If there is any entity more iconic to the sport of rodeo than the bucking horse, I do not know what it might be. From the earliest days of the American West until now, the image of an unbroken horse trying to shed itself of a spurring rider has been inseparably linked to our ways.
Given that rodeo, as we know it began with the daily activities of ranch hands turning competitive, it should be no surprise that the wildest and most ostentatious of the events should be the one that stuck as its symbol. With manes flying, hooves kicking skyward, and its riders teeth gritted in determination, the drama of the moment reflecting the ability to hold on to a horse whose sole intent was to buck off its rider became virtually synonymous with this burgeoning sport.
The horses started to be called bronco, brought straight over from the Spanish term for rough. Lately, we just call them “broncs,” and keep the terms roughstock for all the bucking stock in a rodeo (including bulls), and roughies for the daring few who try to stay aboard them. Since the process was birthed from the practice of breaking these animals for saddle use, some accommodations had to be made. The time required for a qualifying ride was set to eight seconds, eliminating the opportunity to tame the wildness from the horses, and riders were required to use just one hand, giving the advantage to the stock, and making an equalizer among all those who would show up to hop on and try.
At first, the stock came from ranches and lots where working horses, that were too buck-y for practical use, were picked up by stock contractors, and the best were added to their string for consistent use. Few knew where the mounts came from, and from town to town, one never quite knew just how the broncs would look. Some even pulled the legendary mustangs from wildlands for use in the rodeo, for the ultimate unpredictability. Stock contractors are wise birds, though, and saw the potential in the very best buckers, and thus began a new era in livestock. Enter: the breeding programs for bucking stock.
You see, not every horse will buck. You can take a high-strung barrel horse, put it in a chute, and flank it, and rather than buck out, it is likely to simply look at you like you’re crazy. Why? Simple. It’s not a bucking horse. Some horses buck simply because it is in their DNA to buck, and stock contractors began to breed their best-bucking horses to continue a line of horses with the predilection to do just that. Rather than taking “pot luck” from whatever was available, now the breeding programs began to develop horses that consistently utilized their natural abilities and predisposition. The results have been nothing short of astounding.
Perhaps the greatest success in the breeding programs was a great Tooke horse named Gray Wolf. A fantastic athlete in his own right, Gray Wolf was bred to bucking mares, beginning a lineage that would reach to the ranches of Cotton Rosser, Calgary Stampede, Powder River, Burch, and others. It is thanks to Gray Wolf’s genetics and Tooke’s wisdom that we have seen his descendants like Miss Congeniality, Grated Coconut, and the legendary Lunatic Fringe. As long as the breeding programs continue, he will live on, and rodeo will hold on to his legend.
Yes, we do love our bucking horses. We love our wiry little barebacks, and our thunderously strong saddle broncs. We put them in the Hall of Fame alongside the two-legged athletes of rodeo, and we call them endearingly by their first names. We know the Vitalix line from Cervi, the great Onion Ring of Korkow, and the beautiful Spanish Nights of Summit Pro Rodeo, along with all the great names from Vold, Carr, Sankey, and so many more. There are even my favorite bucking brothers, Silver Sage and Craig at Midnight of Powder River. Why do we love them, though? We see them a few times a year when they roll into town with the contractor’s string, and perhaps on TV if they make the Wrangler NFR, but we don’t get to actually know them, but still, we have an affection for them, and there is a reason.
The bronc is the symbol of our western way of life. Independent, untameable, and fiercely honest, the bronc represents the values we respect, and the heritage we seek to perpetuate. There is nothing more American than that explosion of mane and muscle from the chute, a demonstration of raw strength and divinely granted ability, and it puts a charge into our hearts every time we see it. We love the bronc because the bronc is our heritage and our future. The bronc is beautiful, powerful, and amazing. The bronc is the legend of the old west.
God bless the broncs and those who care for them.
All photos (c) 2017 Thomas C. Duncan Photography. Please do not crop, re-edit, or duplicate. For more information on photos by Thomas Duncan, click here.