Much has been written about the indefatigable daring of men and women who ride bucking broncos and bulls at rodeos (at the same time questioning their sanity!). But bronc “busters” would be nothing without their animal partners, the bucking horses and bulls they try to ride. These animals are true athletes, having distinguished themselves for their extraordinary ability to twist, turn, rear, buck, twist, leap, snap, tear, and wrench their bodies in an effort to unseat the annoying load on their back. Indeed, it’s been noted that many of these beasts understand completely the “drill.” Some are gentle outside the arena, even affectionate, but when they get in the chute, they are ready for action, shapeshifting from docile to deadly in a split second.
And they are smart. Out in the ring, they can calculate the violent geometry of their strength against the rider, his or her weakness, how a sharp move here, there, up, down, will rip the rider from their back. And they are practiced in the moves that best do that. Some horses and bulls are twisters, some buckers, some “suck back” (meaning they buck in one direction, then instantly switch to the other direction), some are “sunfishers” (buck with all four legs extended out the sides), others do “trash” (totally unpredictable, no set patterns and often hard to ride). And many know exactly when their job is done. “Union animals” stop bucking as soon as they hear the 8-second whistle!
Just like humans, they have personalities. Hollywood Hills, a champion bay bucker with a big blaze who weighs 1,300 pounds, is a big teddy bear in the corral and comes up to be scratched behind the ears. Killer Bee, a light-colored sorrel mare up in age is a champion who bucks off the most winningest riders, but she’s a cupcake otherwise. And Ninety-Proof, a champion monster black bull who weighs nearly a ton, with a mottled face and straight menacing horns, is a friendly sort when not in the ring.
There are other broncs and bulls who remain unfriendly (and we can hardly blame them!) in or out of the arena. “Fighting bulls,” “chute fighters,” or “snorties” don’t care for humans. “Head hunters” and “slingers” will attack a rider once they’ve been thrown.
Good bucking animals are highly valued and loved. A great bucking bronc (horse) or bull can sell for well over $100,000. So they are like gold to rodeos. And their care and health are tended to assiduously for, like any athlete, if they are sick or sore they cannot perform to their full potential. (Granted, NFTF won’t shy away from the truth that certainly some animals may be abused or neglected, as in any area where animals are involved. A tragic fact: some humans just can’t be trusted... But reputable rodeos care for and value their stock.)
Another area that is hard to talk about: what happens to bucking stock once they are “aged out” or injured. Tragically, many end up in “kill pens,” just like discarded racehorses. Some bulls, stallions, and mares are used for breeding stock and pass down their extraordinary bucking genes to their progeny. And some caring and generous humans provide bucking animals who have no value beyond their bucking days tranquil retirement years in green pastures.
There is, too, a special place—a graveyard for four-legged rodeo stars—where elite bucking broncos and bulls are buried and honored. It is befitting that this special place—18 acres of a grassy animal cemetery—is located at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum (formerly the Cowboy Hall of Fame) in Oklahoma City. Dotting the serene landscape of green carpeted grass and leafy trees are tombstones of great bulls, horses, and even roping horses and a longhorn. Throughout the cemetery are bronze statues of iconic western tableau, the centerpiece a huge metal work of Buffalo bill on a rearing horse, his rifle aimed to the sky. At the entrance is a life-size replica of Frederic Remington’s amazing sculpture, “Coming Through the Rye,” of four mounted cowboys whooping it up on their galloping horses, shooting at the air in drunken revelry.
The dramatic names on the gravestones of the bulls and equine broncos echo their spectacular lives as feared gladiators in the ring: Hell’s Angel, Tornado, Again the Reaper, menacing-sounding “Malice.”
There’s the great Midnight, known for his amazing athleticism, a horse who could kick up his heels so high he was vertical to the ground and no cowboy could stay on him. There is Five Minutes to Midnight, another great bucking horse who was often mistaken for Midnight. Five Minutes to Midnight began his life with the name “Tumbling Mustard.” Strange, because he was black... Although he was smaller, his twists and plunges led many spectators to confuse him with the renowned bronc of the day, Midnight. When they asked, “Is that Midnight?,” the answer was “Darn close to it!” Thus he got his moniker, Five Minutes To Midnight!
There’s the famed bulldogger (a horse that runs along a steer for the rider to leap off and wrestle the steer to the ground), a Quarter Horse named Baby Doll Combs. She was originally buried at her owner’s ranch in a huge funeral covered by Life magazine. There’s Poker Chip, the loved roping horse, and Steamboat, the bucking bronco who puffed like a steam engine when he bucked and who became the prototype for the bucking horse symbol on Wyoming license plates.
There’s Abilene, or “Abi,” a giant 2,100-pound Texas Longhorn given to the museum in 1967 by an Oklahoma businessman. Abi became the museum’s mascot and appeared in parades, rodeos and other events, mesmerizing audiences. The Longhorn’s gravestone reads: “Abilene’s magnificent size and appearance made him a tremendous public relations ambassador.”
And there’s Tornado, a legendary bull in the rodeo world, who unseated hundreds of cowboys until one named Freckles Brown finally rode him the full eight seconds to a national championship. He was the only one to ever do it!
Tornado’s plaque reads: “Red with a white face, he was a crossbred bull—half Brahma, half Hereford. Some say he was the best rodeo bucking bull that ever lived. Unridden in six competitive seasons, Tornado bucked off 220 professional cowboys, all victims of that storm of turbulence for which he was named.”
No matter how many times bronco-busters were hurtled to the ground, trampled, or otherwise savaged by their four-legged adversaries in the arena, they have a soft spot in their hearts for the surly beasts. The National Champion rider Freckles Brown—the only cowboy to successfully ride Tornado—is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Oklahoma, 150 miles away from the bull’s grave. But his cowboy heart is one with the monster bull’s; Tornado's visage is etched on his gravestone.
The famous jet-black, bucking phenom, Midnight, is buried there too. About three years after retirement, Midnight died on November 5, 1936, at the Denver Rodeo. He was believed to be around 20 years old, very senior for an equine rodeo athlete. He was first buried on the McCarty-Elliott Ranch in Johnstown, Colorado, but was then reinterred the Cowboy Hall of Fame cemetery. His gravestone reads: "Underneath this sod lies a great bucking horse. There never lived a cowboy he couldn't toss. His name was Midnight, his coat as black as coal. If there is a hoss-heaven, God please, rest his soul."
For related posts, see:
-The Saga of Jackson Sundown
-For the Love of Horses (& Mules!)
-In Praise of Oxen
-The Most Famous Mustang in America
-Hollywood’s Greatest Trick Horse
©2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER