“When you start riding and using young horses, you begin to read them and see how their minds are going to be. They make the transition from ranch horses to pick-up horses pretty well, but it takes a tough horse to tolerate broncs bumping into them and riders getting off.”
The only way to find out if a horse has what it takes to be a pick-up horse is to put it into the heat of action. Ideally, it is at practice sessions, small events or youth rodeos, where there is less pressure because there are fewer spectators, contestants and qualified rides, and the stock is not as rank.
“The best situation I’ve had for training young [pick-up] horses was when I coached the college rodeo team at Utah Valley University,” recalls four-time NFR pick-up man Bobby Marriott of Woods Cross, Utah. “I would take the colts to college practices where a rider would buck out on a bronc and we would critique the ride before bucking out another one. It gave the horses experience and time between broncs to think about it.”
Denton, Billy Ward’s youngest son, is a bronc rider. When he gets on practice horses it allows the Wards to try out some of their prospects.
“You really don’t know what a horse will do until you let him do it, but you can prepare him as much as you can before you get there,” says Dalton Ward. “I don’t want to use a green horse and get someone or stock hurt, so I won’t pick up on a horse until I’m pretty sure he’s ready.”
Made of Mettle
The Wards and other pick-up men usually wait until the horses are 5 or 6 years old and mentally and physically mature to pick up at major rodeos. All of the seasoned horses are put on a rotational basis for the performance.
“Our general rule is to switch horses every four riders,” Dalton says. “But we may do more or less depending on how hard the horses are bucking, the size of the arena and the footing. There’s no reason to tire the horses and get them hurt.
“[Picking up] is physically demanding on the horses. They have to sprint hard for short distances, stop suddenly, handle a bronc jerking on the saddle horn while you get your work done and have the stamina to keep doing that until you get [the bronc] out of the arena. Plus, you’ll occasionally get a bronc that kicks or bites.”
Pick-up men usually start their horses in the saddle bronc riding, because broncs used in that event usually run less, and the pick-up horse does not have to run wide open so its rider can get ahold of the bronc rein. Pick-up horses with a lot of speed and stamina are best for bareback riding.
“Bareback horses tend to run more and faster than saddle broncs,” Marriott explains. “Horses used to pick up in the bareback have to ride up to a bronc fast, slow down to get the cowboy off and then go fast again to catch up to the bronc. It puts a lot of mental pressure on a horse and will blow its mind faster than anything.”
Roping bulls in the bull riding also can tax a pick-up horse. At large outdoor rodeos, such as Cheyenne Frontier Days, pick-up men rope 20 to 25 bulls and drag them about 250 yards during each of the rodeo’s nine performances.
“You can make a horse pull for one day, but to keep him pulling that many days and for seven or eight years is phenomenal,” Billy Ward says.
One of the hardest things on a pick-up horse is staying relaxed in the arena between bronc riders. A perceptive pick-up horse will get excited and react to subtle sounds and movements that indicate a bronc is about to blast out of the chute, such as a cowboy nodding his head, a chute latch releasing, or even the melody of the national anthem, which plays just before the bareback riding at most rodeos.
“We need horses that can go in there, run up to a bucking horse one minute and then stand relaxed while you wait for the next [bronc to buck],” Reeder explains. “It’s not usually a problem getting a horse to run after another horse; they naturally want to be in a herd. But getting them to relax between [bronc rides] is hard. Sometimes you need to stand by the bucking chutes, at the head of a nervous bronc while a rider gets on. It’s really tough on a lot of horses to stand there and not fidget. That’s where the horse must have a good mind.”
Working 85 rodeo performances a year, sometimes in tandem, Billy Ward and Marriott need horses that remain calm and focused amid chaos. Traveling long distances, staying in small stalls or pens in unfamiliar places and with strange animals, and working in different size arenas and ground conditions puts a lot of physical and mental pressure on a horse. It is enough to sour and sore even the most seasoned pick-up horses.
“We ask them for everything they’ve got in each performance,” Marriott says. “They get sore and start cutting corners and scotching.”
The key to keeping the horses wanting to work is proper care, which includes not leaving them saddled any longer than necessary before and after a performance, using protective boots on their front and hind legs, and warming them up and cooling them down to reduce soreness and injury.
Doing other types of activities, such as ranch work, when they are not on the road is also beneficial.
“I’ve never seen a horse that ranch work couldn’t help,” Reeder says. “It teaches horses to rate and read situations, and allows them to relax and work cattle. They learn that they’re not always going to chase an animal in the arena.
Select the Best
The pick-up men have their own preferences when it comes to selecting a horse, but they agree that mental and physical toughness, balanced conformation and a good disposition are essential.
For years, Reeder and his son, Ty, raised their own pick-up horses by a son of the Paint Horse stallion Scribbles and out of broodmares with bloodlines tracing to Mr San Peppy, Pinkie Poo, Two Eyed Jack and Hancock. His best pick-up horse today is a 25-year-old black-andwhite Paint Horse stallion named San Cupid Bar (“Salt and Pepper”) that he bought and trained as a 3-year-old.