Balancing Act


ImageAt age 45, saddle-bronc great Billy Etbauer is gunning for his sixth world title. Behind the scenes, though, the Oklahoma cowboy is shifting gears, partnering with his wife and family to raise some of the country’s top speed-bred performance horses.


At age 45, saddle-bronc great Billy Etbauer is gunning for his sixth world title. Behind the scenes, though, the Oklahoma cowboy is shifting gears, partnering with his wife and family to raise some of the country’s top speed-bred performance horses.

In the world of rodeo, balance separates the champions from the “also-rans.” Balance keeps the rough-stock rider upright-and-in-the-middle, and enables the roper, bulldogger and barrel racer to shave milliseconds off a run.

Nowhere is the importance of balance more apparent than in the saddle-bronc event, and during the past two decades, no saddle bronc rider has exhibited more balance than Billy Etbauer of Edmond, Oklahoma.

And that’s a good thing, because of late, the five-time world champion is finding that balance is an invaluable asset in managing a fast-paced lifestyle—one that includes a probable return to the NFR, a possible run at a sixth world title, a growing rodeo family, and a diverse horse-breeding and -management operation.

“I was born into a South Dakota ranching family,” Etbauer says. “My great-great-grandfather John Etbauer took out a homestead in Buffalo County, South Dakota, in the 1890s. In time, he moved his operation north to a Hand County, Ree Heights locale.

“After he retired, my great-grandfather and grandfather—Ed and John Etbauer [the second]—took over. The ranch was never a very large one. At its peak, it would only run 300 mother cows. But there were always a lot of horses around, and my brothers and me preferred them over the cattle.”

Billy’s grandfather, now age 90, still resides in Ree Heights. Looking back at a lifetime spent with cattle and horses, he elaborates on the family roots.

“We came to Hand County in 1911,” he says. “Our cattle were primarily Herefords, mixed in with a few Shorthorns that we utilized as milk cows. In the ‘Dirty ’30s,’ we had to sell all the beef cows because we only had enough feed for the milk cows. But we built the herd back up after the drought ended, using registered Hereford bulls and commercial Hereford cows.

“And we always had a lot of horses around. My grandfather even tried his hand at raising Hambletonian [Standardbred] racehorses. He got away from that and started crossing the racehorses with some native stock. And then I went to using Quarter Horse studs on the mares from those crosses.

“But we never had a high-powered registered horse herd; what we did have was a bunch of ranch horses that were tough as nails.”

John Etbauer’s son Lyle grew up in a South Dakota ranch and rodeo culture that was bolstered by the likes of six-time world champion bronc rider Casey Tibbs. As a young man, Lyle longed to try his hand at rodeo, as well, but his parents were dead set against it so his life’s path took a different turn.
But Lyle never lost his love of horses, and made sure his three sons—Robert, Billy and Dan—were always mounted … on something.

“My dad raised and trained the horses that my brothers and I learned to ride on,” Billy Etbauer says. “Then, as we got a little older, he’d buy spoiled ponies from the neighbors. We’d break and train those horses, and then dad would re-sell them and go get some more.

“Eventually, we all started competing in horse shows and rodeos. We even did some roping off some of those ponies.”

It didn’t take long for the Etbauer boys to decide that rodeo was where they really belonged.

Robert, the eldest son, was the PRCA world champion saddle bronc rider in 1990 and 1991. Billy, the middle brother, won saddle bronc championships in 1992, 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2004. Dan, the youngest, was the PRCA reserve world champion saddle bronc rider in 1995 and a top contender from 1988 through 1997.

Of the three, Billy is the only one still competing. And looking back on one of the most storied careers in the history of the sport, the 45-year-old cowboy can both put it all in perspective and see that it will probably soon come to an end.

The Rodeo Trail
“After graduating from high school, Robert and Dan both attended Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Oklahoma, on rodeo scholarships,” Billy says. “And then they got their PRCA cards. I stayed home in Ree Heights and worked until 1988. That was my rookie year, and it was also the first year Robert and Dan went to the NFR.

“I qualified for my first NFR in 1989. Robert and Dan also qualified that year, and that was the first time that three brothers had ever qualified in the same event.

“By this time, Robert had gotten married to Sue Allsworth from La Junta, Colorado, and started a family. I lived with them for five or six years. To begin with, we all pooled our money and put it in one joint banking account. That way, if one of us hit a cold streak, we’d still be able to stay on the road.

“After we all made the finals in 1989, we split the account up. But we continued to rodeo together as much as we could. We traveled in either a Datsun pickup or a ‘rainbow van,’ with five or six different-colored stripes painted on it. We’d log 150,000 miles and attend 150 rodeos a year.

“It was a hectic pace, for sure, but it was all we ever wanted to do.”

By the turn of the century, Robert and Dan had pulled off the road. Both have remained active in the worlds they grew up in—breeding and training arena horses, putting on saddle bronc riding clinics and supporting their families as they take their turns in the rodeo spotlight.

As for Billy, he continues to rodeo and remains one of the toughest riders to fork down on a bronc. This year has seen the 45-year-old rough stock rider get off to one of his best starts ever, placing at the San Antonio rodeo in February, and winning the Tucson and Houston rodeos in February and March.

Etbauer’s $55,000 windfall at Houston has left him with more than $70,000 in earnings heading into the summer run, all but assuring he will qualify for the NFR for a record 20th time. And that record is not the only one the durable cowboy holds.

His current ProRodeo earnings stand at $2,699,295, enough to earn him the second slot among all-time money winners. He trails the leader, Joe Beaver, by $165,000. His five saddle bronc world titles also leave him in second place in that category, one behind the six titles won by both Casey Tibbs and Dan Mortenson.

As he has all of his life, though, Etbauer tends to live his competitive life in the present rather than the future.

“I take my competitive career one jump at a time, one horse at a time and one round at a time,” he says. “I try not to overly concern myself about what the other riders are doing, and I don’t spend a lot of time fretting about titles or records.

“If I do my job and I stay injury-free, all of that stuff will ta
ke care of itself. That’s the way I’ve always approached competing. I just don’t know any other way.”

Entering the 2008 season, the South Dakota native feels he is in as good a condition as anyone with his miles and rides possibly could be. His attitude toward what lies ahead remains both optimistic and pragmatic.

“At my age,” he says, “I know I can’t attend 150 rodeos in a year. But I do intend to keep competing. I’ll pick my rodeos and hope the injuries stay away. I’ve had a good year so far, but I’d really like to add a few more dollars to my earnings to ensure that I make the NFR.

“I also realize that I can’t keep riding forever, and that’s OK by me. For now, I’m being sponsored by Express Ranches of Yukon, Oklahoma, and that has made it possible to cut down a little on the schedule and still stay competitive.

“As far as quitting altogether is concerned, I’ll just leave that up to God and what’s down deep in my heart.”

For as long as Billy Etbauer has spent in the spotlight and at the top of his game, the thought of retirement doesn’t bother him. The main reason for that lack of concern is centered squarely on the dual role he currently enjoys as a family man. It is a role that—like his bronc-riding technique—he has spent a lifetime perfecting.

“I was the last of the brothers to get married,” he says. “I met my wife, Hollie, at the 1992 Prairie Circuit Finals, which was held that year at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma. She was seeing another guy at the time, but it didn’t take me long to realize that she was the one for me. So, I started calling her and it just sort of took off from there.”

Hollie Cherry Etbauer, 39, grew up in the Edmond area and was a top all-around high school and college athlete.

“My father ran a boarding stable and we had a big arena where we held horse shows,” she says. “Both he and my mother always supported me and my younger brother, Chad, in those horse activities that we wanted to pursue. We never were able to spend a lot on our horses; we had to pick them up reasonably and then make them into something.

“I had a grade gelding that I could do anything on, and he only cost us $375 as a long yearling. He turned out to be an amazing pole-bending horse and took me to the high school finals four years in a row. We won the national pole bending title at the finals in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1985 and 1986.
In addition to rodeo, Hollie was also a standout track star, taking nine state high school championships in the half-mile individual race, and anchoring the one- and two-mile relays.

Her accomplishments earned her a full track scholarship at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Injuries put an end to that athletic career, however, so Hollie transferred to the University of Central Oklahoma at Edmond, where she earned a BA degree in health and physical education.

It was while pursuing a career as an elementary health and P.E. teacher in the Edmond school district that she met Billy.

“I’ve always enjoyed rodeo,” she says. “I was attending the 1992 circuit finals as a spectator. After one of the performances, I was introduced to Billy.
“At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to start seeing a rough-stock rider; most of the ones I had known had a couple of wires shook loose.

“But Billy was very polite and pretty persistent. He kept calling and we managed to have a few dates prior to the 1992 NFR. In 1993, he got injured and had to have back surgery. He was laid up for awhile and that gave us the opportunity to get to know each other better. We got engaged in 1993 and were married on April 2, 1994.”

Prior to his marriage, Billy had won the 1992 saddle bronc title. After tying the knot, he relocated from Goodwell, Oklahoma, to Edmond. Continuing to rodeo hard, he added four more titles and an array of big-name rodeo wins to his professional resume. Back home, family life flourished, as well, expanding to include two sons and a daughter—Kord, 11, Jacie, 9, and Treg, 6.

Today, the rodeo superstar has scaled back his competitive schedule considerably. But that’s not to say that he is locked into anything that resembles semi-retirement. Indeed, his life is probably as hectic as it ever has been. And, drawing from his early experiences with horses and Hollie’s love of the speed events, the Etbauer Ranch is currently the home of a thriving barrel horse breeding program.

Back to the Horses
“As a kid,” Billy says, “I spent a lot of time at the Cowan Ranch near Highmore, South Dakota. Pat Cowan was kind of a legend in our area, and he and his sons were sure enough horsemen.

“I learned a lot about handling and breaking horses from hanging out with the Cowans. So, when Hollie and I decided to try to breed some arena horses, we took the Cowan approach of blending speed and ranch bloodlines.”

For all practical purposes, the Etbauer breeding program was launched in the fall of 1995 with the acquisition of No Whistle, a 1976 sorrel stallion by Away From Holme (TB) and out of Little Whistle by Tonto Bars Gill.

A top racehorse in his own right, No Whistle achieved a speed index of 103 and placed in the Jay Chambers Memorial Futurity and the Oklahoma Futurity. Retired to stud, he sired 35 starters, 13 winners and the earners of 16 race ROMs.

The next key addition to the program came in January of 2001 with a trip to the Heritage Sale in Oklahoma City and the purchase of Fols Debbie, a 1985 brown mare by Fol’s Native (TB) and out of Millie Jet Dec by Jet Deck Junior.

After a successful race career that saw her achieve a speed index of 96, “Debbie” has gone on to produce four ROM racehorses, including Fols Dream Of Cash, S.I. 104; and Fols Romeo, S.I. 94. In addition, she is the dam of the barrel race winners of more than $250,000.

When bred to No Whistle, Fols Debbie produced Whistle At The Babes, a 2003 bay stallion and the ranch’s choice as a replacement for his sire.

In February of 2004, yet another piece of the breeding puzzle was added with the acquisition of PC Frosty Bid, a 2000 buckskin stallion by Sun Frost and out of Gee Gee Decade by New Decade. A big, powerful stallion, “Frosty” has his owners excited about the future.

“Ever since I was a kid in South Dakota,” Billy says, “I’ve always liked buckskin horses, and I’ve always wanted a son of Sun Frost. I’ve got it all in Frosty. He’s ranch- and race-bred on both sides of his pedigree, and it looks like he’s going to sire the kind of foals that we want to be associated with.”

For Hollie, the big buckskin is appealing for yet another reason.

“I’ve been a barrel racer for as long as I can remember,” she says. “I’m competing on some nice, seasoned horses, but it has always been our intent to break Frosty in as a pro rodeo competitor, as well.

“I’ve taken it slow with him, and it’s just starting to pay off. Sherry Cervi has done a real fine job with PC Frenchmans Hayday, a paternal half-brother to Frosty. He’s won more than $230,000 in barrel racing and roping, and Sherry has helped me a lot in learning how to ‘dial in’ Frosty. I’ve also recently found a bit he likes, and, as far as running the pattern in it goes, it’s like a light bulb has gone off in his head.

“I hope that, before too much longer, we’ll be able to hit the PRCA circuit and make an impact.”

For several years, the Etbauer performance-horse breeding program included a stallion and 15 broodmares. As family demands increased, however, the broodmare numbers decreased. Today, only the top five producers remain.

Waiting in the wings for their shot at arena exc
ellence are several well-bred prospects, including four out of Fols Debbie—Snazzy Sun Daze, a 2004 sorrel mare by Sun Frost; Fols Frosty Man, a 2005 buckskin stallion by PC Frosty Bid; Fols Frost Te Jet, a 2006 sorrel stallion by PC Frosty Bid (embryo transfer); and Ladie Bird, a 2006 sorrel mare by Streak Laico Bird.

Adding to the hubbub of horse activity around the 440-acre Etbauer Ranch is the “recipient mare” boarding arrangement.

“Over the fall, winter and spring,” Billy says, “we’ll pasture 200 to 300 ‘recip’ mares. We feed and take care of them starting in the fall, and then start getting them ready to receive the embryo transplants in the late winter and early spring.

“When breeding season hits, it gets a little crazy around here. The vet comes out and palpates the mares, and then I haul the ones that are ready into Embry Transfer Services, breeding facility in Oklahoma City, where they’re impregnated and sent to whoever has contracted for them.

“We’re pretty much through with this part of the deal by late April, and then it’s back to the arena horses and rodeo.”

A Sense of Family
For Billy and Hollie Etbauer, getting back to horses and rodeo means getting on with family life. In between rodeos, Billy is very involved with the program’s young family of horses, gentling and starting them before turning them over to Hollie to train.

“As far as the horses go,” he says, “I guess I’m pretty much back where I started. I really enjoy working with the young horses, and I try to use all that I learned from my dad, my brothers and the Cowan boys to start our colts.

“I do a lot of round-pen and ground work before I ever get on a colt, and that saves a lot of wear and tear on the both of us. I’ve fell off enough sure-enough tough bucking horses to ever want to do it around home. And once I get a young horse to where he’s willing and giving, Hollie does an excellent job of going on with them.”

According to Hollie, working with young horses that her husband has spent time with is a piece of cake.

“As far as working with colts goes,” she says, “Billy has an absolute gift. He has taken the ‘pressure and release’ method and turned it into a fine art. Give him 60 days with any youngster, and it’s ready for anyone to go on with it.

“Whether it’s a result of his work with horses as a young man, or his years of riding rough stock, his sense of timing as far as asking a colt to do something by applying pressure and then releasing that pressure at precisely the right instant, Billy can get a colt to give willingly.”

And, as it always has, the Etbauer concept of family extends beyond the world of rodeo and horses, to the more important realm of the family unit.
“Back when I first met Billy,” Hollie says, “one of the things that impressed me the most about him was his sense of family. He was very close to his parents, brothers and maybe even closer to his sister Wanda.

“I home-school our children, so they’re with us most of the time. They participate in some extra-curricular activities, such as music, but when it comes to sports, it all boils down to one thing. Rodeo is our sport and we participate in it as a family.

“I have seen a lot of parents that have their kids in every activity and every sport imaginable, and Mom winds up being mainly a taxi driver. Our family unit is important to us, and we’re committed to doing everything in our power to keep it intact.”

As far as driving a taxi cab is concerned, Billy comes closer to fulfilling that role than anyone.

“I’ve had more than my share of time in the spotlight,” he says. “As far as my own professional career goes, I think I’ve still got a little something left in the tank. But these days, I’m just as concerned about Hollie and the kids, and seeing to it that they achieve a few of their dreams.

“I’d like nothing better than to haul them all around to rodeos and let them do their thing. Hollie is making steady progress with Frosty, and I’m hopeful she’ll make it to the NFR with him someday.

“Like my dad did with me when I was young, I started out by putting my kids on ponies. This is the second year that the kids have been mounted on big horses, and they’re turning in some pretty solid times in the speed events.

“Kord competed in the mutton-busting when he was younger and has indicated that he’d like to learn to ride rough stock. I don’t want him riding what amounts to small bulls at his age, but I wouldn’t mind him riding some steers.

“As far as both the boys and rough stock riding goes, I guess we’ll just have to play it by ear. But there’s one thing that I know for sure—horses and rodeo have been pretty good to me and my family. So, one way or another, we’ll keep balancing our schedules and see where the road takes us next.”

Frank Holmes is a Western Horseman contributing editor. Send comments on this story to [email protected].

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