When Pat Mantle worked as a pickup man in the rodeo arena in Steamboat Springs, some rodeo fans were more intent on watching Mantle work than the cowboys riding broncs in the arena.
Mantle, who has been dead for 10 years now, always looked like the real deal on horseback. And he will always remain an important figure in the history of Steamboat's rodeo.
Thomas Patrick Mantle didn't know it, but he was larger than life. Since his death in March 1992, no personality has come forward in the Yampa Valley to embody the cowboy spirit quite the way Mantle did. And probably no one ever will.
Best known for the large horse roundups he conducted semi-annually in Brown's Park northwest of Craig, Mantle also played an integral role in the development of Steamboat's rodeo. He is remembered at the end of the rodeo season each year when the Pat Mantle Memorial Saddle Bronc Riding Championships are contested in the Romick Rodeo Arena at Howelsen Hill. The top six saddle bronc riders of the season face off for a single ride that determines who gets the $2,000 prize money and a Winchester rifle.
Chances are the cowboy who wins the championship won't know that much about the man the contest celebrates. Mantle had the craggy looks that would put the romanticized Marlboro man to shame. Everything about Mantle, from his beat-up denim jacket to the way he sat a horse said this was the real deal. Every detail, right down to the toothpick that jutted from a corner of his mouth, said "cowboy."
It's safe to say Mantle was more interested in horses than he was in cattle, and he might have been more businessman than he was rancher, but the man walked the walk.
Mantle grew up raising cattle and horses in sagebrush and juniper country on the family ranch in rugged Dinosaur National Monument. One of his many stories reflected the self-reliance that was expected of him and his siblings.
"When we were kids, if we told our daddy we were hungry, he'd hand us a stick and point at a jack rabbit," he once told a newspaper reporter.
From a very young age, Mantle was a fierce rodeo competitor in bronc riding and roping. Later, he created the 7-11 Rodeo Company and became a rodeo producer himself. He continued to ride in the rodeo arena as a pick-up man into his 50s.
In July 1959, Mantle and brother-in-law Rex Walker opened the Sombrero Ranch Stables in Estes Park to provide horseback rides to tourists. The young people he hired to wrangle his stable horses became his disciples in a sense; he worked them hard, but earned their fierce loyalty and many, like Steamboat veterinarian Mike Gotchey, still revere the man.
Sombrero Stable grew to include businesses in Boulder, Grand Lake and Steamboat. He also provided horses to a large number of stables around the state. Every fall the horses were returned to Northwest Colorado and as winter approached, Mantle moved back onto his ranch northwest of Maybell in Moffat County. The horses, sometimes as many as 600, were turned loose to spend the winter grazing on BLM pasture.
By the time spring arrived, many of the horses were half wild. The necessary roundup and horse drive became a rite of spring for Mantle's wide circle of friends, scattered weekend cowboys from around the state and various hangers on. Mantle made everyone feel welcome. If you had the sense to arrive with a ham and a case of beer, you might even get invited to breakfast in the ranch house.
But when it came to horses, Mantle didn't suffer fools gladly. If you were reckless enough to pretend you were an experienced hand, Mantle cut out a mount that was guaranteed to buck you into a patch of prickly pear. If you got busted up in the process, it was tough luck.
When the hundreds of horses had been gathered, they were driven into a corral so the sick and lame animals could be culled out before the bulk of the herd was driven down a dusty road to U.S. 40 and waiting semi trucks.
All of the horses were branded with an individual number. Mantle could sit on the fence, call out the number on a horse's flank and describe the animal's personality traits. The man had horse sense.
An old compadre of Mantle's, Harley Guess, recalled an example of Mantle's rough sense of humor during his funeral in 1992. It was back in the old days, when it was still legal to run wild horses in Brown's Park. The two men were riding across the flanks of Douglas Mountain when Harley's horse stumbled.
"My horse slipped and I landed in the top of a cedar tree that slapped me on the side of the head and knocked me to the ground," Guess recalled. "Pat rode over and asked, 'did it hurt you honey?'"
Longtime Steamboat auctioneer Cookie Lockhart knew Mantle well and remembered him as a man who was drawn to people and had a rough side as well.
"The greatest thing in his life was to entertain folks with steak rides and cookouts," Cookie recalled. "He had great common sense and a low tolerance for foolishness. He was as tough as a pine knot, and if he cared about you, he expected you to be tough too."
Gotchey worked at Sombrero Stables as a youngster. He remembered that Mantle had a nickname for everyone. That personal touch made people feel special, even the poor wrangler whom Mantle dubbed "Baby Legs" after he turned up with raw, bloody knees following a tough ride.
Gotchey's earliest memory of Mantle can be traced back to a rodeo in Boulder where Mantle was working as a pickup man. An ornery bull with a reputation for jumping the fence had thrown a cowboy on his back in the arena. The bull, named "Long John," made straight for a spot on the fence where two little girls on ponies sat transfixed by the onrushing 2,000-pound animal. Mantle was riding a favorite horse named "Fritz," Gotchey recalled.
"Just like in the movies, Pat threw his rope and caught Long John right at the top of his jump, and pulled him back into the arena.
More than 700 people showed up for Mantle's funeral in Craig after he died of a heart attack in California at the age of 62. He was a man worth remembering.
"He lived more than any of us ever had a chance to," Guess said at the funeral. "Pat Mantle will never die as long as a person in this room is still alive."