Where cowboys race the clock

YEE HAW! This city slicker is so not dressed for a night at the rodeo. I'm 500 kilometres from my wardrobe, so can't whip home and change. And another confession. There's no "yee hawing" going on. I'd certainly hear it echoing under the brims of the satellite-dish-sized Stetsons the cowboys are wearing.

It's dusk in the far north-west of NSW. The sky is as magical as the opals found nearby, with bushfire red layering on golden blue. It creates dramatic silhouettes of swaggering cowboys in fringed chaps, cowgirls with diamante belts and kids balancing on the arena railings.

I head over to photograph some primary-school mates mucking about on the bleachers. They're all in cowboy hats, their ears folded in half under the weight. "It's a great day," one of them beams. "I'm in the poddy riding comp, and I've never had my photo taken!"

Country music blares through the loudspeaker. The MC introduces the cowboys and they've come from far and wide, from the Northern Territory to South Australia.

First up is the saddle bronc riding contest, originating from a time when men tamed wild horses.

A buzzer sounds and the chute springs open. A horse bucks out and the cowboy jerks back and forth, right arm sweeping the air. It's happening so quickly that he looks like a rag doll being tossed around. The crowd cheers as the seconds tick by. Eight seconds to glory but the horse bucks him off before he can score. There's a dull thud as the cowboy is kicked in the chest. The rodeo clowns distract the horse as the cowboy staggers off, only to strap himself for the next ride. Each cowboy gets a chance to prove himself but few reach the golden eight seconds.

It's a night of bull riding, team roping and steer wrestling. It's a night of sausage sandwiches dripping with caramelised onion and tomato sauce, of horse manure and dust in your nostrils.

Next comes the heart-stopper; the bareback bronc riding, in which only a leather pad and a handhold keep the cowboy on top of the wildly bucking horse. The chute opens. Dust swirls around the flying horse. It bucks towards the fence, sweating and snorting.

The row of perching kids scream, like they're on a roller-coaster. They scatter as the horse hits the fence, flinging the rider up and over.

"He might be dusted ... he might be busted but there's no score for Carl," the laconic MC drawls.

As the pace lessens, it's the kids' turn: the junior comp on the poddies. My young mates are each in a stall being helped by the older cowboys.

As the chute opens, the calf bounces out. A cowboy steers its head and a clown guides its rear. The young cowboy holds on, one-handed, for dear life. There's no making the eight seconds for these first-timers but the crowd cheers, the kids beam and they've earned the bragging right to be called rodeo riders.

The Collarenebri Rodeo takes place annually in September.