By Rod Miller
This was the rule: if you made it past the pigpen, it was a qualified ride. My initiation into grown-up rodeo wasn’t exactly a high-toned affair with banners and flags and crowds and queens. One summer during my early high school years, I would load up with a handful of older boys from my hometown for a trip to a ramshackle ranch about thirty miles south to attend “rodeo school.”
The place was home to a cowboy—he seemed old at the time, but was probably in his thirties—who was a fine saddle bronc rider; the former champion of the regional semi-pro rodeo association in our part of the country. This cowboy had a handful of bucking horses, kept for practice and to consume any excess hay he might have on the place. Only two of their names remain in my memory—The Bay Mare and Old Fooler.
Out back of the house was an arena with a bucking chute, all assembled from used railroad ties, weathered two-by-fours, and assorted planks and poles and wire and any other item that might serve as a fence. About halfway down the west side of the arena was an unused enclosure and low shed attached to the outside of the fence, empty at the time, but meant to house a few pigs. Then, it marked the official end of a qualified ride—if you stayed aboard your horse long enough to pass that point it was good enough, and our teacher/pickup man would pull you off.
While that place was home to my first experiences climbing aboard full-grown bucking horses on purpose, it was not my first rodeo. I had, for years, got on (and fell off) calves at junior rodeos and ridden a few feisty Shetland ponies in “Little Buckaroo” rodeos. But there remains the question of why I, or anyone, would want to mount, on purpose, a horse you knew would try to buck you off.
[The first recorded evidence of Rod Miller’s adventures in the rodeo arena, from a 1970 high school rodeo in Ogden, Utah. (Photo by James Fain)]
It’s like this, at least for me.
I grew up in a cowboy family, with saddle horses ever present. We fed them morning and night as part of the daily chore routine, rode them to handle the small herd of cattle we kept, and used them for recreation. Dad was a natural with horses. He knew how to handle them, with just the right touch in training. An intuitive understanding of when to go easy and when to be firm is necessary for any good horseman, and Dad had it.
Unfortunately, those genes landed in my older brother and there were none left over for me. So, while I grew up horseback, and followed Dad’s lead in training our own horses and breaking and training a few for others, I made a frustrating pupil—never quite able to understand the finer points of horsemanship, always having to muddle my way along as best I could, which wasn’t very good.
Then there’s a fact that everyone who works with horses for any length of time knows: any time, any place, for any reason (or none at all) any horse is likely to pitch a fit. They’ll shy, spook, rear, run off, or buck at the most inopportune times. And it’s often a complete surprise to the rider—at least it was for me, lacking, as I do, the ability to read a horse’s mind.
Which brings us back to rodeo. When you run a horse into a bucking chute and strap a bareback rigging onto its back, you know what’s in the offing. You expect it to buck—you even hope it will buck, because if it doesn’t your chances of winning anything for your efforts are fat and slim. I guess I was drawn to the certainty of the situation; knowing the horse would try to buck me off, and knowing when and where.
I straddled bucking horses for several years, first in high school and amateur rodeos, then as a member of the Utah State University National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team, and at weekend professional rodeos around Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. My greatest success was in the college arena, but I was never good enough to ride with the pros and make money at it.
Still, I liked it. It was fun. Even when you’d end up in a mangled heap in the arena dirt, spitting sand. And it changes your way of looking at horses. One of my old traveling pals who was a good bareback rider and better bull rider until crippled by a brain hemorrhage said it best. Whenever we’d drive past a herd of horses in a pasture along the road, he would cast a wistful glance their way and say, “Think those horses would buck?”
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Rod Miller is winner of Western Writers of America Spur Awards for Best Western Short Story and Best Western Poem, the Westerners International Poetry Award, and Academy of Western Artists Award for Best Poetry Book. He writes novels, short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and magazine articles about the American West, most of them with a horse in there somewhere. Visit online at www.writerRodMiller.com.