Patty. Men still wince when they hear her name.
But while cowboys talk freely about these scandalous Sweethearts of the Rodeo, you’ll be hard pressed to find a woman who accepts the label herself.
“‘Buckle Bunny’ is a dirty word among women,” emphasized Peter, the sports writer. “But it’s like good art: When you see it, you know it.”
While rock ‘n’ roll groupies like Cynthia Plaster Caster trumpet their sexual adventures to the masses, rodeo-cowboy junkies rarely kiss ’n tell.
Fortunately for Peter, the bull riders provided their share of lurid stories, some of which made it into his book, “Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies & Bull Riders: A Year Inside the Professional Bull Riders’ Tour.”
One particular groupie, known simply as Becky, would routinely show up on cowboys’ birthdays, offering oral sexual services.
Another story involved a rowdy post-rodeo visit to a nightclub in Jacksonville, Fla. It included married cowboys, various scantily clad (and occasionally topless) Bunnies, group groupie gropes and several men missing in action at the end of the night.
“Seven cowboys went into the limo and four came back,” Peter said. “The others had ‘extracurriculars’ planned.”
“Calamity” Cate Crismani, California-based editor-publisher of trueCOWBOY magazine, has never dated a rodeo cowboy. But as an accomplished horsewoman and wild-horse activist, she wouldn’t mind, if the right opportunity presented itself.
“I’ve interviewed cowboys, and most of them are very charming, respectful and well-mannered,” she said. “They say ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, ma’am.’ They’re buff and handsome, and love their horses and their mothers.”
She takes a gentler view of Buckle Bunnies than most.
“They’re just using their feminine wiles in a unique setting – the rodeo – to attract the type of man they want to be married to,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with that as far as I can tell.
“And it’s a symbiotic relationship: When a beautiful woman puts her sights on a man, his ego, prowess – and ability to perform better in all aspects of life – rises.”