The air was fresh with the smell of dirt and hay. The sun was a ways over the horizon, clocking in at just past nine, but the ponies under it were as lively as ever, relishing the festive air. The giant stadium in the center overshadowed the stands and games under it all as ponies strolled between them. The delicious aroma of food sailed overhead, tempting customers with the promise of a sweet breakfast. Foals dragged their parents and guardians to these stands in the hopes of purchasing delicacies or items, ranging from knotted lassos to slingshots. Other attractions varied from ring toss to the bell bucker, where several colts and a few stallions waste their bits attempting to strike the bell at the top with a sledge.
To an outsider, the first thing that would stand out would be the clothing every pony was wearing. Hats in all earthy colors and vests made of leather were worn by pretty much every pony present. The naked would feel even barer upon looking at themselves, lacking any distinct article of clothing. Fortunately, there were a few stands that sold hats and vests hoping to prey on the forgetful few wishing to look more festive for the day. But those ponies missed out on the more intricate clothing that brought out the zeal of the event, such as skirts and chaps.
Just what was this event that made so many ponies gather in such large numbers, wearing clothing? It was the earth pony equivalent of the Grand Galloping Gala.
In other words, the National Rodeo Tour.
"Would'ja just look at this place?" Pinkie Pie exclaimed, bouncing as her friends walked further into the festivities, "Look at all the food they're selling! And the mechanical bulls! I wanna ride one!"
"We can play around later, Pinkie," Twilight said to the anxious pony, "First things first, we go and meet up with Applejack's relatives, then we can enjoy the rodeo and the festivities. Right, Applejack?"
Leading the group, she held her chin up high, "Darn tootin'. The National Rodeo Tour is the pride an' joy of us earth pony folk, so it's only natural that the Apple Family get in on it. It's become sort of a tradition for us."
Much like the Grand Galloping Gala, the six well known friends of Ponyville had entered the rodeo wearing special clothing for the occasion. Applejack had her iconic hat as well as a red bandana hung around her neck, a green and brown vest with an apple pin, and leather boots on all four hooves. Twilight had a purple dress that turned earth brown at the bottom covering her hind legs and wore boots, a blue bandana around her neck, and a fake cactus flower pin in her hair. Rainbow Dash, who was lucky enough to get off of work for today, wore a simple black vest and chaps with boots of the same color on her forelegs. Pinkie Pie had her hair miraculously stuffed into a bonnet with a slight braid coming out from behind and wore a large yellow dress with a puffy skirt with sky blue ribbons wrapped around her chest. Fluttershy wore a frilly dress in white, crimson, and black colors, with puffed shoulders and hems traced around her wings and small black dancing shoes. And last but not least, Rarity wore a large purple hat with a violet feather jutting out and wore a magnificent combination of black and purple as the color scheme for her dress, with a glittering diamond pin on her chest seemingly holding it all together. All of these clothes had been hoof sewn by Rarity as soon as she heard there was a rodeo coming up, which was two days ago.
"Hey AJ," Rainbow Dash spoke up from behind the cowgirl, scanning behind the stands and games "Where are the bulls?"
Applejack habitually tilted her hat as she answered, "They're all cooped up in the big stadium over there. You can only see 'em during the show."
Twilight turned to Applejack, "Why would that be?"
"They ain't very social folk. They can hardly stand crowds, noise much less. It's fer everypony's protection," she said with a nod.
"Really? They spend the entire rodeo in that stuffy stadium?" Rarity spoke up, as if the very thought was scandalous.
"Sure. They don't mind though. They're fighters, very dangerous ones to be around," one could feel her grin widening as she spoke.
"But the bulls at the ironworks seemed very docile," Twilight responded.
"Dossy what?" Rainbow Dash turned to her and questioned.
"She means they're easygoing and cooperative," Rarity explained.
"Yeah, so I find it hard to believe that bulls can be aggressive," Twilight finished.
There was an outburst of laughter from Applejack, unable to hold it in anymore. The mares looked at each other uneasily as they waited for the cowgirl to breathe.
"H-Have ya'll been livin' under a rock or somethin'?" she said, wiping a stray tear from her eye, "Bulls are known for their anger an' power. It's the only thing they respect. You think we'd just ask bulls to sit around all day for a show?"
Applejack laughed a little more as they resumed walking, Twilight feeling annoyed as well as a little embarrassed.
"Ok, then. Why don't you explain to us what it is they do in a rodeo?" she asked, almost challengingly.
Applejack calmed down and breathed in, "Sure thing." At this, the cowgirl had their attention as she cleared her throat, "Bullfighting is a sport that earth ponies started a long time ago. It was during a time when the land was still bare of cities and landmarks, so ponies got around by carriages and marked trails. Because of this, travelers would often cross paths with wild herds of cows, led by an alpha bull. They'd usually just go around the herd to avoid trouble, if possible, but eventually there'd be no avoidin' a herd and an angry bull."
"Oh, this sounds familiar," Twilight intervened, "This happened when the earth ponies first migrated from Terria?"
"Nope," Applejack replied, to Twilight's disdain, "This was after that, when we first expanded and built settlements in random places of land. The wild cows wandered around randomly, but they would block the main roads by streams and hills, and they made it difficult for the settlers to get around."
Rainbow Dash could feel the conflict of the story building, "So, lemme guess. You guys had to fight the bulls to get through?"
"Exactly," Applejack nodded, "The strongest stallion had to go hoof to hoof with the alpha bulls and tie 'im down so that the earth ponies could get their cargo across the map."
"That explains the lassos," Twilight said, looking to a group of colts flailing rope around.
"This happened for a while, with a few casualties every now an' then," her tone only faltered a little, "but eventually, the same bulls came to respect the earth ponies stubbornness and power, and the two came together to form a peaceful tact. And that's what started the bullfightin' tradition of the rodeo."
The group audibly expressed their awe at the deep history of the earth ponies as they walked closer to the stadium, suddenly getting a nostalgic feeling not unlike walking through a museum.
"So those bull fights are friendly matches, then?" Twilight asked, endlessly curious.
"Well, most of the time," she answered, her tone dwindling in excitement.
"But I thought-"
"There's a real danger of goin' hoof to hoof with a bull in the ring, Twi. It ain't a friendly sparrin' match," Applejack explained a little too harshly, "Only the bravest stallions go in the ring wit' a bull, and once a bull sees red, he can't tell friend from foe."
Cold draped over the group as they walked into the shadow of the stadium. The rodeo sounded more like a gladiator deal than fun-for-the-whole-family if there was the possibility of a gruesome accident occurring. Of course, accidents like that could always happen every day, but in this instance it'd be wrought by another sentient being, and the thought was scary.
"Where do I sign up?"
All four ponies spun their heads in the direction of Rainbow Dash, who could only look back with an unenlightened expression.
"Didn't you just hear me?" Applejack expressed her disbelief aloud, "I said, it's a dangerous deal, as in life or death."
"And ponies pay to see it?" Twilight nearly shouted, wishing to express how wrong it all was.
Applejack gave a low tired sigh as she picked up her pace, urging the others to keep up with her. Fluttershy, who had been quiet since the talk of bulls began, was still trailing behind.
"Ya'll have nothin' to worry about," the cowgirl resisted the need to roll her eyes, "Like Ah said, only the bravest stallions can fight a bull, and by that, I mean professionals. All the necessary precautions are taken before every bullfight to minimize the possibility of things goin' horribly, horribly wrong."
The group seemed to relax at this revelation, but the rainbow pegasus wasn't satisfied.
"I still wanna compete. Is that so wrong?" she nearly pleaded.
"If you have a death wish, no, it isn't," Rarity said in a rare demonstration of sarcasm.
"Sorry, Dash, but it takes years of practice and trainin' before anypony is ready to fight a bull," Applejack said as she led the group by the line at the ticket booth, "Even the strongest ponies need to go through trainin' and fitness exams, and that kinda stuff could take years."
"I just want one match," the pegasus looked away, a defense mechanism for ridicule, "Not like I'm gonna make a career out of it…"
The cowgirl smirked and huffed through her nose, "Don't fret. We'll be seein' a show later on today. Maybe that'll get you your fix."
And just like that, her spirits were lifted. It was the only reason she agreed to come to the rodeo. Too bad it had to wait until family business was over and done with. But it couldn't be helped; the Apples were a close knit family and anything that had to do with them was a personal affair.
"Hey girls! Girls, look!" returning from the maze of vendors, Pinkie Pie held a plate of dessert in one hoof while toting a wagon of other goods in the other, "It's solid like a cake," she gave it a poke, causing the yellow dessert to jiggle, "but gooey like a pudding!"
Rarity, however, was not amused, "Pinkie Pie, try to control yourself," she looked at her wagon of food, almost envious, "You can't go around spending all of your bits on food."
The pink pony gulped, having already consumed the pudding cake, "Aww, don't worry, Rarity. The Cakes gave me extra for today."
"Oh, did they now?" she replied, surprised, "My, that's awfully generous of them. But, don't you think you'll spoil your appet-"
Rarity paused as she watched Pinkie devour a whole cake. It was like watching wood being fed into a wood chipper. Uncanny.
Applejack chuckled, "Don't worry, ya'll. There's plenty of food to go around, especially at the Apple Family reunion. We got's all sorts a treats to tickle your taste buds."
"How much farther is it?" Dash compalined. The sooner they could say hi to her relatives, the sooner they could get on with the rodeo games.
"Shouldn't be any closer now," she reassured, "We're havin' the reunion right behind the vendor Mac's stationed at."
"Wait, he's here too?" Dash's curiosity was piqued. It was rare to see Mac outside of the farm, aside from a few chance sightings in Ponyville.
"O'course. 'Tis a family reunion, after all," Applejack said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, "An' besides, he's an old face 'round these parts."
"He used to rodeo?" Twilight asked. She spoke for the rest of them, as this was new information to the group.
"Yep. One o' the best," she said proudly, but then her face drooped a bit, "Until he retired."
"Why'd he quit?" Rainbow Dash asked, intrigued.
"Family needed him more than the rodeo did," Applejack answered, "He's a workin' pony, and has been since he could speak. His energy was better spent on a farm than in a rodeo anyway."
The pegasus merely shrugged, although still not satisfied with the answer. It wasn't like he couldn't enter a rodeo every now and then; Applejack even did so occasionally for the farm. What harm would it do if he managed to bring home a blue ribbon or two? Although, maybe it was because he was the hardest worker of the family that he couldn't afford to slack off for their sake. The farm seemed to be doing fine without hired hooves, most likely because Mac did all the work. They saved money by conserving as much as they could, and it all pretty much boiled down to his sole efforts of maintaining work on the farm. In that case, it was understandable. Family before fun; that much she could acknowledge.
"Welp. Here we are," Applejack announced as they closed in on a cluttered line of mares.
A colored assortment of mares crowded the stand of Sweet Apple Acres. The only way Applejack knew it was theirs was because of the signature flag billowing in the wind overhead, acting as a beacon for those here for the reunion. Just behind the vendor was a wide area filled with ponies with apple themed cutie marks talking to each other as more gathered from outside. Compared to the reunion from the Summer Sun Celebration, this meet up was far bigger, if only because of the greater presence of stallions overtaking the mares and fillies present. Apparently, much like Big Macintosh, the stallions were the most valuable workers of their farms so only rarely would they take days off for festivities such as today.
"Go ahead an' make yerselves at home, and don't be a stranger now," Applejack said as they walked within awareness of the crowd, "We'll be gettin' on with the games and the rodeo eventually."
As the group allowed themselves in the gathering, Rainbow Dash looked overhead to see what was pulling in all of these customers. The lines at Sweet Apple Acres during noon weren't this packed, so what was different here? Was their food that good? Was there a sale on or something? When she noticed that every customer was a mare and that the vendors were Big Macintosh and Applejack's cousin, Braeburn, she rolled her eyes. Typical.
What was it about stallions that made mares humiliate themselves in public? Sure, she'd admit Mac and Braeburn were quite eye catching, but she wasn't one to go gaga over a stallion like that. She still had her dignity, and she'd sooner eat a cactus raw than squeal over a guy like the poor mares in line. It was one of the reasons why she didn't like hanging out with other ponies other than her friends, because most mares seemed to only talk about a few things, stallions being one of them.
'Gimme a break,' Dash thought as she followed the group into the reunion.
Oh well. At least the rodeo would make up for this oversight. The sooner they could get on with the family reunion, the sooner she can start enjoying the rodeo.
Things couldn't possibly go wrong today.