From the opening of the chute to the instant I get bucked off the horse is 23 frames on the 8-mm. film. It's another 13 frames before I hit the ground, and getting up requires 49 more. In all, the grainy sequence shot by my father with his trusty Bell & Howell lasts less than five seconds.
It was my worst ride. But that snippet of movie film is the only record of my brief career as a bareback bronc rider, and, despite my performance, it documents an occasion I recall with curious satisfaction—the Paradise Ranch Rodeo.
Located in Woodland Park, Colo., Paradise Ranch existed for tourists, not livestock. From mid-June to mid-September it staged weekly rodeos on Sunday afternoons for visitors willing to fork over the dollar admission charge. I lived nearby and, during the summer after my freshman year in college, I became a participant.
These rodeos weren't sanctioned by any official organization, but were independently run jackpot competitions in which the contestants' $5 entry fees for each event were pooled to pay the winners. Jackpots are to rodeo what sandlots are to baseball, but the Paradise Ranch rodeo was somewhat different. The reason: spectators and hoopla.
Rodeo purists would gag at the thought of the Paradise Ranch competitions, but it didn't matter to me or the tourists. They could have been Cheyenne's Frontier Days. And when I heard my name crackle from the P.A. system in official testimony that I was a bareback rider, I briefly became my own hero.
Public recognition was important to me because I first mounted a bucking horse at a near-private event arranged by my friend Randy Witte, a member of the Colorado State University rodeo team. We were casual acquaintances whose paths had crossed on a summer job. Our friendship awakened, however, during a conversation one afternoon when we discovered a common interest in rodeo. Mine had been fantasy, but Randy's had substance.
Randy rode bulls and bucking horses and let me tag along to a few Rodeo Cowboy Association events. Tolerant of my naivetè, he served as a tutor in riding technique and a benevolent adviser in the intricacies of rodeo decorum.
For example, I learned that one doesn't wear a straw cowboy hat to a winter rodeo. Only saddle broncs, not bareback horses, are to be called just "broncs." And Levi's, worn extra long in the legs, are tucked into only the inner half of the boot when one is riding.
It wasn't the world of gritty, unshaven cowhands that I had expected. Instead, rodeos were primarily populated with athletes who, in their own idiosyncratic way, were similar to football players I had known. Most were neatly groomed, serious competitors dedicated to their sport. The more I learned of their skills and the practice required to excel, the more I appreciated them as athletes.
The sound of spurs stirred me in a way that the clatter of cleats in the locker room never did. And the boots, chaps and cowboy hat gave me a presence no sports uniform had ever bestowed—a blend of John Wayne and Mickey Mantle. The ritualistic preparation for an event was more satisfying than any pre-game warmup I'd participated in. There were the customary stretching and loosening exercises, but I derived the most pleasure from preparing my equipment.
A bareback rigging is a simple slab of leather and rawhide that fits over the horse's withers. It must be no more than 10 inches wide at the hand-hold, which looks something like a suitcase handle. Bits of resin are usually crushed into the handle with the leather glove worn during rides, and I worked on this with the zeal of a kid trying to form a pocket in a new baseball mitt. The most invigorating step in preparation, however, was cinching the rigging to the horse in the chute. That was when the adrenaline began to flow.
Randy loaned me his rigging for my first ride and instructed me in its use in his backyard. He fastened it to a bale of hay, which I mounted gingerly as he explained the proper spurring technique. The spurs must remain above the shoulder of the horse through his first jump out of the chute or the rider is disqualified. Once out, the object is to determine the horse's bucking rhythm and attempt to harmonize with it a spurring motion along the shoulders which, when properly executed, is similar to a snappy breaststroke kick in swimming.
Such movement is contrary to an instinctive leg-lock on the horse's ribs, and I found it difficult to spur even Randy's hay bale properly, let alone a feisty horse with a repertoire of jumps, dips and turns. Nevertheless, I practiced conscientiously, knowing that control and rhythmic spurring were essential if I were to score well on a ride. What I overlooked was that to score at all required staying on the animal for a full eight seconds. That first ride, however, quickly reordered my priorities.
My informal initiation into bareback riding was arranged with a stockman named Ralph, who had recently acquired a spoiled saddle horse and was eager to see if he was worthy of adding to a bucking string. Ralph was a tobacco-chewing, dusty-clothed, droop-hatted piece of gristle who would have made a splendid extra in a spaghetti Western except for his folksy demeanor.
We met at an arena near Fort Collins where a calf-roping jackpot was underway, and Ralph was leading an indifferent brown-and-white paint when Randy introduced us. Despite the horse's docile appearance and unusual tolerance of humans, Ralph guaranteed that the animal was a bucker.
When Randy inquired about the horse's bucking pattern, however, Ralph's reply was rather vague. He hadn't actually seen the horse buck but had heard good things about it and intended to use that afternoon's performance as the inspiration for naming the animal. All he could tell us for certain was that the horse had a reputation as a spinner. Mindful that I was a beginner, Ralph warned me not to dawdle if I was thrown into "the well," the turf around which the horse spins. I told him he needn't worry.
The horse was quiet in the chute and easily rigged, but my anticipation furnished all the excitement necessary. Randy peppered me with last-minute instructions as I finally lowered myself onto the animal. Although I had always been uneasy around horses, I felt strangely comfortable in the chute. Perhaps it was because I knew this horse couldn't race off toward a canopy of low-hanging branches to strip me from its back—an amusement our family's horse perfected on our rides in the mountains.
Mouth dry and heart pounding, I fitted my glove hand around the handle of the rigging, carefully locking my thumb tightly over the tips of my fingers. I raised my boots to the horse's shoulder height, bracing my legs on the chute. The horse remained tranquil. I nodded to Ralph and said "Outside," the cowboy equivalent of "Play ball," and the chute gate swung open. The horse hesitated, but when I brought my spurs to his shoulders, he exploded. The surge of power underneath me was unlike anything I had ever experienced. To recall it gives me chills. At that instant, everything I had tried to memorize about technique evaporated from my mind.
The horse moved straight out with a couple of jumps, then went into a spin. I hung on for maybe four or five seconds before I was thrown. I scampered away feeling electric, as if my blood had been charged with exhilaration. But for the few people present and the cowboys taking a break from their roping jackpot, my adventure hardly merited a shrug.
As for Paradise Ranch, it blended ragged showmanship with a modest but enthusiastic audience, which I suspect gathered more out of curiosity than real interest. Because the arena was located directly next to Highway 24, the Paradise Ranch rodeo provided a convenient and inexpensive detour for those hankering for a taste of the Old West. My parents attended for a different reason. They were eager to see their son, whom they'd seen only at the mercy of the family horse, riding a bucker. For the benefit of the other family skeptics not present, my father was to verify my tales as a bareback rider with his movie camera.
Unfortunately, this was before we had sound home movies, or my father would have also captured the chatter of the rodeo announcer, who spared no hyperbole in fueling the crowd's enthusiasm. According to him, this rodeo attracted the top cowhands from top spots throughout the country, including Pendleton, Oklahoma City and Cheyenne. In fact, shortly before my ride, I was introduced as a "promising young hand from Calgary, Canada," which I'm sure amused my parents, with whom I lived in Denver. We top hands, of course, were there to match skills with "some of the finest killer stock in the nation."
"Killer stock," scoffed Randy, pointing to a brand on one of the bulls in the pen. "This is old Beutler Brothers stock that's been unloaded long ago." As a serious rodeo competitor, Randy was, I think, somewhat embarrassed to be associated with this carnival-like enterprise. He was there strictly to win a few bucks.
Despite the ballyhoo, for me the occasion had an aura of authenticity. Cradled in the mountains at the edge of Pike National Forest, the outdoor arena had a rough-hewn integrity, even if it did slope badly. The judging may have been suspect and the stock mediocre, but nearly all the animals bucked, and rerides were awarded when appropriate—that is, when there was a problem with the horse or the equipment and the ride didn't come off true to form. The Paradise Ranch rodeo wasn't a competition among polished athletes, but a rodeo of the folks, and, in some respects, truer to the origins of the sport than its more sophisticated counterparts. I thought it was dandy.
The rodeo began with a choppy "grand entry"—a pair of chuck wagons and a few people on horses who chased around the arena behind a rider with an American flag. They pulled into formation at the center of the arena, and the announcer played a recording of The Star-Spangled Banner that popped like bacon grease over the P.A.
Bareback riding is the traditional opening event, and I had already rigged my horse in the chute. This time I used my rigging and my spurs, items recently purchased with an eye to a glorious future. Randy loaned me his chaps. The horse I had drawn was named Sorrel Top, and I was impressed with his size. I figured he was at least 16 hands high, but I was confident and eager to feel the explosion of power beneath me once more. Unfortunately, on this occasion I was blown right off the horse's back.
The film shows that I didn't even mark out—or get out of the chute in the prescribed manner. As Sorrel Top lunges from the chute, I am jolted away from the rigging and I am obviously off balance. But as he rises into his first jump outside the chute, we meet again in a single, glorious frame. Sorrel Top is arched like a rainbow with me at the crest of his back, and I appear so much in control that I once considered blowing up that single frame as a memento. However, as the film progresses and the horse lands on his front hoofs, I continue to rise along his flank. By the end of the jump much of my body is above his extended hind legs, a good eight feet off the ground. I am also spinning around backward, my grasp on the rigging long gone. I hit the turf like a runaway rolling pin and finally, reluctantly, work to my feet before the sequence abruptly ends.
"Let's hear it for him, folks," the announcer urges. "Your applause is the only pay he's gonna get today." It's a customary rodeo condolence, but the smattering of applause it elicited as I walked back to the chutes was strangely soothing. My exploit had been acknowledged.
I went back to Paradise Ranch one more time. Oddly enough, I drew Sorrel Top again and again was bucked off, though not quite as rapidly. After a few more jackpots at other places in Colorado—with no success—it became apparent that to become even modestly proficient would require more time, money, energy and practice than I was willing to devote. Rather than sell my spurs and rigging, I retired them as reminders of my experiences and the insights I had gained into the sport. To blow up that single frame of movie film as a souvenir somehow seemed dishonest. I'm content to enlarge it in my mind.