Updated: Jun 13, 2020
The weird thing about Sheridan, Wyoming, is that it’s not kitsch. The road signs that point you there have the silhouette of a bucking horse printed on them, as official as the government lettering. This is the heart of Western horse culture. Even though the old-timey font over the cafés and shop windows harks back to a time we’ve lost, it refers to a time when cowboys were everywhere, and today, in Sheridan, they still are. They stand in groups outside the Bank of the West, and soak up the sun outside the Pony Bar & Grill. The town exists in limbo between the classic and the clichéd. It’s the kind of place where you can’t tell if the notice in the restaurant is in earnest, declaring: “No dancing on the table with spurs.”
And then, three white bonnets bob into view. The Amish horse trainers are selling their horses at the auction the Sankeys are putting on this weekend: the Bots Sots Remount. Tonight, they’re joining us for supper. The whole family came, all the way from Ohio. The women introduce themselves with names I’ve never heard before, then immediately busy themselves speaking German to miscellaneous toddlers. It’s hard to keep track of who’s married to whom and where all the children belong. There’s a scatter of plain men wearing black hats and blue broadfall trousers which don’t have belts or zippers, just two buttons at the hips. An 11-year-old girl is holding a bull-whip in her hand. Her cowboy boots are poking out of the bottom of her long pink dress. She’s not interested in fishing like her little brothers. All she wants to do is swing her whip above her head, and crack it.
Ike Sankey winks at me and says in a whisper – just loud enough for her to hear – “This little girl is a hand. You just wait til you see her on the horses.” Geneva blushed at her feet and didn’t miss a beat in her whip cracking.
The next day, I spotted her with two paint Gypsy Vanner geldings – black-and-white, with yards of mane and tail, and fetlocks more feathered than a Friesian. I was manning the chute, pushing calves forward for the roping horses while everyone warmed up at the preview. The little girl’s bonnet (kapp) was fractionally higher than the cowboy hats of the seated riders around her. My jaw dropped. She was standing up, with one foot on each horse. I had heard of Roman riding. I didn’t realise people could actually do it. The left horse only has a left rein, the right horse only has a right rein, and their heads are held together by interlocking clips at the bit. With Geneva still standing on their backs, they jostle around in a trot for a moment, Geneva wobbles, then bends her knees and absorbs the uneven movement of the horses. She’s ready. Without breaking her focused gaze, the willowy little girl bids her horses canter. Her knees are working double-time, her bare feet holding tight across the horses’ spines. Concentration can only take hold of her for so long before she breaks, and the horses walk again. We all breathe.
In the sale, the Gypsy paint team outdid themselves. The auction took place on a smart public lawn outside Kendrick Mansion, in the centre of Sheridan, where the auctioneer sat in a period wagon all hung in red-white-and-blue. Unlike English auctions, the horses were given time to show off their best tricks and traits during the bidding war. The Amish family brought their lawn chairs and set them down amongst the cowboys to watch the show. The little boys in matching black trousers ran around with those in tiny cowboy hats, girls in chaps raced girls in kapps, and culture set its heels into the earth, safe for another generation.
Every horse entered the sale in full tack, but would soon be made bareback, or the rider would switch to a Native American style ‘war bridle’, which consists of nothing more than a loop of rope around the lower jaw, and some reins. (My horseman’s bucket list just keeps growing). Geneva cracked her bull-whip while standing atop a red roan gelding, who didn’t flinch, and every horse to come from the Amish would lie down at the touch of their rider’s heels to their shoulder. A favourite gimmick amongst all the trainers was to remove the horse’s bridle while you’re riding him, and steer him with just a neck strap.
For anyone watching without an intention to buy, it was a bizarre and almost practical circus. There was even a gate set up in the middle of the preview arena, so people could demonstrate opening and closing it. Most impressive of all, though, was something that has never been useful. The Romans were long gone before anyone knew about gun powder, and yet, there was Henry, Geneva’s promised-brother-in-law, firing a gun into the sky whilst Roman riding the paint team at a trot. The Amish father even cracked out his flip-phone to take a video. They were the brokest horses I’ve ever seen.
Watching this was Zeke Thurston, the reigning world champion saddle bronc rider and a good friend of Wade’s. Wade introduces us, and the moment recognition falls across Zeke’s face he asks,
“Are you the girl that fell off my brother’s horse?”
Really? Of all the pieces of this story to precede me, the world chose this one? Well yes, it was me; but I’d heard he had fallen off a fair few horses too.
“I heard he’s pretty good at staying on,” says Wade.
Zeke’s thumbs are in his belt loops, unwittingly framing his world-class buckle. Mentioning his title isn’t taboo, but still it’s rarely talked about. In this crowd, it’s as if it's just old news that’s not worth bringing up anymore. As always with Wade and the cowboys, they start talking about the ‘rona and lamenting the hole in their lives where the rodeo is meant to be.
“You know,” says Wade, “You chose a good year to win. If there’s no NFR, you’ll be champ two years for the price of one. Sneaky bastard.” Wade has this way of saying “bastard”, where his voice rises at the beginning and falls quiet at the end, and the first ‘a’ floats in the roof of the mouth like “baa-sturd”. He always allocates it, half-laughing, to saddle horses and men – and he doesn’t trust saddle horses as far as he can throw them.
Zeke chuckles. "Smart, but maybe I’ll never ride into the arena in Vegas and hear the announcer say ‘reigning champion’. Sucks. But, not as bad as Wyatt Casper. He was on a roll – made way more money than I had this time last year. He’d have made his first NFR. Imagine if he never gets this hot again.”
There’s genuine empathy in Zeke’s voice. Most of the cowboys I’ve met are like that. They’re proud in private but they’ll only tell you if you ask. I spent hours with Ike Sankey before I ever knew he’d been to the NFR four times. That’s where the 4X Sankey brand comes from. His back numbers (for entry in the NFR) hang in the living room at home, and there’s a glass coffee table stuffed full of gold buckles. The whole house – from the loo roll holders to the lamp shades – is rodeo themed. It’s as if it gives Ike and Roberta joy just to be reminded of bucking horses, wherever their eyes rest.
And yet, there’s more to the Sankeys than just rodeo. They’re well-read and well travelled. Ike took up silver-work as a hobby, and his son Wade is so skilled with leather that he made and tooled his own cowboy boots. Wade now owns Sankey Pro Rodeo, but “I try not to let it define me,” he says, “It’s impossible for it to be ‘just a job’ but I try to keep it that way.”
Wade’s wife is a nurse. She doesn’t ride very much, and neither does his mother, Roberta. His sister, Ryan, never rode broncs. She’s an astoundingly talented horsewoman, usually riding western, with some polo and jumping thrown in to keep things interesting. What I’ve learnt is that Sankeys don’t dabble – anything they do, they do well.
“Ryan’s got more patience with any one horse than I ever gave all the saddle horses in my life,” says Ike, when we’re alone together. “That’s why she’s so good. And Wade,” he adds, “Wade doesn’t have any at all. Not with saddle horses.”
I smirk, remembering the time I pointed out a stray piece of metal in one of the pastures at the ranch. I asked if I should pick it up. Wade just looks at me, straight faced. “They’re not saddle horses. They can look after themselves.”
He’s right, there’s not a crippled horse on the place.
I’m still trying to figure out what it feels like to be a Sankey. I suppose my best indicator is to look at Clyde, Wade’s three-year-old son. He’s playing with toy bucking horses on the carpet.
“Dad! He’s rearing in the chute!”
“Put a neck rope on him,” says Wade.
“Putaneckropeonhim,” repeats Clyde. “Ok he’s stopped now.”
Clyde runs off to fetch a bouncy ride-on ball shaped like a horse. Apparently I’m the announcer, Wade’s working the flank strap, and Clyde is of course the cowboy. He sets off mock-bucking around the living room. Wade blinks. “I didn’t put him up to this. This is all him.” It seems that Wade and Ryan weren’t ‘put up to’ horsing either. Continuing the family tradition was a choice for both of them. Ryan’s done everything from cookery to business, but, now that she’s back in the rodeo world, there’s a part of her that’s enjoying the downtime that the virus has given her. “In a normal summer, we don’t stop. Maybe this year I’ll do summer things.”
Ryan was right. With the whole family in good spirits after a successful sale, we took Clyde’s miniature fishing rod down to the pond and lit a fire. Clyde and I are about the same level when it comes to fishing, so Ike gave us both a lesson and then sat back in his chair to watch. To my surprise, I actually caught one, then cleaned and gutted it, and put it on the fire to cook. I wouldn’t have been able to without Ryan over my shoulder, but it made me feel capable nonetheless, to have done the whole process from start to finish. It was delicious. When it was too dark to fish, the Sankeys turned back to the main house and I went to the little cabin – my home for the weekend. Even though I know the wooden walls and the tin basin are there for show (the cabin was air-lifted in its entirety off a dude ranch), it’s still deeply settling to sit in the wooden rocking chair inside. Just like the old-timey fonts over the Sheridan shop windows, the affectation doesn’t matter because it’s pointing towards something true.
To me, that truth is that we are the same people we have always been. Sitting in that one-room cabin, it’s hard not to put oneself in Thoreau’s Walden, an autobiographical account of a 24-year-old Harvard graduate abandoning society and moving to the woods for two years in 1845-7. He studies nature and his own soul closely, and finds, “All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.” Watching the generations play out this weekend in Sheridan, I believe him.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when I first read Walden a year ago, I lay the groundwork for this journey. I was at university at the time; a book-loving, nature-walking, lone-wolf vegetarian, just like Thoreau. I wasn’t a graduate quite yet, but I was about to be. So, just as his philosophy echoed around the hallowed halls of Cambridge’s libraries, so did his words “We need the tonic of wildness.” I remembered being barefoot on the mountain at home and realised I hadn’t ridden my horse in a long time. It’s a shaking feeling, realising things about your own life. It’s like dropping something and catching it before it hits the ground. I’m glad I caught this.
Thoreau writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
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