His breathtaking “Wedding Ring” and golden horse have taken this California charro all around the world — and, most recently, to the opening laser light show at the NFR.
Trumpets announce his entrance into the arena, and the first thing you notice is the long golden mane of his horse. More than 2 feet long, the hair shimmers in the spotlight, bouncing with each powerful stride. As the crowd begins to applaud, the rider, Tomás Garcilazo, raises his hand to the tip of his flopping felt sombrero. The traditional mariachi music picks up, and he brings the horse from a quick gallop to a halting stop. Posed there for a moment, with his traditional throwback charro attire gleaming and the stallion’s hair still swaying, the scene looks like a painting, like an image from another time.
An announcer usually introduces Garcilazo and Hollywood, the horse, as the dance begins. Each show is similar but different. It often starts with Hollywood spinning quickly one direction, then the other. The spectacle, the flashing golden blur, is a feat of poetic athleticism. Next, Garcilazo usually pulls out his lasso and springs up a fast, tight, spiraling loop. As he spins the loop in every direction — including both in front of the sprinting horse and down over his own hat and arms — he has the command of a masterful magician. At times, it seems like he’s brought an inanimate object to life. The audience can’t help but erupt with awed cheers.
Garcilazo marches the horse backward and forward, still spinning the rope with both hands, signaling to Hollywood with his knees and voice alone. In a seven-minute show, like the one he did last summer in Claremore, Oklahoma, or the one he did at the Mesquite Rodeo in Texas last year, Garcilazo might stand up in the saddle, still spinning the lasso — now behind his back, then in tight rings out over imaginary horns, then in a vertical circle so big he’s actually able to jump through it. The horse holds still throughout. A shorter two-minute show might just be the highlights, like a medley of hits. For longer shows, like the one he did at the 2015 Rodeo Austin, he incorporates other riders (including his wife and niece), and the performance often unfolds like a 30-minute operatic ballad.
Sometimes the shirt and pants Garcilazo wears are black with white trim, steamed and cleaned so that the sheen catches the light in just the right way. Sometimes the costume is dark brown or dark green. Whatever color Garcilazo wears, the horse has corresponding ankle wraps.
To close the show, Garcilazo usually sits back down in the saddle to perform the crowd favorite. He calls it the Wedding Ring. Announcers describe it as “the big loop,” but that doesn’t really do it justice. While riding around the arena at full speed, he spins the rope out — nearly all 65 feet of it — into a massive lasso, a band big enough to encircle both the charro and the horse. They sprint around like that, with the rope surrounding them, neither man nor stallion faltering. From the crowd there are whistles and more cheers and booming applause.
Then they stop. Hollywood halts with precision. The rope drops to the ground. For the first time, Garcilazo lifts his sombrero and reveals to the crowd his beaming smile. He’s a fit man, with a warm face that’s now glistening as the spotlight hits his perspiration. He waves his hat in a few different directions and humbly places it back on his head. Then the trumpets die down and off he rides, into the dark, leaving a stunned audience to stir in the wonder of what they’ve just seen.
For Tomás Garcilazo, life is about trying to maintain routines. He spends a lot of time on the road, often with Hollywood, and salvaging a sense of normality is important for both of them. A typical day begins with Garcilazo waking up early and going to the barn to see his horse. In the mornings the charro wears Wranglers and a T-shirt. If there’s a show that night, Garcilazo will lay out his costume, making sure it shines. He wants everything to look, as he says, “untouched.”
He’ll also organize his ropes. He considers the temperature and the humidity — and whether the performance is inside, at night, or outside, at the height of the afternoon sun — and sets out the ropes that will perform best in the given conditions. He wants everything in place.
Garcilazo also makes sure the horse is clean. He puts a reflective grease on Hollywood’s hooves — for more shine — and brushes his mane and tail. Depending on how much later the show is, he might have the horse do a little warming up, some light circles to take the edge off. Most days, he just wants to make sure the horse defecates, so there’s no risk of his going during the performance.
“The smells in a new arena or the feel of the air conditioning can make him uptight,” Garcilazo explains. “And that can make him poop or pee.”
Hence the stress on the details of preparation. Many days, Garcilazo spends more time with the horse than with his wife and children. After seven years of this, Hollywood knows the routines by heart. He can anticipate every move the charro makes. On the off chance Garcilazo wants to insert something new for a show, it takes only a few minutes of close instruction and repetition — Garcilazo calls it “quality time.” He’s come to learn the nuances of the horse’s personality. Hollywood is independent, serious, clever. He seems to know that people think he’s impressive-looking. Sometimes he seems aloof. Sometimes he’s nervous. If there are pyrotechnics, he can get skittish, and Garcilazo has to soothe him in a calm voice. Before a show, the horse can be tense and standoffish. Afterward, he’s much more relaxed and inclined to interact with kids and fans in any potential meet-and-greets.
Hollywood’s registered name is Latigo Dun It. He’s the son of Hollywood Dun It, a celebrated quarter horse and record-setting stallion. And since he has his father’s princely golden mane, he carries his father’s name. He’s 12 now, and he’s been working with Garcilazo since he was 5.
Their schedule is erratic. They might be in one town for weeks at a time. Then they might be somewhere else for only a day or two. Sometimes they’re home for weeks on end, but then they might be gone for 50 straight shows. The charro doesn’t want to talk about the money, but at 48, his career has afforded him a house and a nice piece of land in Southern California. (Garcilazo became a U.S. citizen a few years ago.)
Garcilazo realizes that life on the road can be tough for Hollywood. Stallions are sensitive. Away from home, there’s different hay, different water, different places to sleep — on top of the stress of standing up for hours in the trailer as they drive. So Garcilazo checks him out every morning. And he doesn’t ask Hollywood to work when they’re at home. When he’s in California, the horse spends most of his days breeding.
The charro works with three other horses, but none of them get the same oohs from live audiences. None of them draw the hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. And none have quite the same connection with Garcilazo. He doesn’t think of Hollywood as a tool or even a co-worker.
“We are working together,” Garcilazo tells people, “but he is my family.”
When he gets back to the hotel, or wherever Garcilazo might be staying for that particular stretch, he usually eats something light. He prefers cereal: Cocoa Puffs or Honey Smacks or Frosted Flakes. Sometimes it’s just Gatorade and crackers. Recently, his wife and kids have been able to join him on the road, so he tends to pass time with them. Other days, he watches TV and relaxes, or maybe answers questions for a writer.
He thinks about the show he’ll put on that night. It’s about staying fresh and focused and relaxed. He learned a lot from his time on Broadway and his days performing in Europe, he says. In the end, one thing matters most: “Give the audience what they want.”
All of his uncles and cousins were charros. “I was born and raised with it,” Garcilazo says. Growing up in Mexico City, he was one of the youngest boys in a big family, and he didn’t get a lot of attention. He watched as his older brothers and cousins competed in the rodeo, and he heard the wonderful compliments they got when they did well. So when he was 4 or 5, he picked up a rope and started swinging. “Monkey see, monkey do,” he jokes.
The older boys showed him what they’d been taught: how to hold the rope, where to put your feet, how not to move your hips. Every time he did a trick, it felt like he’d accomplished something and he wanted to try another one. The better he became, the more attention he got. He began carrying the rope everywhere he went. “It was like my toy growing up,” he says. He created new tricks — “rope artistry,” he calls it. He could work the rope like a great musician works an instrument, so smooth it looks effortless. He could make the rope talk and dance and grow and shrink. The way the rope seemed to hover and creep, Garcilazo looked like a snake charmer.
By the time he was 8, his uncles were bringing him to parades and celebrations to perform for strangers. He loved it. He loved the cheering and the applause. He didn’t get nervous, even when he was asked to perform for the president of Mexico. His school asked him to perform for his own sixth grade graduation — then again when he graduated from high school.
“I knew then this was something I wanted to do for a living,” he says. “I wanted to perform all over the world.”
The riding came less naturally. He had to work on the balance, the responsiveness, the connection with his horse. He learned that the horse had to be able to read him, and that came only through practice.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Linda Ronstadt recorded a series of traditional mariachi albums and went on tour to promote them. In 1992, Garcilazo got a part in her show, brought out in full regalia to ride and rope across the stage. After that he auditioned and got a part in Broadway’s The Will Rogers Follies. He was invited to be part of the touring cast, so for more than three years he crisscrossed America, doing eight shows a week. It was during this stretch that he perfected his Wedding Ring. “That’s the big sell,” he says.
Garcilazo also loved seeing different places. He’d be in Chicago, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and as soon as he checked into the hotel he’d read about all the local museums and attractions. In all, he went to 56 cities in 48 states. Once he performed for President Bill Clinton and was invited to the White House.
He was invited to join the cast at the Euro Disney Resort (now Disneyland Paris). It was mostly the same type of show: roping and riding. And on his off days, he went to see other parts of Europe. It was in France that he met the woman who’d become his wife.
In 1997, he was asked to perform at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, the Super Bowl of rodeo. The crowd, the sponsors, the organizers — everyone was mesmerized by what he could do with a rope and a horse. He’s been back to perform every year since.
On most afternoons, it’s back to the arena for a production meeting two or three hours before the show. They go over the rundown for the night: the lights, the music, all the cues, who will use which gate. He also talks to the announcer, to make sure that person will be able to guide the audience through the performance, no matter the language.
“An announcer can make or break a show,” Garcilazo says, ever the perfectionist.
Then he gets dressed and puts the matching accents on Hollywood. The saddle he uses has a saddlehorn the size of a toaster. Every so often, someone asks him about it. Or about why he wears the big, old-timey sombrero. His answer is always the same.
“It’s the heritage,” he says. “I’m one of the charros who can share the traditions and the culture.” He says he likes to take the audience “back to the old days, when we weren’t all in such a hurry and you had time to appreciate the beautiful things in life.”
Unless the show is just a short highlight reel of tricks, he and Hollywood don’t do a lot of pre-show warm-up. Most of the warm-up is built into the act. As Garcilazo gets older, he has to be more careful with his body. He has aches he never used to, and he knows his shoulder won’t hold out for long. He’d like to transition into more directing and producing. But he’s not thinking about that as he’s getting ready.
Soon he’s in the wings of the arena, and he can hear the crowd and the speakers rumbling. No matter where they are, before they go on, Garcilazo leans over to reassure Hollywood.
“Hey buddy,” the charro says to the golden horse. “I just need a few minutes of your time. I need 100 percent effort. Then we can go home.”
Then the trumpets blare, and it’s time for the show.
From the January 2016 issue.