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DUNCANS MILLS — That the parking lot is a grass field littered with cow patties may help explain the local popularity of the Russian River Rodeo.

This is ranch country.

But there must be something in western DNA that makes people partial to rodeos, whatever their lifestyle, judging by attendance at Saturday's 48th annual.

Something about the well-muscled steeds, the powerful bulls and cowboy heroics on display resonates with country and city folks alike.

"It's the sport, the action of it," said Conrad Blue, 17, of Cazadero.

Christine Canelis, a member of the rodeo association board, puts it this way: "It's just man versus beast."

Whatever the appeal, the event was expected to draw about 1,200 people Saturday and again Sunday, organizers said. It brings in folks from around Sonoma County and the greater Bay Area, at least, to watch tough men and women try their hands at roping calves, riding astride bulls and bucking broncos, barrel racing and wrestling steers.

The no-nonsense cowboys and cowgirls who come to Duncans Mills to participate face real risks in the arena in the hopes of taking home a bit of prize money. They hail from around California, including a handful of locals and one from as far away as Australia.

Carrying into the future the riding and roping skills that are part of the western tradition, they seem fearless despite the size of the animals over which they're seeking to exert their will.

Team-roping competitor P.J. Davis of Orland, who first learned roping from a family friend at age 10, said he was hooked immediately. Twenty-four years later, he's still at it as part of a two-man team challenged to rope a steer around the horns and its rear feet.

"My daughter loves it, too," he said. "It gives a whole new meaning to the word princess — 'You mean I can be rough and still be a princess?'"

Junior barrel-racer Jolie Allison, 13, of Forestville and training partner Karly Camozzi, 10, of Cazadero said their event is really hard work, but also so much fun. The pair ride as one with their horses in tight turns around the barrels.

"It's a team sport," a girl joined with her horse, Allison said. "You can't just push her to do it."

Hundreds of children were among the spectators Saturday, many of them sporting western hats and cowboy boots.

Nathan Romero, 6, of Santa Rosa, proudly wore a newly acquired lariat around his tiny frame before a man with a practiced arm borrowed it for a few tricks. But while he'd like to learn to throw a rope, his favorite event to watch is the bareback riding, like his older brother, Marcus, 9.

"I wish I could do it," Marcus Romero said.

Monica O'Callaghan of San Francisco said her 5-year-old twins find the event engrossing.

"Their eyes are riveted on the action," she said. "It's hard to see them that attentive even during a movie."

"I think any kid growing up, he just wants to be a cowboy," rodeo association president Lee Walker said.

A few in the stands said they struggled with events that required competitors to wrestle roped steers and calves to the ground.

Sonoma 8-year-old Sara Steinmetz summed it up as "hurtful and mean."

"If any of the animals looked at all stressed, she was upset," said her mother, Jennifer Bishop.

Four protesters outside the rodeo grounds carried signs decrying what they described as "cruelty for entertainment."

Rodeo organizers said the livestock is too valuable and expensive to be abused or harmed.

And most said they just found the spectacle exciting and fun.

"I've always loved rodeos," O'Callaghan said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)