On my way to work the other week, I had my radio tuned to the local sports radio station’s call-in program like usual. Callers were being asked to name the athletes they considered to be the best of all time. Most of it was typical – claiming the superiorities of Ted Williams, Joe Montana, Jordan, Tyson, and the like. As I approached the corner of 11th ave. and 7th st., though, I heard a caller make his case for Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and American Pharaoh, only to have the host retort, “We’re talking about athletes. Not animals.” Now, I recognize that the show was not really aired with linguistically-oriented rodeo advocates in mind, but I had to remind myself while accelerating from the stoplight that aggressive driving wasn’t going to set the record straight. Get to a parking place. Call. Busy signal.

What is an athlete? The word comes from old Greek and Latin both (athleta and athletes, for the record), defining those who compete in games of a physical nature. May I ask just what it is that a bronc or bull is doing in the arena with a cowboy on its back? If the animal is not trying to win a competition by bucking off the rider, I’m not sure what the point of the ride is. Anyone who climbs into a chute, straps on, and nods their head will confirm this without any controversy: those animals are most definitely, intentionally competing in games of a physical nature. Athletes.

Redial. Busy signal.



Once upon a time, the practice of bucking horses was simply a way to prove who was the most adept at taming, or “breaking” horses for ranch use. The more difficult the critter was to ride, the better the rider looked who could stay atop them. There was respect for the cowboy who rode, but also a great deal of respect for the horses that could throw the best of them. Some horses just don’t want to be ridden – it’s why we call them bucking horses. They’ll nuzzle up to you at a feed trough, and let little kids stroke their mane in a pasture, but set a rider on their back, and it’s lights-out. They know what to do, and when to do it. Not every horse bucks, and very few of them do it at the highest levels. They’re special and unique.

Redial. Busy signal.



We haven’t gotten to bulls yet. Bulls are crazy. They all have their own distinctions – one will predictably come out of the chute to the left, and spin, while the next is known to take a few steps before making vicious head jerks into the rider’s hand. Some are completely unpredictable, but a bucking bull knows when it’s time to do his thing, and does it his own way, with only one goal in mind: lose the cowboy. It’s a singular and vicious focus that your average farm Holstein can’t handle. That bull might be cranky, but he doesn’t have the mindset, strength, and force of a bucking bull. The spirit and ability of a true bucking bull is special and unique.

Redial. Busy signal.


A good bucking horse or bull is a rare thing. They are respected, valued, and honored in the rodeo community, so much so that breeding lines were developed to maintain the very best bucking stock for the future of the sport. You see, not every horse or bull bucks, and you won’t convince a non-bucker to perform any more than you’ll convince your neighbor’s chihuahua to grow a mane, hooves, or horns. This means that the blood lines of good performing animals are preserved in breeding programs, allowing us to still see descendants of such legends as Bodacious, Grated Coconut, and Khadafy Skoal. Yes, the animals may not have jerseys, but they have names, and the names are known. Once upon a time, chutes were stuffed with animals from local farms and ranches that were rejected from ag use because of their bad attitudes, but times have changed, and now if you draw Shepherd’s Hill Tested, Mossy Oak Mudslinger, Dirty Jacket, or Lunatic Fringe, you know you’ll get a legendary shot at a ride, ending with either a great score or a sore tailbone. Bucking horses and bulls are born to buck, with the skill and drive put in them by God himself as surely as they have four legs and a tail, and thanks to these breeding programs, we will be able to continue to see them for a very long time.

Redial. Busy signal.


The idea that the animals of the rodeo aren’t actually athletes  is a narrow and uninformed view. It might be hard for some people to relate to four-footed athletes, but those closest to them would never deny the title. Ask the stock contractors. Ask the cowboys. Ask the fans.

Don’t ask the radio host. He never took my call.


All images by Thomas Duncan of Through These Two Eyes. You can reach him on his Facebook page. Please do not copy, crop or use pictures without his permission.