The sun hangs high and hot on a cloudless day over Arcadia, beating down on the gathered crowds. Riders, wranglers and ropers from across the country steel themselves for the day’s competition and the horses champ at their bits. Beneath the bleachers, the low rumble of penned and restless bulls grows to a crescendo. The only thunder heard today will be from the hooves of the beasts themselves. This is the Arcadia All Florida Championship Rodeo and, as they say, it’s the "Granddaddy of 'Em All."

Through the gates early: before noon. Rodeo starts at 2pm; crowds already thick, corralled on the grounds where a sortie of trucks and tents and trailers essentially “circles the wagons.” Classic fairground fare abounds with billboards loud and bright. Chilly Willy’s Homemade Frozen Lemonade abuts Twisted Willy’s giant pretzels. Jumbo peanuts and Big’s Barbecue and deep-fried corn. Keep moving. Rodeo attire is not required but easily acquired. The Holy Trinity: Boots, Belts and Bona Fide Cowboy Hats. Rows upon rows, stacks upon stacks. Pick and choose. Mix and match. Try them all on. Brenda’s Western Bling next-door selling bolos and buckles covered in beads, stones and tassels for the Vegas Cowboy look. Outside the gate people still stream in from the gravel lots—families, couples, lone riders—toward the worn timber lodge and the rodeo stadium rising behind. This is the calm before the storm.

Lining the stadium behind fences of whitewashed pipe, the animals grow restless on display. Handlers maneuver horses through mazes of adjustable fencing under the bleachers, moving walls and making gates as they prepare for the coming event. Three sawhorn bulls tramp the mud in a pen barely 15-by-10 feet, jostling for position. Up close, a breathing mass of pure muscle ripples and folds over itself under too-tight skin. One heaves its bulk against the gate hard, drawing bright red blood that mats into its dark fur. A few steps down, Barry Brown the Bionic Bull Rider testifies. In 1968, a bad bout with a bull left Brown with his chest split in half—sternum and five ribs broken—but he returned two years later, rebuilt and ready to ride, becoming a champion in the early ‘70s. “It’s the challenge between me and the animal,” he says. “The animal wants to prove to me that I can’t ride him.”

The roar of the crowd grows and the voice over the PA battles for dominance as the grand entry commences in a parade of galloping horses ringing the stadium. Riders clutch flags declaring various allegiances—to rodeos, teams, sponsors and the Good Ol’ U-S-of-A. As quickly, the atmosphere turns solemn as a trio of riderless horses lopes around the field, an invocation for the lost, including a young barrel rider and new mother killed weeks prior at a competition in Mississippi. A star-spangled rider emerges hoisting the American flag and the crowd’s spirits with it as the anthem plays and the rodeo begins.

The action kicks off with the bareback riding competition. One rider, one horse, no saddle—hold on tight. Breaking from the gate, the bronco bucks toward the center of the field in staccato, arrhythmic jolts,desperate to fling its unwanted passenger. Hats flying, chaps flying, fringe flying—the rider leans back horizontal across the animal’s spine, legs kicking up and out with each jump in an attempt to delay the inevitable dismount. Three wranglers flank with lariats at the ready to rope the escaped equine and muscle it back to its pen.

As the day wears on, riders look on from a ringside bullpen. Straddling the fence, some watch the competition, where steer wrestling, team roping and calf wrangling play out in rapid succession. Men dive from their mounts onto fleeing bovine castrati, ride out in pairs to lasso panicked cattle and test their cowboy mettle one-on-one with escaping calves, judged for their speed and style. Some prep for their coming contests: stretching, fitting gear, wrapping limbs and slapping dust on their hands and jeans. Others pace, restless as the animals.

The wheels begin to come off and the illusion of control shatters as the first bronco sets the tone for the coming competition, hurling its rider into the dirt in fewer than two seconds. Tearing across the ring, the surprised wranglers take off in pursuit. Lassoes ineffective, the animal refuses to be corralled, stalling the show. Kicking and leaping, the horse whinnies and strains the ropes around its neck until it charges into its pen, battering the gates. “Keep that one by hisself!” a wrangler yells as the devil disappears under the bleachers and they shake underfoot. A rider from New Mexico, Taos Muncy, closes out the competition with a 90-point finish and the spectators leave their seats. “The bar has been raised,” comes the voice in the loud speakers.

A contest of speed, riders hurtle towards the arena and hit the starting line at a full gallop as the clock starts ticking. Waiting on the field: a triangular course demarcated by a trio of great rusted barrels. Looping around each, the rider and horse lean low into the ground like a motorcycle on a hairpin turn, hooves kicking clods of dirt through the air, prodded into each curve at maximum velocity. On the opening turn, a contestant loses her hat, revealing a full head of hair streaming purple in memory of a fallen barrel racer. She reaches back for the lost article in a lapse of judgment that will cost her precious seconds. “You don’t need it!” yells the man with the microphone. “We wanna see that purple hair!”

Thrown quickly, the first rider hits the dirt flat on his back and the lassoes come out, one looping the animal’s massive and bucking black head. With a powerful jerk, the wrangler is thrown from his saddle, shoulder pulled from the socket, as the bull turns upon the riderless horse and tackles it into the ground. The clowns are out in force and the injured man rushed over the fence. Another wrangler mounts and joins the fray. Charging and wheeling, the bull wields its rage in a cloud of dust and dirt—a primal display of defiance from a beast cornered against superior numbers. Encircled and embattled, the animal’s retreat is inevitable, and when it comes the crowd cheers but it’s unclear whom for. Later a rider will be gored in the back. “Today was pretty rough,” a woman says as she ushers her children through the stands. “The bulls looked small, but they were real spitfires. A lot of guys got hurt today.”