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Where Else But Rodeo

Roping and steer-wrestling contests are timed events. Riding of broncs and bulls is judged by style, for all rides are cut off in either eight or ten seconds. Once bronc riders rode the wild horses till they gave up and admitted the man was the boss. But that was when the prairie swarmed with unbroken horses. Now, the bulls and broncs are allowed to feel as though they have beaten the man when he jumps off after the whistle blows. That keeps the animals mean and aggressive.

Those animals are perhaps the most pampered in the world. In a year's competition, they won't be in the arena more than five or, at the most, ten minutes. For those few moments of fury, they live a life of luxury. Some horses like Midnight and Five Minutes to Midnight are more famous than most rodeo champions, so famous they are buried at the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Western historians solemnly record that the first rodeo was in 1883 at Pecos, Texas, when for the first time contests determined who was the best rider and who the best roper in the West. Or was it three years later in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when a seventy-five dollar saddle given the winner of the riding contest put the show on a serious competitive basis? Or was it in Wyoming about the same time when the Two Bar Cattle Company entertained 150 visiting Scottish and English shareholders with an exhibition of racing, bareback riding, bronc busting, and roping by the ranch's 200 cowboys? (The pistol champion of that show, incidentally, changed his name from Parker to Butch Cassidy when he went into the bank-robbing business.)

The fact is that vaqueros first and cowboys later tested their skills against each other as far back into history as we can trace the western cattle kingdom. Texas history records a contest at San Antonio in 1843 between Texas Rangers, Mexican vaqueros, and Comanche warriors. Judges passed out pistols and bowie knives as prizes. First in riding went to a Florida cowboy, second to a Comanche, and third to a ranchero from south of the Rio Grande. Perhaps the longest continuous rodeo is the Frontier Days, begun in 1897 at Cheyenne, Wyoming.

out on the range
An early bronc rider.

The first contests were to test ranchworthy skills like breaking wild horses or roping calves. Soon contestants began to invent contests with no earthly use to a cowboy. Bill Pickett, a black Texan cowboy, got bored with the usual riding and roping contests he was winning regularly, so he tried a new stunt. Leaping from a running horse to the neck of a fleeing steer, he twisted the animal's nose skyward by the horns, locked his teeth in the steer's lip, and jerked the half-ton of beef off its feet by the muscles of his jaw and neck. Other cowboys imitated his act, but for lack of Pickett's remarkable teeth and jaws, they threw their steers by twisting their heads till they had to drop or suffer a broken neck. (Pickett was killed not in his dangerous rodeo specialty but by a sorrel horse that kicked him in the head.)

In 1871 in Erath County, Texas, an accidental explosion of Christmas fireworks destroyed an eye and hideously scarred the face of a redheaded thirteen-year-old named Samuel Privett. Because of his scary appearance, he was from that day known as Booger Red and he advertised himself as the world's ugliest man. Whether he honestly owned that championship or not, he did become perhaps the greatest bronc rider who ever lived.

Booger Red went on tour, offering to ride any man's worst outlaw horse - not just ride him, but ride him backwards or with no hands if the owner insisted. He paid his way by passing the hat through the crowd. As organized rodeo grew, his appearances became more regular. He was virtually unbeatable at his specialty of bronc riding and he ruled the rodeo circuit till he retired from old age. He may have retired too soon, for in 1926 at a Fort Worth, Texas, rodeo, the announcer recognized him in the stands and introduced him. The announcer casually mentioned, "it would be something to see Booger Red ride one." The crowd went wild and the show could not go on till the 68-year-old veteran, sick with kidney disease, made one more ride. He died two months later and is still celebrated as the greatest rodeo rider of all time.

Late in the nineteenth century there appeared from Mexico a charro named Vincente Oropeza who was a magician with a lariat. It was Senor Oropeza who inspired Will Rogers to become the world's best known roper, but it was also Will Rogers who said "No other roper had such accuracy and style as Vincente Oropeza." He introduced the art of fancy roping as a rodeo event.

Other all-time greats are Jim Shoulders, Casey Tibbs, Leonard Stroud, Dean Oliver, Jackson Sundown, the movie actor Yakima Canutt, Pete Knight, Harry Hopkins, Larry Mahan, Phil Lyne and Fritz Truan. Many fans, trying the impossible task of rating the absolutely greatest all-around rodeo cowboy, vote for Gene Rambo.

Most modern rodeo events have little relation to practical cowboy work, and so rodeo champions are likely to be great athletes rather than practical cowhands. They are also quite likely to be skilled businessmen. Rodeo champions, know how to parlay his athletic skill and appealing personality into a respectable dollar. He flies his own plane, endorses products for Madison Avenue advertising agencies, and behaves with the canny business sense of any good money manager.

Larry Mahan's chief rival was Phil Lyne, a slight youth who flashed onto the rodeo scene, promptly took two consecutive all-around championships from Mahan, then retired at the age of twenty-seven. Stories circulating around the rodeo world credit the youthful Phil Lyne with performances that would be dismissed as legendary if living witnesses did not exist by the hundreds.

The calf roper, for instance, is almost entirely dependent on his horse. A well-trained horse is 90 percent of the act and the champion calf roper normally has won the event months earlier in long hours of patient work with his horse that pay off in the few seconds they appear together in the arena. Not so with Phil Lyne. He didn't own a roping horse. In one year of his brief career he rode ninety-one horses in roping competition.

Witnesses swear that once he dashed onto the rodeo grounds just as the loudspeaker blared his name for the next calf. He asked a passing cowboy if he could borrow his horse, rode the strange animal to the starting line, and roped his animal in a stunning 10.5 seconds, near a world record.

Among rodeo people themselves, the most respected performer of all time is Bill Linderman, first cowboy to win three national championships in one year (steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, and all-around cowboy in 1950) and first to win all-around twice in 1950 and 1953.

He was born at Bridger, Montana, in 1920 and in his teens became a hard-rock miner, a gruelling job that gave him powerful arms and shoulders. He left the mines to break wild horses on the Crow Indian Reservation. Passing through Greeley, Colorado, while a rodeo was underway, he happened to register in the saddle bronc contest and took the $300 prize money.

Asked years later why he worked in such a dangerous profession as rodeo, Bill said, "That $300 I won at Greeley for riding a mean horse was twice what I got for riding mean horses for a month at the ranch. That showed me the way. Where else but in rodeo can a dumb cowboy like me with no education earn money like a movie star makes?"

Bill did indeed make big money - almost half a million dollars before the end. But he did it the hard way. Asked at the Cheyenne Frontier Days how many bones he had broken, Bill replied, "Headbone for one, fractured my skull, that is. Broke my neck and back in the same accident in Deadwood, South Dakota, when a bull fell on me. Broke my right arm four times. Broke a leg twice. Ribs? Lost count. Hands and feet more or less broken. Collarbone. Oh, if you're going to count collarbones. Yeah, I broke my collarbones quite a bit, but I can't remember the exact count."

Rodeo events and performers are roughly divided into two lots: ropers and riders. Ropers perform in the calf-roping and steer-wrestling events; for instance, and riders are competing in the saddle bronco and bareback events. Obviously, a cowboy who must throw a calf weighing 200 pounds or more has to have a bit of muscle and the cowboy who wrestles a half-ton of horned steer to the ground has to have plenty of muscle. The ropers, therefore, are big men, muscular and sometimes even downright fat, like weight lifters. Riders are more like jockeys, slender and quick and beautifully coordinated.

Unlike most steer wrestlers, Bill was not a giant. He stood only six feet tall and never weighed more than 175 pounds, but it was all leatherhard muscle. Possessed of a fiery temper, Bill was respected as the toughest brawler on the circuit. A story began the rounds of the rodeo circuit that Casey Tibbs, driving Bill to the Cheyenne rodeo, stopped sixty miles out on the range and asked Bill to check a tire. According to the story, for a prank, Casey drove off, leaving Bill to hitchhike into town. Those who knew Bill best say the story couldn't be true because Casey Tibbs is still alive.

Except for his admitted physical strength packed into a compact package, Bill did not have natural rodeo talents like the dazzling timing of Phil Lyne. He was only an average athlete. What he had was a savage will to win that drove him like a demon.

George Williams, the rodeo specialist at the Cowboy Hall of Fame, tells a story typical of Linderman's hard drive. During the uranium prospecting boom, Linderman went into the Arizona wilderness with four other rodeo cowboys to try their luck at finding a fortune. He agreed to stay at the campsite cutting firewood while the others struck out to the four points of the compass. When the prospectors returned at the end of the day, Linderman had a mountainous stack of beautifully split and sized wood, enough firewood to last them through ten hard winters - and was still splitting steadily on, determined that he would set the all-time record for stacking firewood.

Long after rodeo had become big-time show business, drawing large crowds all over the country and pouring money into box offices, the performers themselves were miserably paid, often cheated out of their small prize money, forced to live in ratty little hotels - in general, treated like hangers-on rather than the very heart and soul of the business. Rodeo performers to this day prefer competing for prize money, refusing the idea of accepting salaries or in any other way losing their independence. But they naturally want their share of the box office take to be somewhere near fair. And they don't like being cheated out of their winnings any more than anybody else. So they organized, and the sport today is policed by the Rodeo Cowboys Association, with its headquarters in Denver. Business practices are regulated and rodeo conduct supervised by the association officers, themselves all rodeo performers.

Bill Linderman was one of the founders of the association. He was so highly respected that for six years he was elected president. On November 11, 1965, he was flying to Spokane, Washington, for a meeting about rodeo business. His jet crashed at Salt Lake City, Utah, and he died in the flames. The King, as he was affectionately known in the cowboy world, had literally given his life for rodeo.


The Ford Center in Oklahoma City and the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie are stops for the Built Ford Tough Series and Bullnanza, both Professional Bull Riders events. The International Professional Rodeo Association holds solo or dual events with the American Professional Rodeo Association, Southern Rodeo Association, and the American Cowboys Rodeo Association in: Lawton, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Locust Grove, Owasso, Stilwell, Pryor, Colcord, Catoosa, Tahlequah, Miami, Pauls Valley, Hinton, Wynnewood, Stratford, and Stigler.

Bern Keating. Famous American Cowboys . The Cowboy as Rodeo Star. Rand McNally & Company, New York, 1977.


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