Madison square garden is a long haul from the Powder River but night after night last week New Yorkers jammed in—to see Manhattan's version of that Western phenomenon, the rodeo. As the Broadway bookies say, "it figured." There is something genuinely chilling—something just a little like watching a suicide balancing on a 20th story ledge—in the sight of a man carefully lowering himself down inside a rodeo chute to the back of an imprisoned contest bronco. For kinetic violence few works of man or nature quite compare with a lunging, hammer-hoofed outlaw horse, plainly heard but only half seen through the slots of a narrow creaking wooden pen. And the eye is confounded when the gate opens, when bronc and rider lurch wildly into view.
Most rodeo broncs are tractable enough outside the arena; they can be fed, watered, shipped in trailers and railway cars, and even exercised. A great many of them perform their bucking acts for years and develop a trouper's ear for applause. But each and every one is an equine psychiatric case for all that—because of improper breaking, an accident or a deep-buried mental quirk, none can tolerate the weight of a man on its back without indulging in twisting paroxysms of remonstrance.
Some have achieved deathless fame for violence and ingenuity—Midnight, Five-Minutes-to-Midnight and the famed Steamboat (a bronc which not only leaped like a cat but whistled through a broken nose like a Mississippi stern-wheeler) are all long gone but their memories linger in the West. Yet even the most unsung of rodeo buckers is capable of ruining a man, of crushing him against the walls of the chute or kicking his brains out in the open arena. A quiet, chesty little cowboy named Delbert Earl (Deb) Copenhaver—the rider to watch at the Garden this year—learned this hard fact with painful suddenness one afternoon at the desert town of Chelan, Wash.
October 18, 1954
Copenhaver, a bush-league buckaroo of 21, drew a big horse named Bay Beggar at Chelan's annual little rodeo and climbed aboard him in the chute resolved to "win the day money" or take a trip to the moon trying. Five jumps and two and a half seconds later he was as close to a morgue slab as a man can get and miss—Bay Beggar whirled, dived, pitched him out of the saddle like a sack of wheat, and kicked him in the face on the way down. Copenhaver's right foot jammed in the stirrup and Bay Beggar, still bucking wildly, dragged him 50 yards across the rough dirt field while the crowd gasped and pickup men spurred to the rescue.
Copenhaver broke free only because his right boot finally pulled off. He picked himself up groggily and walked back toward the chutes with his face streaming blood. "Deb," said an old-time cowhand named Tim Bernard, "if they don't kill you, you'll make a tough bronc rider in a couple more years." That was in the summer of 1946. Copenhaver still bears the mark of Bay Beggar's hoof upon his cheek. "An old squaw I know called me over," he remembers, "and washed the cut out with some damned dirty lukewarm water—I shouldn't have let her do it, but I'd known her so long I couldn't very well say no. It got infected and took a long time to heal up." But Deb Copenhaver is still alive and last week, by official scoring, he was the toughest saddle bronc rider in the U.S.—with 16,817 points (a point for every dollar won) he was leading all competitors for the world championship.
As a result, like virtually every other top hand in the business, he is competing this week in New York. It is a show which is naturally lacking in dusty Western atmosphere—Garden audiences run heavily to fond parents and their children, and this year's 17-day show features Roy Rogers, cowboy singers and female trick riders as well as genuine competitors. But it is, nevertheless, the biggest, most fiercely contested and most important rodeo in the U.S.
THE GARDEN PAYS BEST
For this fall's contest, Stock Contractor Everett Colborn of Dublin, Texas transported almost a half million dollars worth of animals (among them 200 bucking horses) to New York on a special train. The Garden offered $97,600 in prize money, easily tops in the circuit. Performance in New York this year, as always, will go a long way toward deciding the annual world championships in Brahma bull riding, calf roping, bulldogging and in bareback as well as saddle bronc riding.
The process by which Bronc Buster Deb Copenhaver was projected into this roundup on Eighth Avenue was long and incredibly arduous. Like most rodeo professionals, he accepts hardships, injuries and financial risks which would make most athletes blanch—he must pay his own expenses, travel under his own steam and dig up entry fees at every rodeo; he gets not a cent if he is thrown or finishes out of the money. And like most rodeo riders, he began early. He grew up in the Big Bend country near Wilbur, Wash., entered his first rodeo as a gristly, 110-pound kid of 15 and went on tangling grimly with bucking horses until he entered the Navy as a Seabee in World War II.
THE DANGEROUS LIFE
He hit the rodeo circuits in dead earnest as soon as he got out of the service. It was a dangerous and bruising life. In their quest for winning rides, good modern rodeo cowboys achieve effects such as were never attempted in the days of the Chisholm Trail. According to today's rodeo rules, a saddle bronc rider must spur his mount on both shoulders during the beast's first jump, thus abandoning, at the outset, any hope of gripping the animal with his legs. And if he rides to win he must spur continuously thereafter, from neck to flanks and back again.
A good "two-footed" rider (and there are probably fewer than 15 men who are complete masters of the art) steadies himself on a plunging, twisting horse only through his grip on the single rein, through the pressure of his spurs on the animal's side and through erratic contact with the swell and cantle of the saddle. The key to all this, of course, is balance—a delicate and vastly reckless talent for staying in perfect rhythm with the most violent brute for the 10 long seconds which comprise a rodeo ride. Since his score depends in part on the horse's performance, a bronc buster must pray for violent mounts. And although staying on the horse's back is elementary (if difficult) he must memorize the bucking patterns and the special tricks of hundreds of rodeo broncs.
Deb Copenhaver rode to win from the outset. "That man," says J. D. McKenna, a top rider himself, "doesn't ride any horse safe." In 1951 he was beaten in total prizes only by the fabulous Casey Tibbs, a handsome, black-haired, hard-drinking, Cadillac-loving Beau Geste of the rodeo circuits. He was a runner-up again in 1952 and 1953. This January Deb set off for Denver (which annually holds the first rodeo of the season) resolved to make 1954 Deb Copenhaver's year.
Many a cowboy rides the circuit just to savor the thrills, the quick money, the girls, the new towns, the gambling, the danger which the life provides. Copenhaver, a hard-faced, sober, pleasant little man rides to quit—to pay off on his 1,500-acre Idaho cattle ranch and get back to his wife and two children for good.
TAKE A JACKKNIFE
Between January and October he set a startling pace. He traveled 40,000 miles by automobile, 20,000 miles by plane, rode in 70 rodeos. At Union, Ore. a horse named Reckless Red slipped, fell, rolled completely over on him and then "tromped" him. He rode the same beast again 20 minutes later and won. He won at Salinas, Cheyenne, Phoenix and Fort Worth.
In three incredible days he rode a horse at Guymon, Okla. (where he won $131), drove with three other riders 1,500 miles to Saugus, Calif. (where he won $449) and drove 1,600 miles to Vernon, Tex. (where he won $38). He got ahead of Tibbs and stayed ahead. But at Puyallup, Wash. a few days before the "big one" at the Garden, his left leg caught between his mount and a pickup horse. His knee was so badly twisted that in a few hours he could not stand; in desperation he went to a doctor, who put a cast on his leg and told him to rest for three weeks.
"Well, I cut the cast off with my jackknife as soon as I got home," he says. "I never should have let him put it on—just did it because he seemed so anxious. It made my leg real stiff." He arrived in New York just able to hobble. "I don't see how I can ride," he muttered. But ride he did, twisted the knee again and finished out of the money. He consulted a Japanese physician, who injected it with hydrocortone—and made it feel even worse. For five days, despondent and tight-lipped, he tramped the streets in his high-heeled boots "to keep my leg loosened up" and went to three movies a day to pass the time. Tibbs, meanwhile, by flying between New York and rodeos in Omaha and Chicago, passed him, unofficially, in points.
But suddenly last week—apparently by virtue of natural toughness more than medication—his torn knee improved. He drew a black horse named Onyx, kicked him out of the chute and rode him high, wide and handsome while the band played and the thousands in the Garden galleries murmured and applauded. He was judged second. "I'll make it yet," he said. "I'm going to Chicago tonight, then back here, then Boston, then Detroit, then the Cow Palace in San Francisco. All I need is plenty of tough horses."