When I climbed off that greyhound bus after three sleepless nights, my dreams of cowboying for a working ranch were quickly dashed. My contact, Ray who invited me west, was laid off at the ranch I was heading to. There were lots of other cattle ranches but a cowboy needed at least two horses, saddle and preferably experience. I had 80 bucks to my name.
So I ended up working for the town of Foremost Alberta. I did everything from grating roads, reading meters, repairing broken pipes to the towns one and only garbage man. It was a good job really. Especially Friday garbage collection, where I would drive the towns alleys emptying tin garbage cans into a dump truck. When it was full I’d drive to the edge of town, to a huge coulee and dump the load. After six or seven loads I’d be done and set the whole thing on fire. It was a great bonfire to watch and I had no boss on my case all day long.
Ray worked for the town also but just driving a grater all day out on the prairie roads. Also a great job. But, we both were cowboys at heart so while drinking beer in Max’s bar, the one and only bar in town, we decided that we would ride rodeo on the week-ends with the Sweetgrass circuit.
The circuit hit the locals towns, mostly in southern Alberta, and was made up of amateurs who all held other jobs, or not. Some were as good as any professional rodeo cowboy. Ray and I were not.
So my partner and I ( partner as in cowboy or cop, not the new kind) went out to visit with the Scots. The scots were three siblings, two brothers and a sister, Tom, goofy Gavin and Mary. They ran a sheep ranch with hundreds of Suffolk sheep. Their parents came out west from Scotland long ago and the three , while all in their 40’s, never left the farm. Tom was the oldest and the brains of the outfit, goofy Gavin was mostly labour and being quite simple minded , was mostly in the way. Mary took care of the boys as a mother would, cooking and keeping house. It was said they still had the first dollar they ever made, and had no plans on spending it.
The scots also had a chute and a couple of pretty good bucking horses. They agreed to let us practice riding, or rather, learn to ride, a bucking horse. In return we would work a few hours chasing sheep from one field to another or separating ewes from rams or whatever they needed us to do.
The first time out I mounted a big gray gelding who looked kind of lazy to me. Until Tom pulled open the chute gate. Don’t remember that first ride, only the part about getting back on my feet. A cowboy must ride for eight seconds before he can be scored. Toms wrist watch didn’t record tenths of a second so we don’t know exactly how long I was aboard. Ray clocked about two second before he was bucked off.
We did this for three week-ends in a row and while we never stayed on for more than three or four seconds our confidence was soaring. And the scots got a lot of free labour.
When the rodeo came to Foremost we felt as ready as we’d ever be. We went to the rodeo ground the day before to register, which would be free for town boys. I signed up for one ride only on Saturday. These horses were from the Shade brother’s ranch and were the real McCoy, they loved their work and were the best bucking stock in Southern Alberta. Many of the Shade brother stock went to the Calgary stampede and only the very best made that rodeo.
I felt that by signing up for just one go around and skipping the Sunday ride I could get good and drunk in the bar Saturday night, if I lived. A cowboy never drank the night before the ride so Ray and wanted to kick it up in the bar as it would be one hell of a party on rodeo week-end.
To my surprise, at the last minute, Ray signed up for bull riding. He had never been on a bull. Bareback bronc riding was dangerous enough, I still bear the pains and scars to prove that, but a horse will always try to avoid stepping on a fallen cowboy ,bulls, well, they wanted to kill you if they could. I told him was crazy. He mentioned how the girls loved rodeo cowboys (that was always a tiny motivation of mine as well) but they adored bull riders. I agreed with Ray, but noted that they didn’t pay much attention to the dead ones. He was determined, made up his mind, so that was that.
That Saturday after a traditional parade the crowd filled the bleachers. They were cowboys from all over , even from Saskatoon. A lot of semi pros and some just tough hombres, then there was Ray and I. I pulled number six out of a hat, it was a ornery bay mare named Rocking Chair, that had more white in her eyes than eyeball. She was skinny, naturally skinny, not under fed. These stock guys took the best of care with their broncs and bulls. I knew I was climbing onto a box of dynamite.
She kept banging around in the chute smashing my knees against the metal pipes, I could hardly wait to give the nod to open the gate, I was in pain already and the ride hadn’t started.
I’m not to proud to say that I was scared, I was shaking like a dog shitting razor blades. I could hear Ray shouting encouragement and another friend, biker Gerald hollering that he would send flowers to the funeral home.
I nodded, the gate was pulled open and that mare came out running. Which is the worst thing that can happen. Both the riders feet must be on the horses shoulders until the first jump or no score. That mare covered half the paddock before she started to buck. But, did she buck. It was pretty much a blur but I do remember somehow ending up with both feet on the same side of the horse. I hung on and even tried to spur to gather a few more points. Of course riding like the Queen of England wasn’t going to get me anything but a lot of laughs. In a flash I was under her belly and somehow still hanging on. The crowd loved it. I’m told they were cheering and laughing and laughing and laughing.
Inevitably I was bucked off. I felt like I’d fallen in a giant food processor. The crown roared again when I looked up at the scoreboard expecting to see something. While it seemed like I rode that mare for at least five minutes, the entire ride ( if you would dare call it that) was three seconds. I was ecstatic, it was a personal best.
I was still on a high, getting pats on the back and lots of thumbs up from the other contestants when it was Rays turn. You get the respect from other cowboys for just getting on, time don’t matter.
Ray drew a huge Brahma bull named Grave digger. The other bull riders were helping him rig up when he almost fainted from fear. He turned ghostly white. I was slapping his face and telling him to pull it together. Seconds before it was his turn he came alive. He nodded and the gate flew open. Ray didn’t really know how to rig up properly and didn’t put enough rosin on his clove to help keep his hand closed so after the first buck Ray was thrown clear and landed on his feet. He stood there frozen ,watching the Brahma kicking and spinning and then, in a rage, turn towards him. Several bull fighters ( rodeo clowns) picked him up and for a laugh tossed him over the fence back into the chutes. The bleachers were shaking from the thunderous cheers.
We were the town heroes that night at Max’s bar. Couldn’t pay for a beer if we wanted to. We had the respect of the cowboys , the envoy of the local boys, and bragging rights that would last for a year.
Ray and I rode several more area rodeos that season. Ray broke two ribs and lost a few teeth. I also broke a few ribs and always felt as though my head would fall off at any moment. My neck still hurts to this day. We did our thing, had some fun, had a short heroes life and then wisely moved on. We decided to leave the rodeo sport to those that are just a little more crazier than we were.
Ray and I decided to chase after some ghosts that were haunting a long ago abandon homestead on the prairie. I’ll tell you all about that adventure on my next blog. Thanks for reading.
Remember friends, keep the faith, it gets better, it always does.