Updated: Jun 5, 2020
“Shakespeare didn’t eat his breakfast this morning.”
The academic in me always does a double take when the bearded cowboy makes offhand remarks about my literary heroes.
“Milton and the Cat in the Hat are having a stand-off over the fence again.”
This is the world of bucking horses, where the animal is a performer, a star, far more gutsy than Shakespeare ever was. I’ve just started work with Sankey Pro Rodeo, one of the oldest rodeo stock contractors there is. Having already worked for Hi Lo Pro Rodeo in Arkansas, this is the first time I’ve arrived somewhere and felt almost as if I knew what I was doing. Now, I don’t have to ask what a pick-up man does or how you score a bronc ride, and I know what people mean when they use terms like ‘mark out’ and ‘rigging’. I still haven’t seen a rodeo, though. I haven’t heard the famous sonic crack when the bronc crashes out of the gate, I haven’t felt the rush of fear and awe and adrenaline while a cowboy rides, and I haven’t felt the cascading relief when he stands up after a fall. That’s all to come this weekend.
I never expected my first real-life American rodeo to be a Drive-In at the ranch where I’m working. Covid-19 means the upcoming rodeos at Cheyenne and Sheridan have been cancelled, along with almost every other rodeo in the country, so the community is getting restless for something to watch, and the industry is getting close to the bottom of its wallet. We need rodeos in order to have the funds to feed the 292 horses. So, Sankey Pro Rodeo is taking matters into its own hands, and bucking some horses at home. The rodeo has to be small-scale with sanitary 'event mitigation' in order for local government to allow it, but this turn of events has its benefits. I get to see the whole process from harrowing the arena to hiring a scoreboard and a porta-potty. Today we gathered the horses.
The morning was perfectly clear and mild, and Wade, Cody, Alaini and I set out on horseback over the pastures and up the craggy mountain where the two-year-olds live. Cody calls back to the group, “By the way, if anyone sees any Elk sheds, I’ve already found them and I, uh, I just needed reminding where I left them.”
Until I got here, I didn’t know elk and deer shed their antlers every year. The myth goes that you can judge an animal’s age by the number of prongs on its antlers. The myth is entirely untrue. But, the result is that the Montanan mountains are littered with all manner of antlers, hoarded by residents like seashells. Cody’s house has a hedgerow in front of the porch that consists entirely of elk sheds. He also proudly nurses a jarful of turkey and hawk feathers which he keeps meaning to attach to his favourite hats, but never gets around to it.
The inside of Cody’s left forearm faces the sky while we ride. It shows the tattoo of an auburn feather with a white base and horizontal black stripes; a Red-Tail Hawk feather. I’d love to pretend he was wearing a faded denim shirt and chewing a toothpick, but that’s not Cody. The ugly shirt of the day is a turquoise Hawaiian one from Walmart. Wade’s in a hoodie and Alaini wears her usual baseball cap. I guess it’s telling that I’m the only one who thinks about looking ‘cowboy’ enough. When you’re the real deal, you don’t have to.
I ask Wade what the plan is, and, with trademark deadpan delivery he says, “I don’t expect you to actually help. I do expect you not to mess anything up.”
I think he was trying to set the bar low enough that I wouldn't feel pressured, but it had the opposite effect.
We find the herd grazing on a grassy plateau above the forest, the snow-capped Absorka Beartooth mountains rising in navy blue crowns behind them. All fifty horses raise their heads at once. One hundred ears prick. They’re stock still, and then all of a sudden countless hooves are thundering over the earth and down the hill, faster than we can gallop after them. Wade’s leading them from the front, but they’re following their instincts more than Wade’s lead, ducking and dodging as one great mass to avoid us between the pine trees, then crashing down the steepest slopes like a rock fall. The bucking horses are wild and brave; faster than us only because they’re foolhardy enough to gallop down anything, and strong enough to pull it off. But we can outsmart them. You’ve got to read the herd and put your horse in their way, to spook them into going where you want them.
This is the most difficult herding I’ve ever done. Not only have the horses moved into the sixth gear, but the rock-studded, valley-cut, steep and unfamiliar forest is adding a new dimension to the challenge. We’re going a hundred miles an hour through all manner of undergrowth, the four of us circling the herd faster than sheepdogs, and then - as quickly as they started - they stop. The bucking horses are snorting, the saddle horses are sweating, and I’m grinning ear to ear. My jeans are full of pine needles and I’ve nearly lost my hat more than once, but I haven’t let a single horse past me and I’m still in the saddle.
Wade counts the horses.
“We’re good. Let ‘em have a moment to think. Now ease’em gently down again.”
There is no gently. Cody gallops after them down another vertical rock face, and I – well, no, I won’t break the Sankeys’ horse by galloping down it after him. I take the long way around, down into a valley, then in cantering up out of it, my horse lurches over nothing and whack. I’m on the ground and a rush of sleek black hair is galloping over me. I watch him disappear into the forest and then everything goes quiet.
I’m told that my horse, Pilsner, decided he wanted to be a bucking horse, and joined the gallivanting herd for the ride of his life. Alaini thought he was a black bear when he whooshed, riderless, past her shoulder and into the fray. Wade told me they’d never catch him, so I might as well walk home. He offered me his horse but I refused. I met the others at the yard a long while later.
“You ok?” says Wade.
“Just a bump.”
“You know, being tough is cool but, if you need medical attention you gotta tell us.”
“Honestly, it’s fine.”
“Okay,” he says, “Good. So we can start making fun of you now?”
The rest of the day was spent in the summery rumble of engines. The grass was mown, new gates were welded, and as the shadows lengthened in the warm evening, quiet excitement bloomed amongst the party.
“Can you still ride well enough to carry the flag in the opening ceremony?”
Carrying the American flag is an honour in itself. The hat and chaps I'm going to wear have bald eagles stitched onto them in red white and blue. I know what it means, and I'm proud to carry it, but, I wasn't raised saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning; I can't feel the significance of that flag in the way that the people watching will feel it. Instead, what I can feel is the personal honour. Wade Sankey is a man of few words, and his respect is hard to earn. He's asked me to carry his flag at his rodeo. That's the honour I feel like a great warm stone in my chest.
I nod, and say “I would die before not carrying that flag.”
Wade chuckles. “Like a true American.”
Next blog: The Rodeo
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