Specialized equine athletes— from broncs to barrel racing horses—win accolades in rodeo for their speed, timing and skills in the specific events for which they are trained. However, there are equally athletic and highly skilled horses, their names and stories rarely known, that are often unnoticed and underappreciated.
Pick-up horses are the unsung heroes of rodeo. When they’re not serving as a landing spot for a cowboy dismounting from a bronc, or clearing cattle and rough-stock from the arena, they’re being ridden around the clock and behind the scenes to keep a rodeo running smoothly and safely.
A pick-up horse’s job can be fast, intense and risky, and the slightest mishap can injure the pick-up man, a contestant or an animal. To be effective, the horse must have split-second responsiveness, athletic ability and unwavering courage. It swoops within inches of a running, bucking bronc after a cowboy makes a ride to help the cowboy off. Keeping pace with the bronc, the horse puts the pick-up man in position to grab the hack rein (on a saddle bronc), release the flank strap and back cinch, and escort the bucking horse out of the arena. A pick-up horse is also used to sort cattle for roping events and sweep the arena of livestock, including raging bulls intent on hooking anything in their path.
“Pick-up horses must have speed and bravery,” says seven-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo pick-up man Billy Ward of La Grange, Wyoming. “And they have to be physically and mentally tough to do this kind of work every day.”
Past pick-up men rode whatever horses they had or those that stock contractors provided, including racehorse rejects and broncs that would not buck. In the last 15 years, however, an increasing number of pick-up men have taken the profession seriously. They also started taking pride in raising, training and riding well broke, eye-catching horses, many of which are registered in the American Quarter Horse Association or American Paint Horse Association.
Gary Rempel, a ProRodeo Hall of Fame pick-up man from Fort Shaw, Montana, is known in rodeo circles for riding some of the best pick-up horses in the industry. For more than 35 years he has worked as a pick-up man, primarily for the Calgary Stampede, but he also has been selected by contestant voting to pick up at eight NFRs (more than any other pick-up man since voting began in 1990) and 16 Canadian Finals Rodeos.
“A pick-up man is only as good as the horse he rides and the guy he works with,” Rempel says. “I’ve had people say to me [about my horses], ‘That’s too nice of a horse to be a pick-up horse.’ Why shouldn’t [pick-up men] ride nice horses? We’re in the arena the majority of the performance and in front of thousands of people, so we want to be on good-looking horses that we’re proud to ride.”
Ranch to Rodeo
Sorting cattle for timed events and moving belligerent broncs and bulls are some of a pick-up horse’s duties. The best way to prepare a horse for this work is on a ranch.
Ward has a cow-calf operation in Wyoming, where he works cattle horseback. He and his sons, Denton and Dalton, start colts for Bath Bros. Ranch in Laramie, Wyoming, a leading breeder of Blue Valentine horses and producer of the annual Come to the Source sale in August. Some of the strongest colts with speed, grit and heart make it into the Wards’ pick-up string.
As with most pick-up men, the Wards start their prospects as 2-year-olds.
“I use a lot of Ray Hunt’s methods and do a lot of the groundwork, sacking them out and preparing them for ropes dragging around their legs and flanks, stirrups slapping their sides and chaps flapping in the air,” Billy Ward says.After they are accustomed to the groundwork, Denton and Dalton start the horses under saddle. Once the colts willingly give to lateral and vertical pressure, the Wards begin doing light cattle work on them. When the colts turn 3 years old, the Wards ride them during spring calving, gathering and branding, work yearlings on them, and take them to parade for dignitaries to ride.
“By the time a colt is 4 years old, we can usually determine if it has what it takes to become a pick-up horse, and not all the horses we start make the cut,” says Dalton, 22, who is a junior at the University of Wyoming and has picked up for several stock contractors, including Cervi Championship Rodeo Company, Powder River Rodeo, Sankey Pro Rodeo and Harry Vold Rodeo Company.
Dalton, as well as other pick-up men, usually hauls five to eight horses to a rodeo. A couple of the horses are 3- or 4-year-olds used to sort livestock and rough-stock, rope bulls, and pick up during slack and re-rides. “
I take young horses with me to expose them to all the sounds and excitement at a rodeo,” says Bret Reeder of Corinne, Utah, who has worked for such stock contractors as Beard Rodeo Company, Diamond G Rodeos, Growney Brothers Rodeo Company, Kesler Rodeo and Sankey Pro Rodeo. “I’ve also rode them at rough stock-riding schools to help riders practice getting off [a bronc]. It teaches them to accept a rider getting off on their back.