A honky-tonk twang echoes across a fairground as cowhands wrangle cattle inside a dirt-floored stadium. The scene would be typical in Texas, but this rodeo is happening about 8,000 miles away, on an island in the Philippines.
Nearly every spring for 30 years, the best wranglers in the country have traveled to the island province of Masbate to test their skills at the Rodeo Festival in Masbate City. It’s both a sporting event and a celebration of Philippine cowboy and cowgirl culture.
“Where there’s cattle, there’s rodeo,” said Leo Gozum, 51, a livestock farmer who directs the festival’s rodeo events. “It is not necessarily American.”
In the juego de toro event, or bull game, people chase about 30 cattle through cordoned-off streets, as those in Spain chase bulls through Pamplona. The rules say you can keep any cow you catch — as long as it’s with your bare hands.
Some travel to the Masbate rodeo, usually by boat, from other islands in the Philippine archipelago. Others work on ranches in Masbate Province, one of the country’s poorest regions.
The contestants, mostly farmers and students, compete for $23,000 in prize money, an average of $250 for each of the 90 or so winners. Many of the skills on display have been practiced in the Philippines for centuries — long before the country won its independence from Spain in 1898, and then from the United States in 1946.
One of the toughest events is the carambola, in which teams of men or women restrain an unruly cow in the rodeo ring. By hand, of course.
Masbate Province, like other places in the Philippines, has a violent history and a lingering communist insurgency. “Here, you will be bribed, then intimidated,” said Manuel Sese, a retired judge who owns a ranch outside Masbate City.
Judge Sese said Masbate’s rugged culture and rolling grasslands helped produce legions of capable cowboys, some of whom work on his ranch.
One of them is Justin Bareng, 26. Mr. Bareng said he rises at 4 a.m. most days to feed his diminutive mare before saddling up. With the $100 he earns a month, he feeds his six children and sends his 19-year-old brother to high school.
The rodeo’s total prize pot is an incentive for the contestants, who sometimes call themselves koboys, the Filipino slang for cowboy.
But money isn’t their only motivation.
“Rodeo, for me, is a game of strength, and only for the brave,” said Kenneth Ramonar, 50, a businessman and evangelical preacher who captains a rodeo team from the southern province of Mindanao.
Mr. Ramonar said he used to be a drunkard and a drug addict. Then he started a family, found the Bible and came up with a new use for his ranching skills: rodeoing. Now he runs a ranch resort where tourists can learn the way of koboys during their visit.
Masbate City is a former colonial port that had cattle stockyards near its docks until the 1970s. Its rodeo arena sits next to a fairground where fans mill around in denim, flannel and cowboy hats.
Vendors barbecue beef and pork over smoky grills under colorful tents. There’s line dancing, too, and a honky-tonk number written for the occasion.
“Row-dee-oh Masbateño,” the singer croons.
On a recent morning, one cowhand lounged in dusty jeans. Another shook off the torpid humidity by dousing himself with water.
At a stockyard beneath the bleachers, some cowhands cooked fish for breakfast just after sunrise.
When the rodeo began a few hours later, they would be busy feeding cows, choosing the right ones for specific events and herding them in and out of the ring.
The rodeo includes seven cattle-centric events, including bull riding, lassoing and “casting down,” in which teams of four try to subdue a particularly large specimen with lassos.
The event organizers are seasoned farmers, agriculturists, veterinarians and animal husbandry practitioners who are experts in the handling of animals, said Mr. Gozum, the events director.
He said the key to a good competition was selecting animals that were spirited enough to make the action interesting, but not too dangerous.
“What I’m looking for is the borderland between the playable and nonplayable,” he said.
At this year’s event, the first after a three-year hiatus because of the pandemic, more than 300 contestants competed either as professionals or students. Many in the second category were women.
“A woman can do what a man can do,” said Rosario Bulan, 25. She was part of a team that won first place in two all-women carambola events.
Ms. Bulan, who has an undergraduate degree in crop science and is studying for a master’s, added that while she was happy to win, her primary goal was to avoid injury.
Religious landowners had established ranches around Manila by the 17th century, said Greg Bankoff, a historian in the city. By the 19th century, horses were being used across the country to transport sugar, coconuts and other raw materials.
In Masbate, cowboys drove cattle into the stockyards around the port. From there, the cows were exported to ranches around the country.
Mr. Gozum said that while Philippine cowboy culture is rooted in Spanish traditions and was heavily influenced by American ranching techniques, it now embodies the Filipino virtues of patience and perseverance.
Cowboy culture in the United States, popularized by figures like the actor John Wayne and the musician Jimmie Rodgers, also drew on Spanish influences. But early Texan cowboys deliberately distanced themselves from the Mexican vaqueros they had learned from, said Sarah Sargent, a scholar in Britain who is writing a book about Spanish horsemanship in the Americas.
“The cowboy figure that emerged as an iconic symbol of American national identity was thus shorn of any association with Hispanic origins,” she said.
For Mr. Bareng, the Masbate ranch hand, such distinctions are not important. He just likes to ride.
The seventh of nine children, Mr. Bareng moved to Manila when he was 8 to live with two older siblings after his mother died.
City life bored him, though, and he passed the time partly by watching gunslinging horsemen in Filipino cowboy movies that had been inspired by Hollywood westerns.
At 18, he came home to herd cattle.
For him, the only unusual aspects of competing in a rodeo ring are the spectators and the cash prizes. “Rodeo,” he said, “is what we do here every day.”