Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women

Lamentably, the women of the Wild West show aren't fireproof this year. The Flying Cossacks, the trick riders in the pre-rodeo Wild West show, don't use pyrotechnics (although anyone who cares to may still stroll the showgrounds singing "Learned pigs and fireproof women," to the tune of "Silver Threads and Golden Needles"). Another dependable cheap thrill, easily enjoyed while swilling Dome beer and inhaling barbecue fumes, is singing Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." They all fit: "There's a certain slant of light..." "Because I could not stop for Death..." There's really no end to the musical novelties one might discover with the proper background and lack of inhibition. Public obnoxiousness, however, is not passive entertainment. The glorious spectacles provided by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo are.

The Rodeo Committee has changed a few things -- this year's midway doesn't have the vestigial freak show featured in years past -- but the learned pigs are back, and they're more popular than ever.

Houston's beloved pig races are now held eight times daily in the "Bud Pavilion," a cluster of tents east of the Astrohall. Two teams of trained Yorkshires, white and curly-haired, and a pack of potbelly pigs run for Oreos. Their little track has a mechanical starting gate and everything. This kills people. Pig races may be the Livestock Show's single most popular event.

Far more people than can ever hope to fit cram into the tent. As Porker Waggoner, Hammy Wynette and Al Boar are introduced, the comedy stylings of "Swifty Swine" impresario DeWayne Woods are received with howling, indulgent laughter. When Woods asks "How do we call our racing pigs?," the crowd, most of whom don't know from guinea pigs, hollers "Sooiee!"

The pigs are swapped out every four months or so, owing to the change from cute piggy to enormous hog. What do the hogs think of this? I cannot say, but I offer the following lesson from history. (Which is lifted, as is the headline on this story, from Ricky Jay's inspired book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women.) At the turn of the century, one Fred Leslie's "Porcine Circus" traveled with trained shoats who, like the Swifty Swine, were retired to farm life when they reached awkward size. One week, after the old animals had been sold to a farm and new piglets trained for the show, the circus was held over. When the learned pig overture began, the veteran troupers heard their music, busted out of their pen, ran to the circus, rooted under the tent, knocked the piglets from the ring and did their act.

Awkward size is less of a threat to the girl trick-riders, idols of the Wild West show. Their job -- performing acrobatics on a galloping horses -- requires arduous equestrian and gymnastic practice, which keeps them trim. (Why no fires in the ring? Typically, a troupe of trick riders who ride Roman will jump through flaming hoops. A troupe,

like the Cossacks, that does "hanging drags" and "lay-out to the shoulder" will not, but there are no hard and fast rules on this.)

Like so many working women, however, trick riders sometimes reach a point at which the demands of home and family keep them off the road. The Flying Cossacks lost an older sister to momdom. Tami and Fawn have no plans to leave the ring, but Joezel thinks she might want to stop doing horseback stunts and stay home baking cookies. (Her husband, who has watched her daredevil show exactly once, doesn't especially mind her working, but he would much prefer something less dangerous.) Right now, her son (not to mention her mom and dad) travel with the troupe. Joezel and her sisters do the spectacular high-speed act alone. Then, for the finale, she pulls her toddler Giovanni up on her paint quarterhorse and they race around the arena together.

Should you be inspired by the Wild West show and desire a wild ride, Ralph Fisher of "Animals for All Occasions" has a nearby booth. For a mere $10.83, up to five people can be photographed astride a steer. The bovines work one-and-a-half-hour shifts. You may ride Cactus, a flea-bitten gray longhorn who artfully twists his head to step into the booth, or maybe Chance, a 19-year-old Brahman who, like many of the fantastic creatures at the show, has worked with David Letterman. Fisher has attempted to retire Chance several times, but the big Brahman wants to be on the road.

Pig Races: 10 a.m., noon, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 p.m.

Wild West Show: 6 p.m., Astrohall.

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