Snow fell last night at Rattlesnake Butte, and frost feathered the cottonwood trees. This morning the temperature hangs at freezing, and the trails are wet and muddy. It's roundup time, and Harry Vold, who owns this spread in excess of 20,000 acres near Fowler, Colo., rides point in his pickup—quickly, calmly, with a sense of barely suppressed glee. Half a dozen cowboys gallop behind as he chases a herd of broncos down canyons, through arroyos and over rocky escarpments.
Vold is one of the biggest contractors supplying stock for the rodeo circuit. He's cutting out about 100 unbroken mares and geldings from his herd for the weekend stampede in Minot, N. Dak. and next week's in Billings, Mont. When the horses are finally corralled, they look peaceful and drowsy grazing on buffalo grass in the noontime autumn sun. "See that pinto?" Vold asks. "Name's Miss Reno. Doesn't really have a lot of wild to her, but that don't mean a thing." He grabs a fistful of grain from a plastic bucket and feeds her out of his hand. "She's a regular pet," he says proudly. "But get on her back and she'll kick your head off."
That's the way Vold likes her. He didn't raise Miss Reno for speed or conformation. "In rodeo," he tells you, "disposition is everything." The meaner the better. And broncobusters like a nasty horse; the wilder the ride, the higher their score. But Vold says, "The bigger the hotshot cowboy, the harder he falls."
Vold should know. He's been making rodeo cowboys miserable for 32 years. His animals have won at least one of the three Bucking Stock of the Year crowns in six of the last 10 years, a spectacular achievement, considering there are nearly 6,000 animals in pro rodeo strings across the country. Way back in 1970 Vold became one of the first contractors to breed and raise his own stock. Wild Horse Harry ships bucking horses and bulls to 24 rodeos in 15 states, including Cheyenne Frontier Days, "the daddy of 'em all," for which he has been the exclusive stockman since 1976. This year Vold provided about 450 broncs, 175 bulls, 550 steers, 350 calves and 75 saddle horses for the Cheyenne parade.
He moseys around the ranch, showing off the century-old adobe house and the cemetery he built for his champion steeds. Each grave features a marker and an epitaph. Vold talks with that tough, bristly good humor of a guy who came up during the Great Depression: a clipped, cheerful, this-is-the-way-I-am-take-it-or-leave-it approach to life. The son of a Ponoka, Alberta horse trader and auctioneer, Vold saw his first rodeo at 11, peeking through a crack in the fence. At 18 he signed on with Cliff Claggett's Wild West Show and Chuck-Wagon Races. Vold took care of the bucking stock.
Forty years ago he rounded up a herd of Canadian broncs for a Montana rodeo outfitter, but got stuck with a passel of untested horses when all U.S. borders were closed because of an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. In 1950 Vold began renting his stock out to rodeos, and he hasn't stopped since.
The 500 to 600 broncs at Vold's Rattlesnake Butte ranch have arrived from all over. "It's just like putting a football team together," he says. "You hear about some owl-headed, broncy son of a buck, scout him and buy him." Some, like Yellow Fever, came from racetracks; others, like Rusty, the 1981 Saddle Bronc of the Year, were discovered at amateur rodeos. Vold once paid a record $12,500 for a horse named Peace River, who seemed cantankerous but turned out to be too serene for a rodeo arena.
Most of the broncs have names, and Vold is on pretty good terms with them because he doesn't ever ride any. There's Zoot Zooter, Buckskin Joe, Scarface, Why Me? and Itchy Britches. Vold thinks up new names while cruising in his truck and writes them down in a spiral binder. He'll call some of the 80 wild Nevada horses he just bought from the government Snowy Bleach, Tylenol, Rolaids, Anacin. "Guess I wasn't feeling too well when I thought those last few up," he says. Vold has redshirted the government broncs for the season. He plans to look at them again next year to see if they have rodeo spirit. "They don't have to be mean," he says, "just determined and consistent. They've got to have the will and desire to buck."
You can lead a wild horse to the rodeo, Vold insists, but you can't make him buck. He discounts the complaints of those who say cowboys use cruel devices to pinch a stallion's genitals. He claims horses are only cinched tightly around the flanks with sheepskin during their eight-second rides. At most, he says, two times a week. "We've got horses here that are 30 years old, fat and still bucking," he says. "If we did anything harmful to them, it would have shown up a longtime ago."
But Vold is a strong supporter of the virtues of the Old West. A few years ago Black Velvet, a brand of whiskey, mounted a campaign to insert Velvet into the name of the top horses on the tour. Suddenly, horses were named Black Velvet, Sipping Velvet and Velvet on the Rocks. Vold was offered $10,000 to change the name of Angel Sings, two-time Saddle Bronc of the Year, to Angel's Velvet. But he turned the deal down. "I don't think the good Lord above meant her to be called by some whiskey name," he told Karen, his wife.
Karen calls her husband Duke. "He's my John Wayne," she explains. "He sticks to his principles and won't be pushed around. You know, he's something of a bucking horse himself."