Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Rodeo season is under way in Steamboat Springs, and some of the best athletes in the Yampa Valley are showing off their moves every Friday and Saturday night at Howelsen Hill.
They jump like LeBron James and shed would-be tacklers like LeSean McCoy. Call them widow makers, call them studs, they’re rank and bad-ass; they are los caballos loco — you can even call them locavores. Because after a big night under the bright lights, you can find these star athletes diving into a high-protein meal of homegrown hay.
Cowboys can’t score unless the broncos come out to play, and some experts would say the bucking horses are the real stars of the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series. And they have years of pedigree behind them.
Some of the greatest rodeo horses of all time plied their trade in Northwest Colorado and neighboring states more than 100 years ago. There was General Pershing, Pin Ears, Carrie Nation and a high-flying horse named Steamboat from southern Wyoming, now on the list of Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame horses.
Rodeo was so popular in downtown Steamboat in 1902 that it got a bit out of hand, with cowboys organizing impromptu bucking events in the middle of town any time they became (ahem) inspired. Town government actually passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor for cowboys to hold bucking contests on Main Street on Sunday mornings because the local matriarchs were feeling intimidated on the way to church.
The horse that mattered most hereabouts was the big, gray General Pershing, stabled just west of Steamboat with owner Joe Squire.
The July 9, 1919, edition of the Steamboat Pilot ran a headline pronouncing: “General Pershing is worst bucking horse discovered in years.” Worst, of course, meaning best.
Much more was expected of both cowboys and broncs back then. Today, cowboys must stay on the back of their rides for eight seconds to achieve a score. Back then, the “bronc stompers” were expected to stay in the saddle until the horse was no longer willing to buck. And the horse had to recover quickly because more than one cowboy was given a shot at riding him.
Then again, because there were no bucking chutes, cowboys often got off to a rocky start. Some saddle broncs could be blindfolded and saddled in the middle of the arena, with the cowboy quickly mounting. Others had to be wrestled to the ground by the rodeo crew, with the cowboy climbing on board and hanging tight while the horse struggled to its feet.
Few cowboys could stay on General Pershing beyond his second big hop. “General Pershing succeeded in throwing every rider that mounted him, and experienced cow punchers say he is the greatest bucker they ever saw,” the article said. “A.E. McCormick, the artograph film star and champion in many riding contests, bet that he could ride the horse without stirrups, but it only took a few of Pershing’s elusive twists before McCormick hit the dust.”
Lawrence “Tuffy” Wren drew General Pershing in the bucking contest and had an unusual experience: The great horse made several jumps before Wren went flying through the air along with his equipment. “Wren turned a flip-flop and came down with the saddle still firmly gripped between his legs,” the article reported.
How tough was Wren? Later that season during the Hayden fair, he rode a sorrel horse that turned a forward somersault with him aboard. Shaking off his bruises, Wren returned later in the afternoon to complete a ride on the same horse.
Steamboat author John Rolfe Burroughs wrote in Empire Magazine, “One of the thrills of my boyhood was watching a former schoolmate, who was the cousin of (Steamboat Pilot publisher) M.H. Leckenby, ride General Pershing almost, but not quite, to a standstill.”
However, the mercurial horse Pin Ears was just as feared as General Pershing. Burroughs reported that the bay horse lashed out at his handlers, biting and squealing, in the rodeo arena and actually “pawed three men to death.”
What made Pin Ears such a mystery was his gentle nature outside the arena. Walt Long, whose father ranched in Twentymile Park southwest of Steamboat, owned Pin Ears.
Burroughs explained in his book, “Where the Old West Stayed Young,” that Pin Ears had a gentler side.
“When he was home, Pin Ears was as gentle as an old plow plug,” Burroughs wrote. “His owner’s three small children rode him all over the place. They crawled beneath his belly and between his legs and, standing on his hocks, used his tail to pull themselves onto his back.”
So if you venture to this year’s rodeo, appreciate the athlete beneath the saddle as well as above it; chances are the horse was spinning rodeos and mysties well before today’s skiers and riders were doing so on Mount Werner.