Larry Mahan’s flamboyant style and free-thinking ways won him rodeo stardom, attracted new fans to the sport, and led him to a better understanding of horses. Decades later, he’s still studying horsemanship and promoting the Western way of life.
The sorrel stud coils and darts to the left and the right, mirroring the movements of a “flag” , in this case an old, stained t-shirt hung on a set of cables and pulleys. From the saddle, Larry Mahan uses a remote control to activate the motor, sending the flag back and forth so he and his horse can sharpen their cutting skills. In a few days, Mahan and the stallion will use the same moves on live cattle at an American Quarter Horse Association show. Mahan is working on qualifying for the AQHA Select World Championship Show, the association’s premier event designed for riders age 50 and older.
At 70 Mahan likes his chances for success especially with a talented horse like Mr JB Cat. Since retiring from riding bulls and broncs, he has focused most of his energy on horses, cutting and a higher level of horsemanship.
“I enjoy the challenge of communication,” he says. “To me, horses are not just a tool.”
Mahan and his wife, Julanne, spend most of their time on their ranch and training facility near Sunset, Texas. Mahan’s collection of stallions, broodmares, geldings and young horses totals somewhere north of 100.
“I feel like I’m an addict” he says with a smile. “Someone asks, ‘Why do you have so many horses?’ Well, being a student of the horse and an ex-bull rider means that I have to have a lot of teachers. That’s why I have so many horses. Julanne doesn’t buy that rationalization, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
Mahan’s addiction began with his first horse, a mare who fueled his fascination with professional rodeo. During his career, he won six all-around titles, a record he held until Ty Murray surpassed it in 1998. Mahan’s success earned him a spot in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1979.
In many ways Mahan didn’t fit into the conventional mold of a rodeo cowboy, yet his flamboyant persona helped the sport appeal to a broader audience and experience phenomenal growth during the 1970s. Nearly 40 years later, he continues to wander from the beaten path, and his passion for horses is stronger than ever.
“I was 7 or 8 when I got my first horse,” Mahan recalls of Sheba, the half-Arabian, half-Quarter Horse his parents bought for $125. “She was just green-broke, so Dad rode her some, and then I got her. She was far from being trained, but was very tolerant. There would be three or four of us kids riding her, and she just got to be a gentle, nice mare.
“Mom and I would trail ride. I always had a hard time keeping up with Mom because her horse [Honey Girl] had such a fast gait. Sheba had to trot all the time. I finally learned to post.
“I got her to the point I could rope calves on her. And then I started preparing for the bareback riding. I would put my bareback rigging on her and gallop her around, turn her one way or the other, all the while pulling on my rigging. We had an old milk cow, and I would jump off Sheba [and onto the cow] like a bulldogger. So she was an all-around horse.”
Mahan grew up in a wood-frame house on two acres in Brooks, Oregon. In 1957 he earned $6 and a belt buckle by winning the calf riding in a junior rodeo in Redmond. At age 16 he got his Rodeo Cowboys Association permit and began riding bulls at Christensen Bros. rodeos. That year in Klamath Falls during the Fourth of July, he competed in roping and rough stock events, working behind the chutes to help pay his entry fees. In the bull riding, he won the average.
“That was the jump-start that convinced me this was what I needed to do, he says.
In 1962, he got married and then moved to Arizona, planning to enroll in Arizona State University and compete on the college rodeo team. However, he was unaware of out-of-state tuition, something he couldn’t afford, especially with his first child due that fall. Instead, he began working in livestock sale yards and competing in weekend rodeos. In February of 1963, at a rodeo in El Paso, Texas, he placed second in the bull riding and won $852, which boosted his overall earnings enough to receive his RCA card.
“I rodeoed as much as I could and worked the sale yards during the week,” Mahan recalls. “In the fall of ‘63 I went to Kenny McLean‘s bronc riding school in Cache Creek, British Columbia. It was a seven-day school, and I got on 49 broncs. I was so sore and beat up that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to stay on a bronc.”
With a week between the school and a rodeo in Tonasket, Washington, Mahan, his wife, Darlene, and daughter, Lisa, stopped along the way to work for an orchard picking apples.
‘I don’t know if it was the bronc riding school or the picking apples that made me realize that I’d rather be a bronc rider than an apple picker,” he says. “In Tonasket, I think I won the bronc riding and was second in the bull riding, so I was on a roll.”
Mahan practiced whenever he could. If another bronc rider or bull rider didn’t show up to compete, he volunteered to ride the “turnout” Although there was no prize money involved, he welcomed a chance to hone his skills.
Early in his career, he purchased a horse to use for practice and for months hauled it to rodeos across the country. The roan was turned down by stock contractors because he tended to quit bucking after seven seconds. Mahan often rode the horse in front of empty grandstands before the start of rodeo performances.
“I could put him in the chute, leave the gate unlatched, get the saddle set, tighten the flank strap, and then push the gate open — I could do it all by myself,” he says. “He was the ultimate practice horse. He would jump and kick with perfect timing for seven seconds. Then I’d pull on the rein and holler ‘whoa’, and he’d stop. Then I’d undo the flank strap and step off him like a saddle horse.”
Mahan competed in the National Finals Rodeo for the first time in 1964, qualifying in saddle bronc riding. From there, he regularly appeared at the NFR, usually qualifying in all three rough-stock events. When counting NFR qualifications by event, Mahan logged 26, a record among rough-stock riders.
In 1965, Mahan won a world championship in bull riding, his first of many rodeo titles. He earned an astonishing $40,338 during the 1966 season and began his string of five consecutive all-around championships.
The next year, he won his second world title in bull riding and became the first cowboy to win more than $50,000 in one season. After two injury-plagued years, Mahan claimed his sixth all-around title in 1973, breaking the record held by Jim Shoulders. (Ty Murray claimed seven titles, and Trevor Brazile currently owns 11).
Atop a whirling bull, Mahan was a cool and composed figure with bushy sideburns, bright-colored shirts and a puka shell necklace. It was quite a contrast to the clean-cut and conservative appearance of most other rodeo contestants.
Clearly, Mahan wasn’t interested in blending in. Off the circuit, he modeled Western wear, appeared in television commercials and endorsed various products. While competing, he frequented health clubs, did isometric exercises and studied how mental preparation translated to enhanced physical performance. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank hard liquor and flew his own twin-engine airplane between rodeos. He established a rodeo school and also wrote a book, Fundamentals of Rodeo Riding – The Mental & Physical Approach to Success, published in 1972.
His charisma and style helped him become a celebrity beyond the confines of rodeo. In 1968, ABC’s Peter Jennings reported on the 24-year-old cowboy’s rodeo success. Mahan had earned nearly $100,000 over the previous two years. He was featured in Sports Illustrated multiple times and appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1973, he was the star of a documentary titled The Great American Cowboy, which won an Academy Award. The success of the movie and Mahan’s appeal were factors in professional rodeos phenomenal growth during the 1970s.
“When that movie won an Academy Award, it was a big steppingstone, and not only for the rodeo world,” Mahan says. “It exposed people to the Western culture and showed them what the whole cowboy lifestyle was all about.”
At the peak of his career, Mahan seized opportunities to develop and market his own collection of cowboy hats, boots and Western clothing. Later, he took on a few acting roles and ventired into the music world, recording an album and performing with country musician Waylon Jennings.
After he retired from rodeo in 1977, Mahan stayed on the road marketing Western wear and a computerized mechanical bull. Both ventures fit well with the Urban Cowboy craze that swept the country during the early 1980s.
Around that time, Mahan was exposed to an entirely different level of horsemanship.
“I was living in Phoenix and Ray was putting on a clinic at a place not far away, Mahan recalls. “I had never heard of Ray Hunt.
“There’s a saying by [California horseman] Jimmy Williams: ‘It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that really counts.’ That’s about where was with my horsemanship. Dad said, ‘You need to go check out this Ray Hunt. And that was a big turnaround for me. I think that was 1982″
Mahan immersed himself in what is now often referred to as natural horsemanship. He went to more Hunt clinics and befriended horsemen such as Tom Dorrance and Jack Brainard. He also sought the wisdom of cutting horse legends Leon Harrell and Tom Lyons.
“In the early 90s I started hosting the TV program Horseworld,” he adds. “We went to Europe a few times and all over the country. We learned about every discipline I could think of. That was a wonderful experience because I was exposed to so many great horsemen, including Jimmy Williams, in the hunter-jumper world. There is so much that can be incorporated into anybody’s training program.”
Mahan has bred, raised and trained his own horses for many years. Some have gone on to compete in roping and cutting competition. In 2012, he was invited to participate in the annual Horsemen’s Re-Union, a colt-starting event that features respected trainers and clinicians from across the country.
“I love starting young horses.” he says.
Mahon also began competing in National Cutting Horse Association events and has earned more than $147,000. In 1989 he was the non-pro reserve champion in the NCHA Derby. His two favorite cutting mares, Alli Solano and Miss Peponita Doc, became the foundation of his breeding program, which incorporates the bloodlines of Bowmans Smart Jewel, Driftwood, Freckles Playboy and Haidas Little Pep.
This year, Mahan plans to breed a few of his broodmares to his stallion Mr JB Cat, who is by High Brow Cat and out of a Jae Bar Fletch mare. Next year, he hopes to breed 20 mares to the horse.
Larry and Julanne Mahan were married in 2009. They met when Julanne’s church in Oklahoma organized a Cowboys for Christ fundraiser, and Mahan was the celebrity guest. Ironically, Julanne didn’t know anything about the legend of Larry Mahan.
She grew up in a Chicago suburb and rode hunter-jumpers and dressage horses. As a young woman she moved to California, where she began working on cattle ranches and showing cutting horses. After traveling all over the world, she established a cow-calf operation near Ada, Oklahoma.
“I think the timing was pertect when we met. During all those rodeo years, that was a whirlwind,” says Mahan, who has been divorced three times. “It’s really tough on relationships. You’re on the road all the time. You have to be so focused on the game that you eat, sleep, walk and talk it. I think the two of us were meant to be together.”
It’s clear that Mahan savors life, both past and present. On his Facebook page, which has more than 117,000 “likes”, he posts comments and photos about his and Julanne’s horse operation, friends and neighbors, charities, vintage rodeo moments and Bible verses.
“In my early days of rodeoing, I learned the value of getting into the moment on a bull or bucking horse,” Mahan says. “Tune out everything else and focus on the moment. That’s important when you’re flying a plane, making a business decision, or anything.
“That started to make even more sense to me when I got back into horses. Horses never leave the moment. They re not worried about yesterday—although they remember it—or who they’re going to have dinner with tonight. They don’t have all these agendas going on.
“I feel strongly that we’re all here to make a contribution. I’ve been blessed to be able to live my passion. And it’s important that we give something back. We can do the right thing or the wrong thing, and to me the benefits are so much greater when you do the right thing. And all of a sudden, it’s not for personal gain.”
Larry and Julanne support many charities, including Roundup for Autism, Cowboys for Kids, Sky Ranch, Western Wishes, the Working Ranch Cowboys Association and Baxter Black’s Benson Christian Training Center. Mahan says that helping youth is a priority for him, and it’s also fulfilling.
Life for Mahan has been an exciting ride, but it isn’t over yet.
“It’s pretty amazing all the ups and downs life has for a person,” he says. “But the only thing we have control over is our choices. Maybe some could have been better choices. But all of them — the good ones, the bad ones–are what got us where we are today.
“Do I feel like I’m deserving of all the things God’s made available to me? No. But I’ve sure learned to appreciate it. And that’s a different take I have than when I was rodeoing. That’s a very important part of this journey, to know where we are now and enjoy the moment.”