OAKDALE — In a cloud of dust in the Saddle Club arena Saturday, a saddle bronc rider fought to keep his seat on a bucking horse. The horse kicked so hard its flank strap fell off.
"You talk about a wild ride," the announcer said. "I think he got his money's worth today."
But roping, riding and bulls were only part of the fun at Saturday's rodeo. Off to the side of the main event, another kind of entertainment could be found: cowboys and cowgirls were on the prowl, checking each other out and picking each other up.
Some said they had little interest in bull riding and barrel racing. They paid the $16 ticket price because they were hoping to lasso some love.
"The bulls are second," said Laura Jones of Danville. "We're here for the livestock."
In this case, the "livestock" would be cowboys.
Jones and two friends, all blondes decked out in figure-hugging Western wear, said they made the trek to Oakdale to meet cowboys with "perfect white teeth, a nice, tight butt and dirty worn boots."
The state of the boots is important, they said, because it indicates who's a real cowboy and who's a wanna-be.
Jones' friend Lori McPherson of Gilroy said she's not above giving a bicep a quick squeeze test. "If they're a roper, they'll have nice, big ol' arms," McPherson said.
Irena Rospotnyuk, 21, of Sacramento, was more ambivalent about the cowpunchers' charms.
"(With the) hats, the boots and belt buckle, you get that old-fashioned chivalrous vibe, but that's not true," Rospotnyuk said. "It's all a lie." Then she added, "But a lot of them are cool and laid back."
The search for authenticity was a popular theme for rodeo-goers involved in Saturday's pickup scene. Some said it mattered, some said they didn't care about finding a "real" country guy or gal.
"Anything will do," said Kenny Keller of Manteca. "You've got to lower your standards to up your average."
He and two wingmen had been stationed for three hours near the rodeo's beer garden, ground zero for those interested in making rodeo love connections.
Heads swiveled as the crowd checked each other out. Troupes of girls in denim minis and boots strutted past clumps of Wrangler-clad guys. Belt buckles the size of dinner plates, cleavage and Copenhagen cannisters were popular accessories.
Keller and his two friends demonstrated their strategy. After surveying the scene for a few seconds, Keller's friend reached into the throng, tapped a blonde girl on the shoulder and said with a smile, "Have you met my friend Kenny?" She had not, but within seconds the situation was rectified. Keller said he had collected two phone numbers using this method.
Evan Bennett, 27, was faring even better. He said he had met his future wife dancing at the H-B Saloon on Friday night. The night was hazy, so he had a friend write a note on a slip of paper to remind him of the momentous meeting. Bennett, who grew up on a ranch, said he was searching for a "country girl." He said his parents take horse rides together, and he envisions a similar future for himself and his Friday night dance partner.
Not far away, a tall solitary figure stood by the snow cone stand. He was Preston Billadeau, a 27-year-old team roper from North Dakota on his first trip to California. He had many of the "real" cowboy qualities women said they were seeking. There was hay stuck to his fleece vest and he was a man of few words. But peering at the action from beneath a black cowboy hat, Billadeau said he hadn't noticed the rodeo's pickup scene and didn't plan to dive in.
"I don't really pay attention," he said. "I usually just go to the next rodeo."