HORSING AROUND WITH BULL

King of today's rodeo cowboys, Larry (Bull) Mahan is not exactly your sedentary type, whether he is aboard a bronc, a bar stool, an airplane or an automobile racing at 100 mph to nowhere
December 03, 1973

We passed through the gas station at maybe not much over 100 miles an hour. Concern was detectable on the face of the attendant as he threw down his hose and flung himself against the wall. What he should have understood was if we didn't get to Redwood City pronto we might miss something down there. Anything could be happening in Redwood City at that very minute. By driving through the gas station we could go around the stop sign, cut an angle across the intersection and save precious seconds.

Nothing to it.

The man at the wheel in the white beaver hat, Navajo necklace and lizard-skin cowboy boots was a finely trained athlete at the peak of his powers. Plenty of nerve, reflexes of a great middleweight, the night vision of some kind of panther. As we bounced off the first curb and went sideways through the intersection, it briefly occurred to me: Are you sure about nothing to it? This man has spent half his life in plaster of Paris.

But by then we had hit another curb. That turned out to be convenient, because it meant we had almost quit rolling when the police surrounded us and jerked us out of the car.

"We were just on our way to Redwood City," I explained.

"Right now you're in Brisbane, and it looks like you're gonna be here for several days," the cop said, searching my person for dangerous substances, which I, of course, was innocent of.

Brisbane is down the road south of the Daly City Cow Palace where the last rodeo of the season still had three nights to go. The last rodeo before the National Finals, anyhow. Daly City is just south of San Francisco. The mayor of Daly City used to be Bob St. Clair, who was well known for being a 49er tackle and for not needing a cooking fire to prepare his dinner.

"Who does that guy in the white hat think he is?" the cop said.

"He thinks he's the world champion cowboy," I said.

"He's Larry Mahan?"

"He thinks so."

Damaging information was not being given away. There were already half a dozen cops around Mahan, and they had his driver's license and were starting to put together his name with the events at the Cow Palace.

The cop looked at my driver's license.

"You guys both from Texas?" he said.

"Yeah," I said. Mahan carries a license from Oregon, where he was born, but I didn't know that, and besides he now lives in Dallas in a house in the suburbs where he keeps horses on the lawn.

"Then you don't know any better," the cop said.

Two or three cops were peering in the windows of the station wagon. Inside they saw Mahan's rigging bag, the three briefcases he totes his business papers in, boxes of books (Fundamentals of Rodeo Riding, The Mental & Physical Approach to Success by Larry Mahan, 4507 Katina, Dallas, Texas, $3.95), bull ropes, halters, rosin, spurs, more hats, loud silk shirts and a pair of patchwork leather chaps that had roused a cry of admiration from a girl hitchhiker we had picked up that afternoon. "Wow! You ought to be the champion just for dressing like this!" she had said.

So I looked at him now, the All-Around Champion Cowboy who had just clinched that title for a record sixth time, passing Jim Shoulders. There never has been a great rider who was very tall. Shoulders is about six feet, but most of the good riders are about Mahan's size—5'9", 165 pounds. The really big cowboys are the calf ropers and steer wrestlers.

The cops had Mahan with his back against the hood of a patrol car. They told him to stand on his left foot, raise his right foot in the air, extend both arms, then slowly bring his right forefinger forward and touch the tip of his nose.

He did what they said and stuck his finger an inch up his right nostril.

Nothing to it.

Mahan grinned. He can sell almost anything, but what he sells best is himself. The cops picked up a few Larry Mahan ball-point pens that he passes around ("Hidy, hidy, I'm Larry Mahan, this thing's real handy for writing down somebody's phone number") and said we could get on down the road if we departed at a slower pace. They said that there was hardly a thing in Redwood City we needed to see strong enough to take a shortcut through a gas station. So we went on down there, and if we missed anything I don't remember what it was.

Larry Mahan's nickname is Bull. A lot of the other riders call him that, and he likes it. Bull, in fact, is the title of his biography, now being written by Doug Hall, author of a new book called Let 'er Buck!, which is also mostly about Mahan. Hall lives in New York and has long hair and a beard. He dresses like one of those cosmic-fantasy cowboys. When he traveled with Mahan on the rodeo tour, he was known as the Freak. Not that appearances matter as much as they used to. One young cowboy said, "We might be the biggest traveling hippie commune in the world."

He was laughing when he said that. But the cowboys do travel together to as many as 200 rodeos in a year, and they share everything from gas and hamburger money to girls and information on bucking stock. The standard size for riders is 15½-33 in shirts and 30-33 in jeans. They swap their Going Down the Road clothes. One bull rider travels with nothing but a toothbrush in his pocket. Mahan borrowed a pair of jeans from him once and found five different laundry marks in the pants, none of them the initials of the last rider who'd had them. Mahan flies his own twin-engine Cessna to many rodeos. He has crowded five cowboys into it and flown over the Rocky Mountains. Sometimes they stay six or eight to a motel room or borrowed apartment. Not many of them earn more than $5,000 in a year. Living like that, they get pretty well acquainted with each other, and the attitudes of the younger ones soak through the structure. But of course the old rodeo cowboys lived the same way. They just used different words for it. Instead of calling it community, they called it freedom.

On Halloween night, an old car painted with sunbursts and butterflies pulled up in front of a North Beach bar in San Francisco. Out of the front seat jumped a creature in an incredible costume. Furs, feathers, beads, makeup. He strutted the length of the bar, left arm extended, wrist flopping, right hand on hip, crying, "I'm Larry Mahan! I'm not afraid of anyone in this whole wretched place!"

Among the people who smiled at the performance was Larry Mahan, who was sitting at the bar with a glass of wine. Mahan doesn't drink much, but he does like a glass of wine now and then. "A few years ago, that would really get me," Mahan said. "There'd be blood on the floor in a minute. I used to be just about the straightest guy on the tour. I don't know when it started or what caused it, but I've loosened up. Some of my values have changed. Things are funny and enjoyable to me now that I might have taken a different way a few years ago."

At the National Finals, held in Oklahoma City the first week in December, the top 15 performers in each event get together for 10 go-rounds (a go-round is completed when each contestant has had one shot at his entry, whether it be the 15 bull riders in the National Finals, for example, or the 100-odd bull riders entered at the Cow Palace). Rodeo Announcer Clem McSpadden, Democratic Congressman and a bass-voiced, string-tied veteran of 30 years of grand entries, traditionally starts the National Finals by telling the crowd there won't be any hippies here, and one thing you can by-gosh do is tell the girls from the boys at a rodeo. Mahan, who is referred to by some Rodeo Cowboys Association officials as a maverick, has complained about the speech, saying the sport should outgrow that sort of thinking.

So many new cowboys are flocking onto the tour that a rodeo is liable to last for hours after the performance is officially scheduled to be over and the customers have gone home. At the Cow Palace, Mahan rode one of his bulls at one a.m. before an audience almost entirely of his peers. The financial rewards have not kept pace with the growth in number of rodeos, rodeo cowboys and spectators. Mahan's nearly $60,000 in winnings this year would hardly compare to the $278,124 in up-front money taken out of the golf tour by Jack Nicklaus, Mahan's approximate equal in stature in that sport. But the money is getting better, and the rodeo life is still kicking right along.

"Most of the guys are out here because they love to be around animals, love to compete, love the life," Mahan said. "They don't want to be stuck in some town all their lives at some dull job. The adrenaline flows pretty fast out here. Plenty of guys get hurt, but you worry about a good ride more than about your safety. I figure if I ride three more years, I'll be up on 1,500 more head of bucking stock. Now it's not reasonable to think you can ride 1,500 head of bucking stock without going to the hospital, so you just put that idea out of your mind and think about riding and winning and loving the life. I love it more every day."

At 30, after 10 years of competing in big-league rodeos, Mahan is approaching the end of his riding career. Only a few rare individuals like Freckles Brown, the famous bull rider, keep on trying to sit on a wild animal as a regular matter after their middle 30s. In the bull riding at the National Finals this year, Mahan is cast as the aging star against a brilliant new generation that includes the year's leaders, 22-year-old Bobby Steiner and 20-year-old Don Gay, both from Texas rodeo families. Mahan is the all-around champion because he rides in three events (bareback, saddle bronc and bulls), competes in more rodeos than most and wins more money than anybody. Mahan has won the bull riding twice, in 1965 and 1967. This year he was third going into the National Finals.

"Bulls are the meanest, rankest creatures on earth," he said. "Horses don't try to step on you when they throw you off. They don't want to trip. Bulls love to step on you, or whip your face into the back of their skull and break your nose and knock out your teeth. Getting your hand hung up in a bull rope is about the most dangerous thing in rodeoing. You have to transform yourself into some kind of a small beast. When I can't reach down and pull up a bunch of want-to out of myself, I'll know it's time to quit."

Mahan moves fast and attacks his time as if it's a sin ever to be caught idle. He might be in San Francisco in the morning. Denver in the afternoon and Tucson at night. Meanwhile he will have ridden in a couple of rodeos, conducted three or four business deals and made 20 phone calls; his phone bill is never less than $500 a month. The first time he flew solo in his Cessna, after being checked out in it for a few hours, he took off from Phoenix and landed in Cabo San Lucas to pose for some Jantzen ads. Skipper Lofting, who works for the RCA, says Mahan's thyroid gland must be the size of a hockey puck. "Here's a hell of a cowboy who carries an American Express card and skis with Billy Kidd," says former bull-riding champion Droopy Brown. "Now what can you say about that?"

Another bull rider had bought several bottles of whiskey and cases of beer and was having a party in a motel room. He asked everybody who came in the door to give him a dollar to help pay for the party. One cowboy said, "That's a cheap blanking trick, making people pay a blanking dollar to go to a blanking party."

"You can't talk like that," the bull rider said. "My wife is here."

The cowboy looked directly into the face of the bull rider's wife and said, "Blank, blank, blank."

The bull rider flailed the weeping dog-meat out of the cowboy and then kicked him in the head to put out his lights. "My wife don't like to hear talk like that, I told you," the bull rider said.

"That kind of thing doesn't happen very much anymore," Mahan said a little later. "It's not like it used to be, with a lot of fighting in honky-tonks. Guys are too busy moving on." We were down in the cowboy bar underneath the Cow Palace. The jukebox was playing both country and rock music. Cowboys were dancing with those sweet young thangs who are always around in those tight pants they wear. They say if a girl gets to running with cowboys, she won't ever have anything to do with anybody else. At least, cowboys say that. Plenty of girls seem to believe it. They'll drive hundreds of miles to see a rodeo and grab hold of a cowboy for a dance, a couple of beers and maybe a little romance. Boogie mamas, Mahan calls them.

Cowboys crowded around the bar to pay a dollar for a shot of whiskey in a plastic cup. The bartender, Dennis, a sometime bull rider, was working hard beneath a painting of a nude woman stretched out on the wall. Droopy Brown and Don Gay were talking about bull riding. Droopy said it was pretty simple: keep your legs on either side of the bull and your mind in the middle, like Jim Shoulders had advised. Don Gay said it is sort of like you are sitting astraddle a chair with a beer in one hand, and a big mean guy you don't want to mess with comes over and starts banging the chair back and forth, and you hang on until the chair falls over, and then you get up and order another beer.

"These people who say we're being cruel to animals don't know what they're talking about," Mahan said. "The animals are treated well. They don't work but a few minutes a year. A cowboy looks at a great bucking animal the way he would at a great athlete. Sometimes a horse will be saddle broke until he's 10 years old, and then all the sudden he'll start throwing everybody. He just got tired of people sitting on his back. So he could be a good bucking horse until he's 20 or 25 years old. A lot more cowboys get hurt than animals. My belief is if you see you're in a bad storm out there on a horse or bull and about to get upside down, it's better to just bail out. There's always another rodeo next week, and you don't want to miss it with a bunch of broken bones. But some cowboys just never will let go."

It is no myth about rodeo cowboys being tough. Mahan has had his jaw smashed, three vertebrae cracked and his foot broken. After he broke his foot in 1967, he put on a plaster cast and kept riding. In 1971 he was $1,500 behind Phil Lyne for the all-around title when he broke his leg in two places during a bareback ride. The night we were down in the basement bar at the Cow Palace, a cowboy had been thrown and knocked cold in the arena. He awoke on a stretcher as he was being carried past a bar upstairs. "I'll get off here, fellows," he said, and went in and ordered a shot of bourbon.

"I'm not superstitious," Mahan said as the dancers shuffled around, "but I try to put bad thoughts out of my mind. If you only think about good things, maybe good things are all that will happen."

Just about then Dennis the bartender decided he had listened to enough mouth from a cowboy standing a few feet from Mahan. Dennis leaned across the bar and punched the cowboy in the face. Then Dennis leaped up on his knees on the bar and pounded the cowboy three or four more splats before some other cowboys pushed in and got in the way.

"Nice going," Mahan said to his neighbor. "You didn't spill a drop."

The cowboy with the bloody face walked right back up to the bar and ordered another drink as if nothing out of order had happened. Dennis fixed it for him, rang up the dollar and not another word was said about the incident.

In the alley beside the chutes on the final night of the Cow Palace rodeo, Mahan was fretting. He was already $16,000 ahead in the all-around for the year and couldn't be caught no matter what happens at the National Finals, but he wanted to finish at the Cow Palace with a good ride. His first bareback horse the previous week had been a rough one named Necklace. Mahan had phoned ahead to find out what horse he had drawn. "When I heard it was Necklace, I got that sick, empty feeling in my stomach," he said. "I spent four days psyching myself up for that ride. I rode Necklace in my mind hundreds of times. In my mind I went through every trick Necklace could possibly pull on me, so when he came out of the chute I was ready."

But his last bareback horse this week, Blue Sky, had a reputation for taking three jumps and bolting. A cowboy can't make a good score on a horse like that. The two judges each can give 25 points to the horse and 25 to the rider. If the horse doesn't buck it doesn't matter how well the rider performs for his eight seconds; the score will be low.

"This horse shouldn't be in the finals of a big rodeo," Mahan said, looking at the big white horse waiting in the chute. "It's three jumps and whoopee-ki-yi, head for Tulsa."

Bareback riding is the most punishing event in rodeo, according to Mahan. "Your hand in the rigging is the only point of control between you and the horse," he said. "The jerk and strain through the hand and arm to your body are tremendous, and you keep spurring as wildly as you can. You look like a big flying bird that's hooked onto the horse."

Mahan was digging through his bag and preparing his equipment while other cowboys paced up and down in the alley, nervously smoking and doing knee bends and checking their rigging. There was the warm smell of dung and fear. Mahan was trying to work up that sick, empty feeling in his stomach, but Blue Sky had not inspired him. He pulled out his rigging. A bareback rigging is a curved piece of leather with a handle. Mahan powdered rosin on the rigging and on a goatskin glove that he cinched to his right wrist with a leather strap he pulled tight with his teeth. He tucked in his pants and tied a leather strap around his boots to keep them from flying off. He checked the rowels of his two-inch spurs. The rowels have to be dull, but they need to spin. He put on a pair of chaps that fit snug around the thighs, and then he walked over to another rider. Rusty Riddle, to ask again about Blue Sky. Riders keep book on horses and bulls like pitchers do on hitters.

"He's bucked good before. I've seen people get upside down on him," Riddle said.

"My motor just started running," said Mahan.

Mahan did a few pull-ups and climbed onto Blue Sky for the cinching, first touching the horse gently with his feet to let the horse know he was coming. He cleaved burrs out of Blue Sky's mane and unmatted it so the spurs wouldn't catch. The rigging was cinched with a hair pad underneath, the halter and flank strap were put on. The flank strap is leather lined with sheepskin. It is tied around the ticklish flank of an animal, and when the strap is pulled the animal should buck from irritation. A horse in real pain will usually stand still instead of bucking.

Now Mahan was on Blue Sky in the gate and nearly ready. He looked to be sure the previous horse was out of the arena and the catch-pen gate was closed. If you happen to ride a bucking horse into an open catch pen, you could be in for a terrible wreck. Mahan looked to see that the judges were watching. He looked to see that the flank man was behind the chute with a hand on the strap. A few days earlier, thinking somehow to promote Doug Hall's book, Mahan had yelled "Let 'er buck!" as a signal to the gate man and had torn muscles in his ribs on the ride. This time Mahan just said, "Go!"

Blue Sky came out with a big jump. Mahan leaned back with his chin tucked in, his free arm bent at the elbow, his spurs well out over the animal's shoulders, his eyes on Blue Sky's head and neck. For two more jumps it looked like a good scoring ride. Then Blue Sky quit bucking and started running. Mahan walked disgustedly back to the alley. "A score of 55 on that ride," the announcer said. Get very many 55s and you'll have to start working for wages.

After that, it was still close to a month before the National Finals, plenty of time to rest and heal up. Mahan thought about it for a moment and grinned. "Well, this week I'm going to Dallas for two days, then to Portland for a banquet, then down to a rodeo in Brawley, California," he said. "Not much money down in Brawley, but we have some kind of a time."

TWO PHOTOSFRED KAPLANTHE GATE OPENS, and Mahan starts to earn his pay. At right, he whoops it up bareback.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)