After more than four decades as stock contractors, the Sankey family prides itself on top bucking horse bloodlines and efficient event production on the road during the heat of the summer rodeo season.
The Big Sky Pro Rodeo in Great Falls, Montana, is a favorite stop for cowboys making their summertime run through the northwestern United States. It’s also a memorable event for Ike Sankey, the event’s stock contractor and production coordinator for 26 years.
While there have been many unforgettable incidents during that time, he especially remembers one infamous performance in August of 1993, when saddle bronc Skitso Skoal bucked off her rider and then launched herself over a 5-foot fence and out of the arena.
From there, the mare bolted down the track encircling the arena, past grandstands full of spectators, and skidded into the beer garden. Sankey and others came to the beer garden patrons’ rescue, restraining the mare and then leading her back into the arena dallied to a pick-up horse.
“It was an exciting night,” recalls Ike, telling the story an hour before the start of the 86th annual Big Sky Pro Rodeo last August. “The night after ‘Skitso’ landed in the beer garden there were signs hanging that said ‘No Broncs Allowed’ and ‘This Bronc’s for You,’ and there was the table she ran into.”
As luck would have it, another Sankey bronc jumped out of the arena at this year’s Big Sky Pro Rodeo, but was quickly caught by pick-up man J2 Brown.
While Skitso will always be remembered in Great Falls for her shenanigans, the two-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Saddle Bronc Horse of the Year also was a favorite draw of top cowboys, including six-time PRCA world champion saddle bronc rider Dan Mortensen of Billings, Montana.
“She was a little smaller than Ike’s typical horses, but she was really quick and strong,” says Mortensen. “I had more history with Skitso than any other Sankey bronc. I got on her 10 or 12 times, and it was always a battle and coin toss if she or I would win. If you stayed on, you won first place. I was 92 points on her and set an arena record in Cody, Wyoming [in 1995], and the last time I rode her was in the ninth round of the 2001 NFR and she lawn-darted me onto my head.”
The gray mare is just one of several horses the Sankeys have raised since the 1970s whose blazing speed, brute strength and explosive bucks showcase cowboys’ skills, set arena records and win paychecks. Along the way, the family has received four PRCA Saddle Bronc Horse of the Year titles with three different horses. Now in its fifth generation of horses, the Sankey bucking horse breeding program continues to produce broncs with size, grit and athleticism — and a burning desire to buck.
“We’ve always wanted to have horses that bucked hared and that guys could make good, qualified rides on,” says Ike, “but if the riders stubbed their toe the horses would buck them off.”
In 2013, Ike and his wife, Roberta, who are now semi-retired, revitalized their rodeo production company, forming a partnership with their son, Wade, daughter, Ryan, and South Carolina bucking-bull breeder Jeff Robinson. Now, Sankey Pro Rodeo with Jeff Robinson Bulls not only supplies all of the livestock to contracted rodeos, but also specializes in every aspect of event production — from staff and setup to music and specialty acts — creating an exciting experience for rodeo fans while also promoting some of the best bucking bloodlines in the industry.
“We have more diverse genetics than ever so we can get the crosses we want and look for outside genetics,” says Ryan. “In the bucking horse industry, genetics have become recognized and important, but they’ve been important to our family from the beginning.”
Bred To Buck
On a late Sunday afternoon last July, Ryan was glued to an electronic tablet she had perched on the kitchen counter at Sankey America, the family’s ranch headquarters nestled in the pine-dotted hills of Joliet, Montana. She was live-streaming the short go at Cheyenne Frontier Days, where her brother, Wade, was with some of their best bucking horses.
The Sankey string was well-represented, with Will Lowe winning the round and his third CFD championship with an 88 on Black Tie, and Cort Scheer tying for first place in the round with an 87 on Marquee, finishing fourth in the final standings. “The Sankeys have had a lot of great horses for a lot of years, and [Marquee] was one of the few of their best ones I hadn’t been on before, so I was stoked to have that horse for the finals,” says Scheer. “A lot of good [bucking horse breeding] programs developed from Sankey mares, and they’re on the uphill side of raising even better horses now. If you draw a horse from their pen, you know you’re getting on something good. Their horses buck hard and give a guy a shot at winning. It’s your own fault if you don’t win on one of their horses.”
When deciding what horses to take to a rodeo, Wade comes up with a rotating roster of the best young and seasoned horses from the string.
“We are most concerned with the evenness of our herd,” he says. “We will never take the drawing aspect out of rodeo, but we can try to make our horses as even as possible so every guy has a good chance of winning.”
Like his father, who qualified for the NFR four times in bareback and saddle bronc, Wade understands the competitive side of rodeo. He rode bareback and saddle bronc horses in high school and while attending Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, and went to a handful of professional rodeos. It was there that he once drew two of his family’s horses: Skitso in the saddle bronc riding and William, a Thoroughbred gelding who made his mark in bareback competition.
“I didn’t make it to the buzzer on either of them,” recalls Wade. “But it was an honor to get to ride two of our great horses.”
Though Wade lives in Cody, Wyoming, with his wife, Danielle, and their young son, Clyde, and isn’t with the rodeo string every day, he manages the bucking horse breeding program and hauls the string. He also runs the yearlings and 2-year-old prospects on range in Cody.
Well versed in bucking horse bloodlines, Wade knows the pedigrees of each horse, many of which trace to Sankey foundation sire Custer, who is buried in Cody.
“Our family’s goal has always been to have the best set of broncs going down the road,” he says. “My goal is to raise another PRCA bucking horse of the year, and I feel like we have the best set of horses we’ve ever had right now.”
That includes several top mares, like Suduko, an NFR bareback and saddle bronc horse by Psycho (by Wild Strawberry and out of Skitso Skoal) and out of the top-producing mare Domino. Sozo, a mare out of Suduko, recently took bareback rider Wyatt Denny of Minden, Nevada, for an 88-point ride worth $50,000 at the Days of ’47 Rodeo in Salt Lake City, Utah. Marquee is out of a Custer daughter named Show Biz, and Jesse Wright rode the horse to win the Pendleton Round-Up championship in September. Black Tie is by Wee Willy and out of Black Sheep.
Wade is also excited about a 5-year-old gelding out of Sodbuster named Outlaw Tunes, who is proving to be a big bucker.
Sankey Pro Rodeo’s roots lie in Kansas, where Ike and his brother, Lyle, grew up riding and trading horses with their father, Bud, from the time they could saddle their own horses. Ike bought his Rodeo Cowboys Association card in 1974 and began competing in bareback and saddle bronc riding, qualifying for the NFR four times in the 1970s. Lyle qualified for the NFR in bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding.
Both successful rodeo contestants, the brothers put on rodeo schools and partnered with their father on the livestock. When they started going in different directions, they dispersed in 1979. Lyle conducted rodeo schools, while Ike became a stock contractor and married former Miss Rodeo Wyoming Roberta Schultz of Cody.
“I didn’t like traveling that much as a contestant and suffered multiple injuries,” says Ike. “It made more sense for me to be a stock contractor than a competitor. I had put together a decent set of bulls and bucking horses.”
In 1981, the couple took over management of the longstanding Cody Nite Rodeo and ran it for 14 years.
“It was seven nights a week during June, July and August,” says Ike. “I learned more about rodeo production in Cody than anywhere else. We did everything except concessions, and I really wanted to do that, too.”
Ike also coached the Northwest College rodeo team in Powell, Wyoming. Among his student athletes were world champions Deb Greenough, Rod Hay and Dan Mortensen.
“The Cody Nite Rodeo was a prime training ground for young horses,”says Mortensen. “Any time a young horse can get a win by throwing off a rider, it develops its confidence. It was also a good environment for us guys wanting to learn more about rodeo and riding bucking horses because we got on a practice pen of the horses used in the rodeo.”
Years after his college rodeo days, Mortensen says he still asked Ike to help him with his horses at the NFR.
“It’s the comfort of having somebody you really respect and trust there to help you,” he says, “and you can count on Ike for straight-up honest advice and critiques of your rides.”
In 1984, Sankey bought a stallion named Custer from Harry Vold during a bucking horse sale at the NFR.
“I’d seen him buck off Chris LeDoux in El Paso, Texas,” recalls Ike. “Everybody told me how stupid I was to buy the horse. He wasn’t a world-class bucker, but you could count on him to buck every single time someone got on his back.”
Ike bucked Custer only 10 times, but bred him for more than 10 years until the stallion died in 1994. The Bucking Horse Breeders Association, formed in 2013, is DNA testing past and current bucking horses to trace the pedigrees and statistics of registered horses just like a breed registry. As more horses are DNA tested, Custer’s influence is becoming apparent.
“It’s showing that Custer was a one-in-a-million stallion,” says Wade. “There’s never been a stallion come close to him in terms of consistency in producing quality bucking horses [with] longevity.”
Other top-producing stallions in Sankey’s string were Wild Strawberry, by the Calgary Stampede’s legendary stallion Cowboy; and Wee Willy, a horse that came from a ranch in Rosebud, Montana, that used to raise U.S. Cavalry remount horses. He infused Throughbred bloodlines into the Sankey’s program. A couple of years before buying Wee Willy, the Sankeys bought William, a saddle horse and full brother to Wee Willy, and he became the runner up to the PRCA Bareback Horse of the Year multiple times.
“For years people have tried to breed the buck out of horses, and we’re trying to keep it in them,” says Ike.
The stallions are turned out with their respective mares on May 1. The horses live in a natural environment, which makes them strong and healthy from the start. The Sankeys say they rarely have health issues despite hauling their horses to so many different venues.
Mares foal out in the pastures in April and May, and the foals are gathered and weaned early at 45 to 60 days, so the mares can go back into the rodeo string and the babies can begin being handled. At that point, the foals receive grain daily and free-choice hay.
“Having someone walk through the babies every day and give them grain gives them a great start on being around people,” says Ryan. “We keep four to six nurse mares in the pastures with the babies to keep them under control. They follow those nurse mares around and learn from them. We pull out the bred
nurse mares in January and run the babies with a saddle horse.”
The colts are turned out on pasture until they are 3 years old. Then they are gathered and introduced to the chute and flank strap, and bucked with dummies on their backs in the spring.
For the past two years, the Sankeys have held a small bronc riding at the ranch in Montana called the Pitchin’. About 20 young bronc riders get on the colts for the first time in a controlled environment and compete for added money. The Sankeys want a colt’s first experience out of the chute to be positive.
“The first thing the Pitchin’ does is get our colts bucked and handled properly the first time out of the chute with a rider,” says Wade. “The other thing it does is give young guys experience, and there are veteran bareback and bronc riders in the area you don’t see much anymore, but they come out to help at the Pitchin’.”
After the Pitchin’, the colts are turned out for the rest of the summer. In the fall, they are taken to Central Wyoming College in Riverton, Wyoming, where the college rodeo team practices on them for a year.
“It’s a really neat program we have with Drew Schrock, the rodeo coach at the college,” says Wade. “We are able to develop our horses there. Before the colts are 4, they have had 10 to 15 trips on them, and at that point they’re ready to go on the road.”
Before the first horse bucks out of the chute at a rodeo, the Sankeys have spent weeks working to prepare for that moment. After watching the short round at Cheyenne, Ryan and the ranch’s hired hand, Cody Yates, saddle up ranch horses and start getting steers and calves gathered, sorted and doctored, if necessary, before the next rodeo in a few days. Each spring, the Sankeys partner with a rancher in Nebraska on calves and also buy high-quality Mexican steers for team roping and bulldogging, and then sell them in the fall.
The morning before leaving for the Big Sky Pro Rodeo, Ryan long-trots her big red roan into the pasture and disappears into the folds of the hillsides to gather the bucking horse string. The Sankey ranch in southern Montana is approximately 7,500 acres and home to more than 100 active bucking horses, 20 retirees, a few saddle and flag horses, and at least 35 young bucking horse prospects. Ryan lives on the ranch year-round with her husband, Russ Driscoll, and handles daily feeding and management, as well as bookkeeping, marketing and social media. She also coordinates staff, specialty acts and music for contracted rodeos.
Ike and Roberta lived on the ranch for 17 years before moving to Sheridan, Wyoming, last year.
“Most of the rodeos we do, we bring the complete package,” explains Ryan. “We bring all of the livestock and personnel, and we do all the music and production. It’s cost-effective, and you get a team that has worked together and knows what is expected. We usually bring bull fighters and pick-up men, two timers, a secretary, announcer, clown and flag girls.”
It doesn’t take long for Ryan to gather the horses. Their rumbling hooves can be heard in the distance as she trails nearly 30 of them over a hill and down into the corral at headquarters. It’s something she’s done since she was a child.
“When we had the Cody Nite Rodeo we had to gather and sort the horses every day,” she says. “Wade and I were tiny, and Ike would put us on whatever horses we had at the time and we’d go out with him. The broncs were so used to being handled that they’d come running to the house and we really thought we were doing a good job.”
With two helpers running gates, she refers to the list Wade has sent her and smoothly and efficiently sorts the horses accordingly one by one in the alleyway, sending some to a pen of horses that will go to the next rodeo, and others to a pen that will be turned back out.
“We always gather and sort horseback,” says Ryan. “It makes them calm and quiet when handled, and we take that seriously for our own safety and that of our livestock. We consider it good horsemanship.”
Greenough, the 1993 PRCA world champion bareback rider, respects the Sankey family as not only stock contractors, but also horsemen.
“What I thought was so neat about Ike when I was on the college rodeo team is that he could tell you how a horse would feel just by watching it,” says Greenough. “The whole family has natural horse sense, whether it’s with bucking horses or saddle horses, and when they work the bucking horses in the pens, it’s like they’re working a string of saddle horses because they handle so well and with respect.”
The horses are in the pen waiting to be loaded on the trailer when Wade pulls in the driveway with a load of horses from Cheyenne. Some of those horses will go to Great Falls and others will get a rest. The horses know the loading and unloading routine well. Wade loads them one by one, side-by-side, alternating head to hindquarters.
“It keeps the horses from biting each other on the mouth,” explains Wade, who stands in the trailer and directs the horses to file in around him. “We haul older horses with the younger ones so they can teach them how to load. The first time a young horse gets on the trailer it doesn’t know what’s going on, but it gets used to it really quickly following the older horses, and very rarely do we have any problems or injuries on the trailer.”
The Sankeys arrive at a rodeo a few hours before the first performance. Wade unloads the stock and gets them settled, while Ryan and/or Ike attends a production meeting. They often run the horses through the chutes so they learn where the out-gate is located. About two hours before the performance, flag-girl coordinator Alaini Lorash starts polishing the pick-up men’s chaps, saddling the flag horses and outfitting the flag girls in preparation for the grand entry. Ryan is up in the crow’s nest getting the music started and lining out the announcer’s program about an hour before the performance begins. Ike is down at the roping box getting everything ready for the roping events. It’s a team effort, and the Sankeys rely on each other and their crew to do their individual parts in making the performance safe and successful.
While most stock contractors start their rodeo season in January with the big indoor stock-show rodeos, the Sankeys’ first rodeo is the Clark County Fair and Rodeo in Logandale, Nevada, in April.
“Our mares are bred and pretty heavy in the winter so it reduces the number of horses we can haul,” explains Ryan. “We also believe it compromises a horse’s health to haul it from 20-below-zero temperatures in Montana to warmer climates down south and then back to the cold.”
The busiest time of year for the family is July through September, when they produce and/or haul stock to rodeos in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, plus the Pendleton Round-Up in Pendleton, Oregon.
“Our bread and butter are all of the summertime rodeos up in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming,” says Wade. “We take on about as many rodeos as any stock contractor, except most of them are over a three-month period.”
The crew’s mutual respect for each other and their diverse skills are what makes the operation work.
“It’s the same mentality as having a family ranch,” says Wade. “Instead of raising and shipping calves, we raise and haul bucking horses to rodeos and get multiple paychecks a year and still get to do all of the ranch work.”
During a rodeo, the Sankeys and their crew don’t have to speak to each other to keep the rhythm of the rodeo flowing. They know exactly what to do and when to do it. Yet there’s one thing that excites the family and makes them come together — watching a good bucking horse.
This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of Western Horseman.