Rope 'em cowgirl: Buckle bunnies prowl Cloverdale Rodeo

In this archival feature, Sandra Thomas met Vancouver's urban 'buckle bunnies' who hightail it to the country for rodeo romance

First published in print May 18, 2003


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In the 1969 Oscar-winning classic Midnight Cowboy, John Voight's character Joe Buck is a Texas cowboy who heads to New York City in search of easy money bedding well-heeled urban women.

After Buck repeatedly strikes out and ends up living in an abandoned hotel with his friend Ratso, played by Dustin Hoffman, the latter tells him his schtick is doomed to fail.

"I know enough to know that that great big dumb cowboy crap of yours don't appeal to nobody except every [gay male] jockey on 42nd Street.”

Not anymore.

Women from all walks of life are taking a second, if not a third and fourth look at today's cowboy.

This weekend, scores of normally sedate women will slap on western hats and boots and head out to the annual Cloverdale Rodeo and Exhibition in search of good, old-fashioned, rough and tough "real" men. In rodeo parlance, those gals are called "buckle bunnies."

The Cloverdale Rodeo and Country Fair runs May 19 to 22 this year in 2017.

When it comes to men, 31-year-old teaching assistant Holly Miettinen says cowboys rule — in fact Miettinen has pretty much quit going to local bars because city men just don't measure up.

"There's not a lot of men like that in Vancouver. I don't know, there's just something about cowboys. They're so polite and courteous. It's just impossible not to have a good time when you're with them."

Miettinen and a group of girlfriends, all mostly professional women, make the pilgrimage each year not only to the Cloverdale Rodeo, which includes a western dance, but also to the Calgary Stampede. One friend who recently moved to Atlanta, Ga. is flying in to join the group at the Stampede in July.

"She wouldn't miss it," says Miettinen. "It's so much fun. The only rules we have are you have to be single and what happens on the road, stays on the road."

Each year Miettinen and her friends design T-shirts to wear during the rodeo, along with their black cowboy hats. Last year's shirts read, "Stampede Cowboy Inspectors," and gave the women "authorization" to check for butt firmness, roping and riding capabilities and drinking ability. The shirts were a huge hit, not just with cowboys but with other women.

"We had all sorts of women ask us where they could buy one."

rodeo cowboy buckle bunny
Holly Miettinen says she prefers a rough-and-tumble type of man over a city slicker. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Miettinen says one reason she's always been attracted to "manly men" is because of her upbringing. Her father was a commercial fisherman, so she was always surrounded by men who didn't mind getting their hands dirty.

"Cowboys are like that. They're not afraid to get sweaty. A guy in a suit going to the office just doesn't do it for me. I like the fact cowboys work hard and aren't afraid to take risks."

The bride said yes to Wranglers

Twenty-seven-year-old Sandra Battilana, who's been attending the Cloverdale Rodeo since 1991, says you can tell true cowboys by their hands.

"You see these guys out there with a perfectly clean hat and manicured nails and you know they're not a real cowboy," says Battilana, a Surrey resident who does clerical work in Vancouver. "Cowboys don't mind a little dirt under their fingernails. I dated a guy once and he told me he used to be a bull rider. I eventually found out he rode a bull once in Grade 8."

Another dead giveaway is how he treats the women in his family as Battilana says cowboys are very respectful and protective of women, particularly their own.

"They respect their mothers. Cowboys are like something out of the past — they open doors for you and pull out chairs. You don't see that very often anymore."

Though they respect women, they rarely call them that, explains Battilana. "A real cowboy always call them ladies. You can tell right away from the terminology they use if they're the real thing or not."

Battilana has been dating cowboys as long as she's been dating and this summer will marry the love of her life, a transplanted cowboy from Alberta, in a western-style wedding ceremony at a ranch in Langley.

The pair met at Gabby's Country Cabaret in Langley a year ago and became instant two-step dance partners. Eventually, they fell in love. Forgoing a traditional tuxedo, the groom and groomsmen will wear Wrangler jeans, western boots and hats, while Battilana is wearing a traditional wedding dress, cowboy hat and boots.

The bride, who owns three cowboy hats, and her attendants are arriving in a horse-drawn carriage. The men will be on horseback. Their reception takes place in the riding arena. Following the wedding, the pair is taking off in their 4X4 Jeep for a back-roads trip across B.C. to Barkerville.

"He told me I could go anywhere in the world I wanted for a honeymoon, but I figured it would be nice to stay in B.C."

When Battilana was single, she and her girlfriends had certain criteria men had to meet before they'd consider dating them — they had to wear a cowboy hat and own a truck.

Battilana suggests any "ladies" interested in meeting the real deal should hang out at events like the rodeo or agri-fairs. "They're outdoorsy people so they need to do outdoorsy things. When I was single, I couldn't imagine dating a city slicker. It just ain't my thing."

But are the chaps buttless?

It's natural for women to be attracted to a risk-taking cowboy, says Catherine Salmon, a post-doctoral researcher in evolutionary psychology at SFU.

"Cowboys offer a lot of the characteristics women would have been looking for during human evolution," Salmon says. "We've only been civilized and living in cities for a short time, and historically, it's always been important that a guy was able to provide."

Women have traditionally looked for traits such athletic ability, the ability to be successful no matter what they do, and rugged facial features, which suggest high-levels of testosterone. Men with those qualities would be highly desirable to father children because of their ability to provide for them.

While most women today likely aren't consciously choosing men based on evolutionary principles, subconsciously, they still find the type very attractive, says Salmon, pointing out that men in careers like policing, firefighting and the military also fascinate women.

"They are physically capable and willing to take risks," she says. "That makes them able to hunt and defend their own.

"Why do you think those are the most popular images that strippers use? When a stripper comes out wearing chaps and a hat and dancing to Bon Jovi's 'Dead or Alive,' women go crazy."

Salmon said many women are also attracted to resources, such as money and belongings, but often still prefer the macho type because the image is of bravery and physical prowess.

"Women might like the BMW, but if they were walking down a street at night, who do you think they'd want walking next to them — the CEO of a computer company or a cowboy?"

Who's the boss?

Snow and freezing rain were falling so hard in northeast Alberta last week that T.J. Baird's tractor got stuck out in a field near his family's ranch.

Bad luck for Baird, but good luck for the Courier because it finally gave the cowboy an opportunity to do a long-awaited cell-phone interview as he walked back to the ranch.

After some prodding, the Castor, Alta. resident admited that many urban women do find cowboys attractive. "Cowboys and city women are from two different cultures," he says. "But opposites attract, and Vancouver women really seem to like that rough-and-tough Marlboro Man image."

cowboy bull riding rodeo
T.J. Baird, left, can spot an impostor cowboy as well as any buckle bunny.

Rough and tough are two words that could easily describe Baird, a professional rodeo bull fighter who also raises bucking bulls with his father. Despite the fact he wears a clown costume, there's nothing comical about the injuries he's suffered while distracting raging bulls, including a fractured skull, broken ribs, torn-out knees and collapsed lungs. The knee injuries force him to wear protective kneepads. He wears a flak jacket to protect his chest. His job is to put his life on the line over and over again by getting between an angry bull and the rider just bucked off.

The 29-year-old attended bull fighting school more than 14 years ago and since then, has been a regular on the international rodeo circuit. At a rodeo several years ago, Baird stepped between a bull and rider and got thrown 15 feet into the air for his trouble.

"I think women might like that athletic ability," Baird says. "You match a cowboy who weighs maybe 150, 160-pounds with a 2,200-pound bull and you have to be athletic. They know who's the boss and it's definitely the bull."

Baird, who met his current girlfriend at the Cloverdale Rodeo, said that, like groupies at concerts, there are women who attend rodeos just to meet men. Some make bedding a winner as much a part of the fair as bull riding.

rodeo cowoboy cloverdale
T.J. Baird says a real cowboy doesn't keep his hat in the closet.

When it comes to risk-taking, even cowboys have their limits, however.

"We were here a while back and this cowboy I know went down to East Hastings Street because he had heard what it was like. It blew his mind," Baird says.

"That scared the shit out of me. There's no way I'm heading down there."

Denim does the trick

Tracey Mills, promotions director for country radio station JR FM and on- air personality at Unforgettable 600 AM, offers another explanation as to why cowboys are so attractive to urban women: the increasingly popularity of country music.

She says country is so mainstream now that a lot of people who never listened to it before are suddenly tuning in to catch hits by stars such as Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Brad Paisley and Marcel. That cross-over means women who might not normally check out cowboy types are suddenly being exposed to a whole new breed of sexy, denim-clad men.

"There's a big difference between the country music we listen to now and what our parents listened to," she said.

Mills will be at the rodeo this weekend with JR FM and admits she'll be checking out the scenery.

"I really like the ruggedness of a cowboy. It's a manly thing."

Like Miettinen, Mills attributes part of her attraction to her upbringing. Her father is a horse trainer and she was raised surrounded by risk-taking cowboy types.

"I've always been around that kind of man. Men who work hard and still have a sense of that old-time chivalry."

No bull about these competitors

While bull rider Rob Bell competes at more than 100 rodeos annually, he considers himself much more sophisticated that the stereotypical cowboy.

Bull riding is a young man's sport says Rob Bell.

"I'm not just a country boy," says Bell, by cell phone from Colorado. "I'm in big cities all the time."

This year alone, Bell, whose home is 40 miles northwest of Calgary, has competed in cities such as Miami, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay. On the road since Jan. 1, he's only been home once this year, and planned to head to California before arriving here for the Cloverdale Rodeo this weekend.

But travel is no problem for Bell, who grew up on the rodeo circuit. His parents competed professionally as team ropers and Bell roped his first calf at age two and rode his first steer at age seven.

Bell says the Cloverdale Rodeo is one of the best in Canada, not just for the women who attend but for the prize money. The other advantage is that points awarded at Cloverdale go towards the title of World Champion All-around Cowboy. That's attracted competitors and spectators from around the world and made the Cloverdale Rodeo the second largest community rodeo in Canada.

In fact, there have been years when the rodeo, which got its start in 1888, has attracted more spectators than the Calgary Stampede. In 1984, it was voted the best performance rodeo in North America by the Professional Cowboys Association.

In 1996, the rodeo, which was previously held in September, was moved to the May long weekend to coincide with rodeos all over the world.

At just 24, Bell has been riding bulls for more than six years. When it comes to finances, bull riders can hold their own against many city slickers — a successful bull rider can pull in more than $200,000 in a good year, something Bell has managed more than once and a fact that's not lost on some rodeo groupies.

"I'm investing," Bell says. "Bull riding is very risky and you don't usually last too long at it. That's why it's a young man's sport." 

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