A unique brotherhood exists among working cowboys who compete in ranch bronc riding, an event rooted in tradition, horsemanship and pride in the ranches the competitors represent.
“Ten minutes till showtime!” rodeo announcer Randy Lewis exclaims over the loudspeaker, his booming voice muted by the ferocious Texas Panhandle wind swirling around the Will Rogers Range Riders Arena in Amarillo.
In the haze of dust behind the bucking chutes, 40 ranch cowboys fight nerves as they prepare to make one of the most important bronc rides of their lives. Some stretch and psych themselves up like Olympic athletes about to compete. A few sit in their bronc saddles on the ground, feet in the stirrups and extended in front of them, pulling up on the bronc rein with one hand. Others kneel and bow their heads in silence, saying a prayer or visualizing a winning ride.
With $15,000 up for grabs in the men’s division, the inaugural working Ranch Cowboys Association Championship Ranch Bronc Riding drew cowboys from 11 Western states. Many crammed themselves and their bed-rolls into fuel-effcient cars or pickups with campers, and traveled in packs. Eight women joined them, vying in their own division for more than $12,000 in cash and prizes. That’s a lot of money to earn in a short amount of time for men and women who often can barely pay the bills on ranch wages.
Just like throwing dice, ranch bronc riding is a big gamble with a high price to play. Quite often, a cowboy relies on placing just to get enough gas money to make it home. A severe injury could prevent him from working for several weeks. With a lot of heart, persistence, talent and luck, however, a cowboy can match several months’ wages by winning one bronc-riding event. Just as important to the bronc riders as the money, though, are the tradition, culture and camaraderie that bind them.
Considered the father of contemporary rodeo events, bronc riding harkens back to the days of cowboys starting cranky range and Army Remount colts, and riding them until they no longer bucked. Soon, friendly rivalries and competitions emerged. In the late 1800s, bronc riding became a form of public entertainment at Wild West shows.
Later, professional rodeo organizations such as the Rodeo Cowboys Association were formed, and for the sake of standardized competition and entertainment value, the sport incorporated bucking chutes, an eight-second buzzer and a specialized saddle. Rules were adopted that prohibited the contestant from using his free hand and required him to keep his spurs ﬁxed on the horse’s shoulders while exiting the chute (known as “marking out”).
By the 1990s, ranch rodeos were gaining in popularity, featuring working cowboys as contestants. Ranch bronc riding, which resembles bronc-riding events held at the turn of the 20th century, became a featured event. Unlike professional saddle bronc riders, ranch bronc riders use their everyday working saddles in competition. They are not required to mark out their broncs and can grab a rope or nightlatch attached to their saddles with their free hand.
“When I started riding ranch broncs, it was almost like a clown act or costume contest,” says Eli Burr, a buckaroo on the YP Ranch in Tuscarora, Nevada. “One of the ﬁrst rides I made, I tied a bunch of Black Cats [ﬁrecrackers] to my saddle and had a guy light them before I came out of the chute.”
Over the past decade, the sport has evolved to include thousands of dollars of added money and high-quality broncs, which has increased the number of entries. And while professional rodeo is seeing a decline in bronc riders, particularly bareback riders, ranch bronc-riding events often have waiting lists.
“The better the horses, the more a guy has an opportunity to test himself,” Burr says. “It takes the drawing contest out of it, and the competition comes down to talent.”
Whether they’re on a ranch or ranch rodeo team, bronc riders are held in high esteem by their fellow cowboys for their skills, grittiness and willingness to get on any horse. They ride fearlessly, without hesitation or thought of injury, which is a huge ﬁnancial risk considering that many cowboys are not covered by insurance and an accident could prevent them from doing their job or end their cowboy career.
“If I were a ranch-bronc-riding judge, I’d look for guys who not only make good, wild bronc rides, but who are also in complete control and seem like if they were working on an outﬁt could keep a horse from bucking and go do a job. A wild ride kind of guy might not be able to stop a horse from bucking and could fall off and get in a wreck on a ranch, and you don’t want that.”
Burns, Oregon, bronc rider Seth Franklin, one of Huffaker’s six traveling partners to Amarillo, points out that ranch bronc riders go into a ride not only thinking about staying on for eight seconds, but also riding as if they are on ranches and have to make it home at the end of the day.
“You don’t want to get bucked off, because [if you’re on a ranch] you might have to walk home 10 miles,” he says.
“Cowboying is a mental game of riding all day on a horse you don’t necessarily like, and doing what ever it takes to ﬁnish the job on him,” adds J.D. Brock, another travel buddy and the winner of the Amarillo bronc riding. “Everything you and that horse do affects the other guys on the crew. The difference in bronc riding is you have to do your best for only eight seconds. And it doesn’t affect anyone else; it’s all you.”
When he decides to hang up his bronc halter, Brock is interested in becoming a pickup man. That’s an occupation the Amarillo women’s champion, 25-year-old Jessica Mosher of Karval, Colorado, does in addition to working on her family’s cow-calf operation. One of only a few pickup women, Mosher was voted by Colorado Professional Rodeo Association saddle bronc riders to be one of the pickup riders at the association’s ﬁnals this past fall.
“Both of my brothers, Matt and Wade, were professional bronc riders, so I was around the sport all the time,” she says. “Picking up came natural to me and helped me ride my ﬁrst bronc out of the chutes in Amarillo. To pick up, you have to be a good rider and be natural on a horse. You have to know how to move with your [pickup] horse and the bronc, and the same is true when riding a bronc.”
Ranch bronc riding is an event in which an average working cowboy can compete because it does not require him to stay on the road. Most contestants start colts and cowboy for a living, then ride broncs on the weekends. Having an occupation that requires spending all day in the saddle and riding a variety of colts is the best practice for their avocation.
“Today, we train horses differently and breed them with better dispositions,” says Ky Fuston, who works on the Bell Ranch in New Mexico. “We really don’t want them to buck, but they sometimes do. It’s surprising how hard a 2-year-old colt can buck. It dang sure keeps you on your toes.”
Even if the horses don’t buck, each one feels and reacts differently, and the rider must adjust accordingly. Learning that feel and timing takes good horsemanship. The same is true in ranch bronc riding, where a bronc might have once been in a cowboy’s string of saddle horses.
“The ﬁrst bronc I rode in Elko, Nevada, had shoes and a bridle path, and was a pickup horse,” Brock recalls. “The horse knew its leads and I could feel where his feet were, which helped me get with him and changed how I rode him.
“When I ride a bronc, I’m showing what that horse can do and encouraging him to buck. You can help a horse buck by knowing how to spur and pick him up.”
When he was in high school, Good learned to start colts by snubbing them, and says that has signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced his bronc-riding abilities. “The only thing I had to hold on to was a nightlatch,” he says. “It taught me to read a horse and stay a jump ahead of him.”
Horsemanship also plays a role in how a bronc rider handles a horse in the chutes. When working with a colt, horsemen move slowly and gently to keep the horse from getting excited.
“I try to be quiet with the bronc when it’s in the chute,” Brock explains. “I’ll talk to it and pet it to keep it calm. I don’t want the horse to get excited and rear up in the chute. I want it to save that energy for the ride.”
Fuston agrees, saying, “If I treat a bronc like I’m getting on a colt, the horse is usually calmer in the chute and performs better.”
To most ranch bronc riders, the advice and support of friends and family are a driving force in helping them improve. The chance to compare their skills to that of top horsemen and cowboys in front of a roaring crowd that has come to see them motivates them to do their best. And it is pride in their cowboy heritage, the ranching lifestyle and the outfits they represent that keeps them riding for the brand.