Why a Rodeo Cowboy Who Quits Should Never Come Back

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Comeback. It’s a great word, right? Uh…not if you’re a rodeo cowboy, it’s not. Rose Kohrs told me that night, “If you do (quit), Fred, don’t ever come back.”

Hold on. I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand the power of that statement, you need to know the backstory. The short version, anyway; boring the reader is not the point.

I’d started riding bareback broncs and saddle broncs at rodeos when I was fifteen. Now, at age 22, it was suddenly–and unexpectedly–time to pull the plug. I was sitting atop the arena fence, watching the last of the bulls buck out for the night, thinking, “If you can’t beat ’em this year, cowboy, maybe you better quit.”

That thought had not come within a thousand miles of my little pea brain prior to that night. There’d been those first few years of wild arena wrecks and steep learning curves in the process of mastering the trade, shifting to add bull riding during two college rodeo team years, finding out I was more of a natural on the bulls than anything else, and finally narrowing things down to specializing in that event.

So far, so good. Mixed in with the hard times and spectacular buckoffs, there’d been enough moments of glory to keep me fired up and looking toward the next contest, including championships at Drummond, Montana, (my home town) and Pleasant Grove, Utah (where I beat out 37 of the best in the business)…but 1966 had not been going so well.

I’d been in a pure dee gold plated slump, bucking off bulls I should have ridden.

My friends on the circuit helped as they could, and it was looking like I had it just about figured out. After watching me buck off two bulls in a row at the same rodeo in ways that simply shouldn’t have happened, future Bull Riding Champion of the World John Quintana remarked quietly, “It looks like you might be forgetting your upper body, Fred.” I knew he’d hit the nail on the head. “Thanks, John,” I replied with heartfelt gratitude. “That makes total sense.” There was plenty of time to wrap my thoughts around that one, get it right before straddling my next bull.

Unfortunately, at Blackfoot, Idaho, a top bull by the name of Lizard–well, he didn’t buck me off, good as he was. I overthought the thing, trying to remember my upper body (which I’d been forgetting)…and I forgot my feet. Both spurs flew up and hit me in the ass, and I launched myself off of one of the best bulls in the business.

Then I compounded the error by (a) hanging up in the bull rope and (b) staying away from the animal instead of staying tucked in as close as possible to his side. At Hamilton, MT, days before, where John had so skillfully analyzed my slump problem with his eagle eye, I’d hung up on a superfast little black bull who’d stepped down the back of my legs a lot while I was doing it right, so what the hey, I did it wrong and paid the price. Lizard turned back into me and hit me smack in the chest with his head.

Out like a light. They tell me the rodeo clown saved my life (which is what he’s there for), darting in front of the bull, throwing me out of the way to safety like a sack of feed, leading the bull in another direction.

I came to and stepped off the stretcher just as they were shoving it into the meat wagon.

Don’t get me wrong. Decades later, former World Champ Ronnie “Punch” Rossen of Broadus, Montana (and another friend of mine who knew how to offer an important bull riding coaching insight in a single brief sentence), was killed at an Old Timers Rodeo when a bull smashed him in the chest. He’d just won the bull riding on that same animal. It’s definitely a potential life or death situation.

But I wasn’t thinking of quitting because of the injury, or the possibility of getting killed the next time, or any of that. I was thinking of quitting because I had a wife now, and a commitment to return to Montana State University in the fall. The Army still had hold of me enough that a two week summer camp in the Mojave Desert, coming right up, was going to gouge a big hole out of the middle of the summer rodeo season. There needed to be some money in our savings account by the time school started, at least if we didn’t want to starve to death in short order.

I was thinking of quitting because of responsibility.

Where did that thought come from, out of the blue like that? Good question. To this day, I believe that as Soul, I made a spiritual decision…and the human psyche was just going to have to learn to live with it.

Now, here’s where we get to the title of this post. After the rodeo was over, before making my way back to our Chevy truck where my wife would be waiting, I climbed the steps to the announcer’s box. Rose Kohrs, the rodeo secretary, was hard at her paperwork. She and Ray were friends, I felt. Nothing spoken between us, but I’d followed the Kohrs string of professional bucking stock more than any other. I felt comfortable with them, and I couldn’t leave without a word of explanation.

“Rose,” I told her, “I’m thinking of quitting.”

She looked me straight in the eye and said quietly, “If you do, Fred, don’t ever come back.”

“I know,” I replied, and I did. We’d all seen what happened to rodeo riders who quit the circuit and then, at some later date, attempted a comeback. It was never pretty.

Then I headed for the truck, where my bride sat nervously waiting. “Where were you? When it happened, I started down around the arena to get back of the chutes, find out which hospital you were being taken to, and then–”

“Oh.” I should have felt more sheepish than I did. Hell, I hadn’t even thought about her, not once, until now. “I was sitting on the fence.” And then I told her my decision, that I’d decided to quit.

To her credit, she begged me not to. At the time, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing to my own psyche, uprooting core values and starting over. But she did; Vicky knew. And lordy, did I ever pay the price. It was hard beyond belief, having to go from “Yeah, I rodeo,” to, “Well, I used to rodeo, but….”

Four years later, I couldn’t take it any more. I had a four year degree in psychology, a brand new job being strangled in a necktie in a seventh story insurance office in Spokane, Washington, and I was losing it. There wasn’t much for me to do yet, being on trainee status rather than handling a real book of business as a commercial insurance underwriter. Often during the day, I’d sit at my desk, studying insurance learning materials, sneaking glances straight ahead, through the big picture window to the north. Smog. Out there, over the city, there was smog.

There’s got to be more than this, I told myself in desperation…and I began to fool myself into thinking it would be okay to go back to rodeo.

The fever had not left me.

“Not the pro circuit,” I told my wife, who was obviously excited by my news. “We’ll just hit the amateur rodeos during weekends. Get acquainted with the rodeo people in this area, get out of the house. Try to win enough to break even, but this time it’s won’t be all about the money. It’ll be about the way of life.”

She’d missed the road, as I had. Let’s Get ‘R’ Done.

I never forgot the admonition Rose Kohrs had given me, but like every has-been looking to make a comeback, I convinced myself I had it figured out.

As it happened, our second daughter was born the morning of the Deer Park rodeo. It had been a swift birth; I left mother and daughter in the hospital’s care, our other daughter in an aunt’s care, and drove like a bat out of Hell to Deer Park, getting there in plenty of time. The bull I’d drawn was so-so, not the toughest but not the easiest, either. I rode him straight up until he turned back at the fence, then I slipped down on one side, fighting to make the whistle. Which I did, but with the obvious storm I’d been in, my score sucked.

Still, I’d scored. In bull riding, any score at all is a good thing. During my pro days, I’d calculated that I could make a living if I could simply qualify on 50% of the bulls I straddled.

Baker was ba-ack!

Dusty and mildly disgusted with my error at the fence–but mostly riding high–I made it back to check on my wife around 9:00 p.m. Visiting hours were over, but the nurses let me in, anyway. Who could resist a lean, young, blonde, blue eyed cowboy fresh from the arena? My sweetie was all that, content both with our new daughter and with her back-again bull rider.

Life was good.

A week later, my cousin Jerry and I drove out to the Big Bend Rodeo Ranch near Soap Lake, Washington. Jerry didn’t rodeo–he’s a lifetime city guy except for time he spent on my parents’ ranch when we were both growing up–but he was more than happy to ride along. I felt I needed to practice a bit, and an old friend from the circuit, top hand John Reynolds, worked for Big Bend. They were having a bunch of riders out to practice on a batch of bulls, and I was invited.

Damn right.

Long story short: I was on a bull called Little Moe. Not a bad bull, the sort that might place for you at a small rodeo and waste your entry fee at a big one. Rode him perfectly. Got off stupid (ring rust caught up to me), got stomped, busted a couple of ribs (one in two places), punctured a lung, and had a visit from one of the Dark Angels of Death.

After that, I quit again…and this time, I stayed quit. It still wasn’t about the injury. It was about finally recognizing the truth of Rose’s statement, that a cowboy who quits should never come back.

It hardly ever ends well.

But the fever still had not left me. Yes, I stayed quit, but I was a dry drunk, not a truly reformed rodeoholic. Until…

…The seasons turned. The annual Diamond Spur Rodeo had come to Spokane itself. I wasn’t entered, but I was hanging out behind the chutes one Saturday morning, hours before the show, visiting with old friends. Most of them hadn’t known why I’d disappeared from the circuit; they’d just known I was gone.

Two things happened that weekend that changed everything. The first of those involved an old rodeo bud from Canada. He was entered, of course–and he was openly envious when I told him I’d quit.

“Damn,” he told me, “I wish I could. I did, in fact, quit for three years. But then one day I thought, oh, what the Hell, climbed back down on one and….”

“Get busted up?” I asked.

“Worse. I won it.”

“Oh crap.” I knew what that meant. If he’d been lucky and gotten semi-seriously injured like I had…but he hadn’t. “And then what?”

He looked at me with true sorrow in his eyes. “And then I went on to win the Canadian Bull Riding Championship that year.”

After that, my friend didn’t know if he’d ever be able to quit again, at least not before he got killed or crippled in the arena.

The other incident involved the bull riding championship at the Diamond Spur that year. It was won crooked. I knew who’d done it and how–after the fact, not before–and with that realization, my rose colored glasses fell off. I was disillusioned, and that disillusionment acted like an antidote to the powerful rodeo fever virus. I was cured.

Mostly.

I still think about it, even at 70 years of age and 44 years away from the arena. When I watch a rough stock event on TV, I’m there, hat pulled down, shoulder tucked, toes turned out and grabbing for holds. If I happen to have my shirt off when I look in the mirror, the greater development of my lats on the left side is obvious; I worked to develop that “riding side” from age fifteen to…well, today. Even though I only crawled down on something like 500 to 600 head of rough stock in my seven year career–no more than a World Champion might straddle in a single twelve month period–the rodeo fever isn’t completely gone. It’s just…dormant, perhaps.

What? No, no more comebacks. Unless–no, really.

At this age, I’d probably break a hip.

P.S. My friend and frequent reader, Shauna L. Bowling, mentioned her recall that I’d had a “successful” rodeo career. It’s true that I had a rodeo career; the level of success…well, when all was said and done, I figured I’d come out roughly $3,000 in the hole overall, counting entry fees and travel expenses and such, and I walked away with no noticeable permanent damage to body or mind. Plus, yeah, I won a few, here and there. Whether or not that adds up to a “successful” career, I’ll let you be the judge.

11 thoughts on “Why a Rodeo Cowboy Who Quits Should Never Come Back

  1. 500 – 600 head? Wow!

    I have to give Vicky credit for being a better woman than I. If you’d dropped me off at the hospital to give birth alone while you did your rodeo thing, I’d have been quite pissed.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s pretty damn cool that your call to ride the beast was (is) in your blood. It takes balls to put your life on the line like that.

  2. Let’s see….

    1. 500 to 600 head is only a lot to those who’ve never hit the circuit. It’s really rather anemic in the pro world. Some of the top guys will come out of the chutes that many times each year for an average of 20 years or more, putting their career numbers at something like 20 x 550 (average) = 11,000 lifetime total.

    2. I wasn’t clear enough about the birth of our second child. I did not leave the hospital until AFTER the birth, after I’d seen Kari and also talked with Vicky (after she was out of the delivery room and settled in her “regular” room). She woke me around 7:00 a.m. to tell me she was in labor. We made it to the hospital around 9:00, and Kari was born (if memory serves) really quickly, at around 9:55 a.m. The rodeo started at 1:00, and if I’d been in the bareback bronc riding (the first event), I’d have missed out. But bull riding always runs last, because more of the audience stays around till the end that way, and I got there in adequate time.

    3. That’s a pretty accurate phrase, “…your call to ride the beast….”. Rodeo fever is a real thing, known to every contestant–rough stock rider, roper, steer wrestler, or female barrel racer–who ever tackled the sport seriously. There are some excellent country songs out there about it, too, some of the best being by Garth Brooks and also the late, great Chris LeDoux, who was World Champion Bareback Bronc Rider in 1976.

    Example: “Hooked On An Eight Second Ride”, by Chris. The lyrics:

    Rollin’ down a long highway

    Out through New Mexico
    Driftin’ down to Santa Fe
    To ride a bull in a rodeo

    He’s hooked on a feelin’
    Addicted to a natural high
    Don’t know why it’s appealin’
    All he knows is he’s got to ride

    He’s addicted to danger
    Ruled by passion and pride
    To pain and fear, he’s no stranger
    But his lust needs to be satisfied
    Hooked on an 8 second ride

    Gettin’ up down in back of the chutes
    Makes that resin burn
    He’s got his spurs on the heels of his boots
    He’s at the point of no return

    Climbin’ over that chute gate
    He settles down inside
    The tension’s risin’ but he can’t wait
    ‘Til they turn that bull outside

    He’s addicted to danger
    Ruled by passion and pride
    To pain and fear he’s no stranger
    But his lust needs to be satisfied
    Hooked on an 8 second ride
    Hooked on an 8 second ride

  3. Apology accepted, though not needed–it’s NOT out of the realm of possibility for a rodeo rider to drop of his wife at the hospital and head right out to a contest. Out of the realm of wisdom, certainly, but I’m pretty sure it’s happened here and there.:)

  4. I was searching what other cowboys did after rodeo and this popped up on google. I’m 25 years old , rode bulls for 9 years and saddle broncs for one . I’ve went months at a time riding and not riding, never said I would quit though. The thought has crossed my mind now that me and my ol lady are expecting our 2nd child . I asked myself ” what good is a man who can’t take care of his family?” I love rodeo and will never stop going and watching in the stands, but something inside of me is saying stop before I’m cripple too much . I’ve had serious head trauma when I was younger riding bulls that affect me also my back is jacked up two ways to Sunday . I’ve been off for a month due to back injury , I get what you’re saying. It’s hard to turn and “quit” … It’s giving up , something I’m not 100% sure I should quit though. I remember a few months back sitting on the chutes saying to myself “man, i don’t know if I even like this anymore” but then I climb on my bronc an rode it a couple jumps getting slammed in the dirt. Jumped up and felt ALIVE! No matter riding one for 8 or landing on your neck at 4 seconds , I always get the same relaxed and refreshing feeling. Your thoughts ?

  5. Thanks for checking in, Adam. When I first saw your name, I thought maybe another former bull rider named Adam had found me–but he’d be a bit older, around 30 by now.

    I suspect each of us has a slightly different “take” on rodeo. That is, we all have some deep things in common, but the competitive nature in me was so strong that the wrecks and goose eggs never gave me much of a “relaxed and refreshed” feeling. I would be glad I was ba-ack for sure, but if I didn’t qualify on both sides, part of me was always irritated and studying on it, going over the mistakes in my head a thousand times to make sure I could do better (hopefully) the next time. For example, when I won the bull riding in my old home town of Drummond, Montana, in 1963 (at the age of 19), I was more than thrilled about that–but still remember being ticked off at myself for missing my saddle bronc out on one side (especially since on the other side, I was splitting 2nd and 3rd).

    On the other hand, I stepped up on a saddle horse that “never bucked” one fine February morning in South Dakota in 1992, when I was 48, and about half a mile into our pleasure ride around the 160 acre place I owned at the time, Red Wing (the gelding) broke in two. Just out of nowhere, feeling good and let ‘er rip. I hadn’t been on anything that bucked for 22 years at that point–but the old reflexes kicked right in and yes, THAT definitely left me with the “relaxed and refreshed” feeling you described.

    Neither head trauma nor a messed up back is anything to trifle with, of course. I realized just a few years ago that the right side of my skull is pretty caved in at the temple, never realized when it happened but can pretty much pinpoint the event(s) in the arena that did it. My neck does have a little crepitation (creaky-cracky spine) from a bull nailing me right between the shoulders once, and I’ve always been on good acquaintance with a good chiropractor wherever I lived.

    I am pretty sure of one thing: If you’re not (yet) sure it’s your time to quit…you won’t. I’ve known few (if any) cowboys who ever quit 100% without that 100% conviction.

  6. Did you ride in a circuit; PRCA or IPRA? I rode BB and TR in the NE IPRA spanning 9 years. I quit riding Broncs at the young age of 43. Never was the best but sure had fun try’n.

  7. I stopped rough stock BB riding for the same exact reasons. Remarried and had a Son.
    We as a family continued to team rope and enter a few rodeos and a lot of practice days at friends places. It’s a better than perfect environment for kids. Men are represented well and Women are likewise. All the other kids say NO SIR, YES SIR AND NO THANKS.
    My step Son tried bull riding even though I spelled it out in detail about the risks and more than likely pain. He rode anyway. ONCE. but once was enough to see his character of trying and cowboy’n up. And at no time did he want to change his mind. PROUD PROUD PROUD. and I never once coaxed him to ride a second bull. I figured I was the lucky one in that deal.
    You paint a pretty good picture of Rodeo life and you really hit it on the nail for me and I’m sure a lot of guys. You didn’t talk about the dances (cowboy parties) We once kidnapped the entire band and held them with about $400 extra dollars to play till about 4am. lol One of the bull riders stole the drummers girl. lol and they actually run off together.. DAMNEDEST THING!

  8. Dale, I see what you mean about looking in a mirror when you read my life….

    I rode the RCA circuit, which (as you know; I’m putting this in for other readers) was later retitled as the PRCA. And yes, if your stepson was tough enough to try a bull AND smart enough not to go for seconds, that’s definitely a good thing.

    About the dances/parties: I didn’t talk about them because I wasn’t much involved. Most of the time, I was just trying to make a living and laid pretty low when it came to partying–in fact, I was on the wagon a lot of the time I was riding and frequently too broke to dare buy a beer anyway.

    With a couple of exceptions. Competed for a pretty cowgirl at a rodeo dance at Lewiston, Idaho, in 1963, beat out the current Canadian Bull Riding Champion for the right to take her “home” after the dance was over, and felt pretty good about that. Of course, he got me back right after; a couple of weeks later, I drove up to Kamloops to attend his bull riding school (figured he could help tune me up a bit, and he did). So bottom line at the end, I got a kiss or two from the cowgirl, but he got the cash from my pocket.

    Had a life changing (in a good way) fistfight with a local fellow at the State High School Rodeo in Conrad, Montana, circa 1960…but that happened AFTER the dance, so I’m not sure it counts.

    Hm…guess there are a few more “happenings” out there, now that I’m thinking about it. Might have to write up some of those someday…or maybe not. Some of them might be best left untold. Bottom line, though, the bull rider running off with the drummer’s girl doesn’t sound in the least surprising. Any pretty young thing who’s not nailed down is definitely at risk when the rodeo’s in town.

    Oh man, there’s a poem started. Look what you went and done!

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