Classic Cowboys / Rodeo

Casey Tibbs: Top Hand in the Tanbark

Casey Tibbs spurring a bareback horse

Champion All-Around Cowboy Casey Tibbs was ready to retire from rodeo at the age of 26. 

By Ellen O’Connor, originally published in the June 1956 issue

World champion bronc rider Casey Tibbs is ready to retire from rodeo at the age of 26. He’s the idol of rodeo circuits everywhere, a tall, blue-eyed, handsome cowboy. He’s riding the peak of the popularity wave as big box office stuff, champion all-around cowboy of 1955, winner of top money, prizes, and honors galore. But now Casey is getting out from under.

“My life has been one rodeo after another,” according to Casey. “About all I’ve done up to now is straddle a horse, eat, and sleep. That’s why I want to get out.”

Casey Tibbs riding a bareback horse

“Mainly,” says Casey, “I want time to make some western pictures and television shows. I’ll still rodeo, but not in active competition. I’ve been in it the hard way for 12 years, and I’m tired of constant travel and the tough knocks.”

Casey has always dreamed of his own big ranch and says, “I want to run my ranch like the old-time cowboys used to run them, with the old brandin’ irons and real ropin’; no chutes, no bottled gas for my brandin’.” I want that ranch, he adds, but no “cattle king” stuff, mind you.

Bronc and bareback riding have been his special interest for many years with occasional brahma bull riding. He won his first big pot of gold, a $2,000 purse, in Madison Square Garden when he was only 16 years old. In one year, Casey’s winnings netted $36,500. He was the youngest cowboy ever to win the title, Bronc Riding Champion of the World. Tibbs was just 19 when he captured that crown.

rodeo cowboys sitting around talking
Here Casey, in the saddle without a horse, chats with some other cowboys. Photo by Stewart’s

Casey is the youngest of the Tibbs family. When he’s not riding the rodeo circuit, he ranches with his brother Thad, who everybody calls “Doc.” The ranch is near the old homeplace and they have 30 head of horses and a herd of 500 Herefords on a 7,000-acre ranch, 37 miles of it under fence.

Not many persons Casey’s age can boast of such a pioneer-like birthplace, but Tibbs was born in a log cabin 50 miles northeast of Fort Pierre, South Dakota. The ranch, homesteaded by Casey’s dad, John Tibbs, spreads out along the Cheyenne River. Casey’s Irish forefathers were among the early pioneers who trekked west, fortune hunting. His father came from Missouri, his mother from Iowa, and they staked our a bleak Dakota claim, built a log cabin, and reared a family of 10–in spite of wind, blizzards, and droughts.

When the rodeo season is over, Casey heads for South Dakota to see his family and the old ranch, and to eat some of his mother’s prairie chicken pie and other favorite meals.

Casey finished the eighth grade when he was 13 years old and walked away to join the rodeo.

That first time he headed down the road with no more surplus baggage than chaps and spurs, walking 100 miles. Hitchhiking was easier than bothering with a horse when you knew you weren’t coming back.

But Casey got turned down by the rodeo bosses because he was too young. He went back home and rode the roughest broncs on his father’s ranch. He tried the rodeo again the next year and brought along a letter from his mother, (his dad wouldn’t sign) , giving consent for him to enter the tough contests. .

Casey Tibbs getting ready to ride a bucking horse in the chute
Casey is known for a steady hand and plenty of nerve. He is getting things ready for the ride here. Photo by Stewart’s

He’s been in all the big ones ever since–Cheyenne, Pendleton, Calgary, Madison Square Garden, and the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo. There isn’t a top rodeo in the country where he hasn’t walked off with big money. He rides in 80 to 85 rodeos a year.

Casey has had his close shaves with death. An injured shoulder failed to keep him out of the arena one night. Then, his horse slipped and fell, pinning Casey underneath. They rushed him unconscious co a hospital. A blood clot on the spine brought the orders six weeks in bed. But, Casey was out of the hospital in nine days.

He’s had broken bones in his foot, broken ankles, broken ribs. But, none of his injuries keep him out of the arena for long. In Lewiston, Idaho, one night, Casey got a broken rib, but he was back in the arena the next night and won the bronc riding contest.

In the Fort Worth rodeo last year, four fractured ribs–the result of wild bronc riding in Cheyenne–didn’t keep Tibbs from winning the saddle bronc championship.

“I want to quit while I still have my neck,” says Casey, realizing that rodeo has its hazards. Then, back to the subject of retiring, he says, “My writers have come up with a television show called Pony Express Rider that suits me fine. Making pictures won’t take up all my time. I want a place where I can go and call it home, where I can live and do the things I want to do. Maybe I’ll settle in the Black Hills, maybe in Colorado. I’ve won 26 beautiful saddles and I’d like to put them on my horses and let my friends ride with me.”

Speaking of a home of his own, Casey says he is still heart-whole and fancy-free, but his dream girl is a blonde. Oh, he’s dated plenty of brunettes and redheads, as he cruises cross-country in his Cadillac convertible but he’s partial to blondes.

“When it comes to real love, though, the color of her hair won’t matter,” Casey admits. “Only I’d like her to have all the glamour, curves, and charm of a Hollywood star. And, there’s one thing for sure, she can’t be a career girl. The girl I marry can’t go dashing off to some job or other, ‘cause I mean I’m goin’ to settle down.”

Casey likes to talk about the horses he’s owned.

Casey Tibbs headshot
Casey Tibbs in a serious studio photo.

“First horse I ever had was Red River, a sorrel Indian pony with a wide, white stripe down his face.” Casey’s voice has a shade of nostalgia when he talks about his horse. “Red River’s 24 years old now, and retired to green pastures. I trim his feet every year when I go home. He used to be tough as any Indian warrior. In the scorching drought of ’34, when we had to scatter the horses so they would get enough range, when it was too dry even for Russian thistles to grow and we couldn’t afford to buy feed, Red River was one of 14 horses in the herd to survive.”

Casey’s pride now is his horse Midnight, a Thoroughbred that once was a bucking horse, now a high school trained rodeo performer and cutting horse. He was the prettiest black horse I’d ever seen, so I bought him for my own a year ago.”

Casey learned to sit a horse early. He had to ride five miles to school a little one-room schoolhouse on the Dakota plains.

Reminiscing about his school days, Casey recalled: “There were years when there weren’t any girls attending school, just a bunch of boys, a dozen or more. The school board would hire a man teacher. One year the kids were so tough we had three different teachers before the year was out.”

“Back in the old days when my father was running 2,000 horses on free range, we would trail horses to the railroad for shipment at Fort Pierre and never open a gate or cross a bridge. Father had 14 big corrals.

“I always had horses to ride and to look after. I was so crazy to get back to my horses that I used to ask the teacher to let me stay in noons and recesses to study and recite so I could get out early and help with the ranch work. And, I used to work for other ranchers to make a little extra money.”

As a kid, Casey was interested in boxing, and he liked to work out on gym apparatus he installed in the barns.

‘I’d do my own chores and my brothers, too, to get him to promise to put on the gloves with me. It came in handy later in street fights with the cowboys.”

There’s a museum up in Fort Pierre that houses Casey’s trophies–silvermounted saddles, gold buckles, and silver spurs won at rodeos in far-flung arena capitals. The whole kit and caboodle is insured for $25,000.

Casey’s pet hobby is working with 4-H clubs. He’s head of a board of 19 directors working in two South Dakota counties. They stage a big round-up. Casey matches some other cowboy champ in a bareback contest. They put up a $500 purse. If Casey wins the bag, he turns the money over to the 4-H kids.

The kids get a chance to ride and scamper in a catch-a-calf contest. Ranchers donate the calves and they have taken in $20,000 in three years. They’ve bought the land near courthouse square in Fort Pierre, where soon will rise a $100,000 4-H building, the only one in South Dakota.

CT autograph
The cowboy king has a way with kiddies–signing programs for keepsakes is a popular request. Photo by Stewart’s

The kids hold their show in August, and no ‘matter where he is along the rodeo route, Casey flies home for the big round-up. Casey loves the kids and the kids love him.

“I like the well-mannered children,” Casey says, “And I like the little roughnecks, too. They’ve got dreams and ideals, warm tender hearts, and I never want to let the kids down.”

He’s got 32 nephews and nieces, and he gets good practice at home dealing with youngsters. His sisters have all married ranchers, and his brothers are all ranchers too. All except one live in South Dakota.

Casey started out his 4-H club project to help underprivileged kids, but he says South Dakota doesn’t have many underprivileged, so they opened it up for all the kids.

About his TV show, Casey aims to keep up high ideals for the kids. He thinks the westerns are doing a good job in the fight against juvenile delinquency.

“If I keep one kid from going down that dismal road, I figure I’ll be well paid. It’s the one big chance I’ve got to help, and I don’t want to miss it.”

CT June56Cover
On the Cover: Casey Tibbs doesn’t need any introduction to readers of The Western Horseman, and we think this color shot by Clarence Coil at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo is one of the best pictures of the popular All Around Champion we’ve seen.

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