Some of the grittiest bucking broncs can be traced to Feek Tooke’s legendary bucking horse bloodline that began in the 1930s. Eight decades later, another Tooke is reviving the great family of rodeo horses.

In the Powder River breaks west of Ekalaka, Montana, the footfalls from a herd of ground-shaking giants echo through Whiskey Gulch. The mountain lions roaming the gulch prey on the horses, especially the foals, and a scant few survive to run alongside their mothers. Each horse bears the scars of frequent predator attacks. It is here, in this unforgiving sea of grass, that the Tooke bucking horses show off the traits honed over decades of breeding: lightning speed, mammoth strength, a suspicious nature, and an iron will to survive. These characteristics also make the Tooke horses ideal bucking stock.

Without strong, fiery bucking horses underneath them, Feek Tooke knew cowboys didn’t have the chance to show off their skills or visit the pay window. Feek began to breed specifically for bucking horses in the late 1930s, redefining traditional rodeo rough stock. From Canada to Colorado to South Dakota, the Tooke bloodline is the backbone on which rodeo producers built their fame.

Today, Feek’s great-grandnephew, Mac Tooke, continues the family legacy of pulling wild horses out of the Powder River breaks to buck at regional rodeos. The horses have the same power, size, athleticism and mental toughness as the first descendants from Feek’s unique blend of Shire and Arabian blood. Mac has big shoes to fill, but the mighty Tooke horses haven’t lost their fire.

A Drive For Size

Like rolling thunder over the hill, the sound of 20 running horses grows ever closer. As one, a group of bay, sorrel and pinto horses launches itself down the hill and across the pasture at a dead run, long manes flying in the wind and feathered legs flashing across the grass. The product of nearly 80 years of specialized breeding is out of sight in an instant.

“We’ve been chasing these horses around these hills for years,” says 38-year-old Mac. “These horses have no fear. They can’t fear a man on a horse when they’ve been fighting mountain lions down in the Breaks for years. See those claw marks on that mare? You can throw feed to her all winter and in the spring she still won’t trust you. It’s how they were bred, how they survived and why, I think, they buck so well.

“It all goes back to Feek crossing big Shires on hot-blooded Arabians. Me, I don’t remember those great horses because [my great-uncle] Ernest has been out of [producing] rodeos so long, but the locals will still talk about the Tooke horses. People claimed Ekalaka was the bucking horse capital of the world, and I guess you can say Feek made it that way.”

Chandler “Feek” Tooke was born in Redfield, South Dakota, in 1909. In 1913 his parents, Earl and Bessie, moved him and his five brothers— Frank, Fay, Grandville, Dick and Bill—to a homestead 13 miles west of Ekalaka. The six Tooke brothers built a rodeo arena and produced their first event in 1931. Eventually, they put on rodeos in Miles City, Montana, and across North and South Dakota. They even had their horses buck in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

“Dad was a horseman, but what he wanted was to raise bucking horses,” says 78-year-old Ernest, Feek’s only son. “The idea for Shire studs and hot-blooded mares came from Pat O’Cane, a foreman on the Powder River Ranch who wanted a horse that could carry his cowboys all day.”

Ernest says that O’Cane crossed Shire stallions on Thoroughbred mares, but he got more stamina than anticipated.

“It wasn’t Pat’s intention to breed buckers when he crossed Shire and Thoroughbred,” Ernest says. “He tried the blend and got a big, stout, athletic horse. But no one could handle them because all the horses wanted to do was fight. It was a losing proposition for the cowboys.”

Feek purchased O’Cane’s string of Shire-Thoroughbred horses in 1936. His vision: take O’Cane’s big, fast mares and cross them with a Shire to get bucking horses that could jump. The idea was alien to rodeo, as most often a bucking horse was caught from a wild herd or was a spoiled saddle horse. That didn’t stop Feek.

His vision took life in 1943 when he purchased King Larrygo, a 2,000-pound registered Shire stallion. However, a cranky mare kicked the stallion, leaving King Larrygo unable to sire additional foals. Feek had just one colt for his purchase: Prince.

“Prince became the patriarch of the entire bucking horse line. He was 17 hands tall and weighed about 1,700 pounds,” Ernest says. “If Prince wouldn’t have lived or if he’d been a mare, you wouldn’t see these high-powered bucking horses like Chuckulator [Sutton Rodeo’s 2012 National Finals Rodeo top saddle bronc] and Grated Coconut [Calgary Stampede Rodeo’s 2008 NFR top bareback bronc].”

The horses were big, but didn’t have the fire and stamina Feek desired. In 1945 he purchased an Arabian stallion named Snowflake who was known to be a “man-eater.” The stallion’s boiling hot blood proved to be the missing ingredient needed to create Feek’s ideal bucking horse.

“Dad was always preaching size and fire,” Ernest says. “He found the fire in that Arabian. That is where these horses got their meanness. [ProRodeo Hall of Fame member] Clem McSpadden said that it was the most ideal bucking horse breeding that will ever be.”

The original Shire, King Larrygo, was a blue-ribbon winner at the Iowa State Fair, but his descendants fit the rodeo arena better than the horse show world.

Feek was a stock contractor for the Rodeo Cowboy’s Association, providing bucking horses for rodeos around horses were used at match bronc ridings, where notable cowboys like Casey Tibbs first saw the Shire-Arabian giants. Ernest says the horses were so unlike their peers that the other contractors pressured the RCA to cut back on rodeos where Feek could provide horses.

Still, the horses’ ability to jump, kick and spin in a way that seemed unnatural for their enormous size became the Tooke trademark. The most well known of Prince’s sons, General Custer, personified these traits.

“General Custer was 1,800 pounds and had the disposition of Mike Tyson,” Ernest says. “If you could get him out of the chute without him first getting mad and trying to tear it apart, he was as athletic as [top bucking bull] Bodacious was in bull riding.”

General Custer flattened rodeo cowboys, clobbered pick-up men and demolished bucking chutes. Though he pitched off world champions and local cowboys without prejudice, his own star wouldn’t rise until his offspring bucked at the NFR in the late 1960s.

“Raising bucking horses was the most important to Dad,” says Ernest. “In the late ’60s, the well [to find wild horses] was dry. You had to find a horse that [wanted to] buck like an old saddle horse that was spoiled. The horses were getting smaller, not like the bigger broncs in the 1940s, and the smaller horses just didn’t last [as broncs]. Our horses bucked good at first and then got stronger. Everybody said you can’t raise a bucking horse, but that is what we did.”

With one phone call from Feek to a young, up-and-coming stock contractor named Mel Potter, the Tookes brought size back to the bucking horse industry.

Finding Fame

In 1964, Potter, horseman Jack Brainard and John Snow began Rodeo Incorporated in Wisconsin. The young company soon catapulted them into the upper echelon of rough-stock contractors.

“I’d never heard of Feek Tooke, but he called and said he had some good bucking horses we could probably use,” Potter says. “I called Bill Linderman, a good friend of mine, and asked him if he’d heard of Feek. Bill said that if we could get Feek’s best horses then we’d have the best in the world.”

The first cowboy to win three PRCA world championships in one year, in all-around, steer wrestling and saddle bronc riding, Linderman had ridden Tooke horses and also had received guidance from Tooke for his own rodeo company. After speaking with Linderman, Potter and Brainard headed to tiny Ekalaka to start horse-trading.

“On a handshake we loaded 20 horses in a big semi trailer and sent them to Wisconsin,” Potter says. “That first load had Indian Sign, a saddle bronc that was impossible to ride and one the Rodeo Cowboys Association outlawed in the event. We had 77 Sunset Strip, Deacon Brown, War Paint, Little Mac, Bald Hornet and Red Flame. I forget how many [of those horses] we sent to the [National] Finals that year, but it was quite a few for an outfit that’d only been in existence two years.

Some of the grittiest bucking broncs can be traced to Feek Tooke’s legendary bucking horse bloodline that began in the 1930s.
Grated Coconut, Calgary Stampede Rodeo’s highly decorated bareback stallion, traces to Feek Tooke’s stallion General Custer. Photo by Ross Hecox.

“Before we finished paying for that load, Feek called and said he had another on the way, but thought these were better and ranker than the first bunch.”

The second load included Sheep Mountain, who bucked at the NFR in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1967 and took home the best saddle bronc award. A typical Tooke horse, the son of General Custer weighed nearly 1,200 pounds and possessed uncanny athletic ability. For the third time, Feek called Potter, Brainard and Snow with the offer to sell horses.

“Jack and I flew to Ekalaka to watch an amateur rodeo. No big name guys, but these guys could ride broncs, and Feek’s horses bucked everybody off but four guys,” says Potter. “Those four guys got to ride another and their picks were Major Reno, Skidrow Sue, Black Hills or Grey Wolf. Major Reno bucked over a 6-foot fence and didn’t know he bucked out of the arena.

“It was a miracle for us. We happened to be in the right place at the right time. [Feek] was a little down on big producers. That is why the horses weren’t known except by the cowboys who attempted to ride them during [bronc riding] matches. Nobody knew it was a heck of a good bunch of horses. I don’t know why he called me; I guess he thought we were an up-and-coming outfit and could show everybody what his horses really were. He made us famous and we made his horses famous.”

In 1968, Rodeo Incorporated produced the Chicago Rodeo, which occurred at the same time as the NFR. Potter says they asked Feek to travel with the Rodeo Incorporated horses to Oklahoma so he, Brainard and Snow could run the rodeo in Chicago, Illinois.

“We all thought since Feek had never seen the NFR we could pay his way down and let him flank his animals,” Potter says. “We were receiving the plaque for the previous year’s top saddle bronc horse—it was Sheep Mountain— and we made an extra plaque that said ‘bred and raised by Feek Tooke.’

“Feek called us from the NFR just about in tears a couple times and said Major Reno had bucked so high. The horse had to buck off two guys to be eligible for the top horse award, and the second guy to draw him was Larry Mahan. Feek saw the horse buck off the guy that was supposed to be the world champion.”

On rodeo’s biggest stage, Major Reno, another of General Custer’s offspring, clinched the top saddle bronc award, and Sheep Mountain was honored for earning the same title in 1967. It was the 69-year-old breeder’s proudest moment. Unfortunately, it was his last.

“The night they presented the plaques, Feek rode in to get Sheep Mountain’s, rode out and dropped dead of a heart attack,” Potter says. “We felt a little responsible, but his family said he was doing what he loved. Feek was a character; he was a dandy.”

The following year, 1969, Major Reno won the top saddle bronc award at the NFR for the second time, again bucking off a young Mahan.

Setting The Standard

Whether it’s a fast barrel horse or a gritty bronc, the rodeo world sits up and takes notice of talent. Mahan, a five-time saddle bronc average champion, six-time all-around champion and the 1965 and 1967 world champion bull rider, hadn’t heard of the mammoth bucking horses until Major Reno ruined his chances at a second world title.

“Major Reno was the last horse in the saddle bronc that I needed to ride to win the world [in 1968] and he bucked me off. He was my first horse [at the 1969 NFR] and he bucked me off again,” Mahan says. “You darn sure had to have your riding pants on when that whistle blew.”

Mahan recalls the difference between the Tooke horses and many of the mounts other rodeo companies had in the 1960s and early ’70s.

“There weren’t a lot of big-boned, feather-legged and old-time bucking horses in different parts of the country,” he says. “The Tooke horses were model-A type buckers. A lot of stock contractors at the time had bucking horses that I felt were saddle horses not started properly or had developed habits of bucking people off. From the early, early pictures I’ve seen since the ’40s, the bucking horses were more like what I saw from the Tookes—big, stout bucking horses.

“In my era, you didn’t see many of those big horses unless you rode Rodeo, Inc.’s horses, and that is because of the Tookes. The Tookes were responsible for the top bucking horses and the programs people have developed today. They were old bucking horse people, as we call them, like Harry Vold.”

In fact, Vold—the “Duke of the Chutes,” 11-time PRCA stock contractor of the year, ProRodeo Hall of Fame and National Cowboy Hall of Fame member Harry Vold—took two of his best mares to breed to General Custer after seeing the stallion’s offspring at the NFR. Though old, the stallion sired the most instrumental horse in Vold’s Colorado-based bucking program.

“I had heard about that old stallion and Mr. Tooke for a few years, and I thought I needed to get some mares bred to that horse,” Vold says. “It’s kind of like everything else, a shot in the dark, but it was a good one. I got a stallion I called Custer. Custer did more for me than any horse I’d ever bred.”

Vold is one of two stock contractors to provide stock to every NFR, and he has bred hundreds of horses, like the 1991, ’92 and ’93 bronc of the year, Bobby Joe Skoal, a son of Custer.

“Bobby Joe, we started bucking him as a 3-year-old in the rookie bronc riding at Cheyenne [Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming], and he just exploded into the pen,” he says. “I knew those horses had the reputation to be mean or hard to handle, but Bobby Joe was a good-tempered horse. I made a sad mistake in the ’80s, and I sold Custer. Ike Sankey got him, and Ike put himself in the bucking horse business.”

Some of the grittiest bucking broncs can be traced to Feek Tooke’s legendary bucking horse bloodline that began in the 1930s.
Mac (left) and Ernest Tooke joined forces with Bill Carlisle to take the Tooke horses from the pasture back to the rodeo arena. Photo by Darrell Dodds

Sankey Rodeo Company, based in Wyoming, can trace nearly 85 percent of its bucking horses to Custer, the foundation sire in the program. In similar fashion, the ties that bind the Tooke horses to the major rodeo producers stem from directly breeding to a Tooke stallion or purchasing one of Rodeo Incorporated’s horses when the company dispersed in the early 1970s.

“When we sold out, those horses went all over the country,” Potter says. “I remember the next year at the Finals, there were 34 head of horses we had owned. Some of those horses we had never taken to the Finals because we had ones that were ranker. All of those [Tooke] horses were so much better than everybody else’s horses.”

Contractors jumped at the chance to add the size, athleticism and stamina of the Shire-Arabian cross horses to their herds. ProRodeo Hall of Fame stock contractor Mike Cervi from Sterling, Colorado, purchased Ekalaka, who also bucked under the name Frontier Velvet, and garnered the 1978 and ’79 top saddle bronc award. Starting in the 1960s, the Calgary Stampede Rodeo purchased horses directly from the Tooke ranch as well as other stock contractors’ sales, in total adding more than 120 horses to the “Born to Buck” program. The most well known of Calgary’s horses, six-time PRCA horse of the year Grated Coconut, is a descendent of Grey Wolf, by General Custer.

“There are more good horses now than there have ever been,” Ernest says. “You can see most of the horses come out with feathered legs and a lot of mane, and they look like bucking horses. Those Shires, like General Custer, as big as they were, they could move. You see the horses are athletic.

Some of the grittiest bucking broncs can be traced to Feek Tooke’s legendary bucking horse bloodline that began in the 1930s.
Bill Carlisle once rode Tooke horses like 77 Sunset Strip, and today he and Mac raise horses for the next generation of bronc riders. Photo by Darrell Dodds

“Dad had no idea what kind of history these horses would make. Harry Vold, Cotton Rosser, Sutton Rodeo, Burch Rodeo and Big Bend out in Washington, they all got [Tooke] horses.”

Just as the Tooke name became synonymous with rodeo, the challenges of living in remote Montana and economic struggles in the 1980s put Ernest out of the rodeo production business. Left alone, the horses faced a struggle to survive the mountain lions lurking near the Powder River.

Reviving The Line

Decades of freedom deepened the bucking horses’ distrust of man, making them as untamed and unrideable as their ancestors. Though the opportunity was there, Feek’s grandchildren did not step up to continue his legacy. Eventually, it became too much for Mac to see the horses once bred to buck now idly roaming the pastures.

“I’ve always been around rodeo and I like the idea of these old foundation horses keeping going,” says Mac. “My partner, Bill Carlisle, and I started C&T Rodeo Company to get some of these horses back out at match bronc ridings and rodeos. We got 15 or 16 foundation mares from Ernest, a gray stud and a bay stud we call Party Time. They all go back to General Custer, Prince and the old line.”

An Ekalaka native, Mac raises Simmental-Angus cattle north of town. It is there that he now also runs a small herd of direct descendants of the original Tooke bucking horses. Just south of town, Carlisle has his own herd built from rodeo company sales or finding a spoiled saddle horse. Together, the herds make up C&T rodeo’s bucking string.

Carlisle knows the importance of reviving the Tooke program; he rode horses like 77 Sunset Strip in the 1960s and ’70s.

“[The] Tookes had some good ones, I tell ya,” he says. “We felt like these horses were kind of going to waste. [Mac] and I thought if we could get the horses going [to rodeos] again, that’d be great. We’ve been doing this three years now and have some nice prospects coming along.”

In order to get the up-and-coming broncs ready to ride, Carlisle and Mac dummy-buck them before adding a rider. A dummy adds the weight of a rider, allowing the horse to learn balance. Once the horse is ready for a live cowboy, the challenge is finding bronc riders willing to help complete the young horses’ training.

Mac says it takes a lot of time to get a bucking horse prepared for the rodeo arena, and the Tooke horses’ reputation precedes them.

“The size and strength of these horses is made for saddle bronc, and there are more guys trying to do that than bareback, at least,” says Mac. “But we are still looking for riders, even here where there used to be a lot of bronc riders. The horses, they are big and stout and get better with each time out, where when Bill and I were getting old, spoiled saddle horses, they got weaker with every outing. You see the fire in these horses, and that comes from Prince and Snowflake. They are still big horses, weighing 1,500 pounds. All that weight jars a cowboy. It’s easy to scare the rookie riders with these horses.”

Some of the grittiest bucking broncs can be traced to Feek Tooke’s legendary bucking horse bloodline that began in the 1930s.
At the 1968 NFR, Feek Tooke was recognized as the breeder of top saddle broncs Sheep Mountain and Major Reno. Photo courtesy Tooke family.

Even to those who aren’t familiar with the Tooke legacy, the horses are physically intimidating.

“Horses today, nine out of 10 have the resemblance of our foundation line,” Mac says. “Since Bill and I have gotten into this, I met contractors I didn’t know, but they all know about the Tooke bloodlines. People are happy to see them bucking again.”

In Ernest’s corral on the Tooke Ranch, a 3-year-old sorrel stallion comes in to grain like any old saddle horse. But when Ernest turns to look at him, the stallion is immediately wary, shifting his weight back as if to flee a mountain lion.

This is Feek’s Vision in the flesh.

“He has a lot of General Custer in his mentality,” Ernest says. “If I make a move he doesn’t like, he snorts and backs in a corner to stare me down. That suspicion is bred into him. The blood is strong.”
If the stallion, already topping 1,300 pounds, makes it to a rodeo arena, the audience will see size, alert attitude and sheer power. But old bucking horse men will see telltale signs of decades of specialized breeding: stout bones, feathered legs and a coarse Shire head.

Tooke horses show up and buck, according to Vold.

“Many, many, many rodeo producers have the Tooke blood,” Vold says. “The Tooke horses kept the bucking stock strong and you can see the bloodline out there. Feek Tooke did as much for the rodeo business as any man.”

In 2008, Feek was inducted into both the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. Potter says it was a long time coming.

“Feek was the father of the bucking horse breeders. He was the man,” says Potter. “It is a heck of a story. Because of him, we [at Rodeo Incorporated] had a heck of a set of stock and it was almost pure luck. I wouldn’t take a million for the experience. Tooke is the originator for bucking horses and the best are still descendants of his breeding.”

With luck, there will be another thousand horses that derive from the Tooke line, because, through sheer will to live, the Tooke horses survive.

This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Western Horseman.

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