Bill Herbert was sweating bullets in his cowboy hat, his face bright red. The 2015 Cowboy’s Professional Rodeo Association saddle bronc champion was moments away from saddling up in front of a sold-out crowd at Cowtown Coliseum, in the heart of the Fort Worth Stockyards, Saturday night. He was waiting on the platform in front of his horse when it went apeshit. Standing up on hind legs, the horse almost climbed out of the stable and a few men couldn’t prevent it from facing the wrong direction. “You want to ride him like that?” a cowboy asked, and everyone laughed.
This had obviously happened before. Two men opened the stable slightly while another poked the horse in the face with a metal wire until it changed directions. The men had mastered the technique; they seemed bored doing it. Herbert was in the moment, concentrating on his extra wild horse, squatting to focus on the exact position he would be in when he got in that saddle. The horse hadn’t chilled out at all and was starting to slobber.
Herbert drove three-and-a-half hours to compete, and his wife, now standing in the dirt with their daughters, had just sung the national anthem. The 37-year-old got on the horse, the stable was opened and the horse went into beast mode. Herbert never had a chance. The horse jumped in circles, frantically whipping its back. Herbert was thrown, landed on the ground crouched into a perfect ball, and rolled out of harm's way. Having ridden the horse for only a few seconds, he failed to make it onto the scoreboard.
“Comes with the territory,” Herbert said afterwards, shrugging. “That was just a young horse.” He lives near Austin and has a full-time job working for the Texas Department of Transportation. But he still manages to compete in about a hundred events a year, mainly in Texas and Oklahoma. Herbert has been at it for 22 years and said there are less bronc riders now than ever. As a child, he went to every rodeo and learned how to compete in several events. But bronc riding was the most difficult. Herbert competed at another rodeo in Fort Worth the next day, before heading home.
Daryl McElroy’s long run as a bronc rider ended less than a year ago when he broke two bones in his back after taking a fall while competing. He was two millimeters away from a spinal cord injury and after a back surgery his doctor said he was done. But he quickly recovered and decided to stay involved by forming the Texas Bronc Riders Association (TBRA) and serving as president of the charity. This was their first rodeo and they will be partnering with other promoters and hosting their own events about every two weeks. They will have three-dozen events, ending with a September rodeo in Denton, where a winner will be crowned at the first annual competition.
Bronc riding isn’t as prevalent as it once was. If you can hold onto a bull or a bareback horse you can compete in other events right away at a very low cost. But bronc riding requires a style and finesse that only comes with experience. It also requires considerable investments, most notably a saddle that could range anywhere from $1,200 to $2,500. With TBRA, McElroy wants to help bring bronc riding back to prominence.
In some cases, the TBRA will ensure bronc riding is part of the competition at existing rodeos. If a rodeo already features it, TBRA can still get onboard and give bronc riders a chance to compete for two prizes. McElroy also plans to host events that will be focused solely on bronc riders. He has drawn a few champions to his first event and can only imagine what sort of talent a standalone showcase would draw.
But TBRA exists mainly to help kids. All the revenue from ticket sales, merchandise and membership fees will be donated to a college scholarship fund aimed at young bronc riders. “We don’t care where they go to college,” says McElroy, "as long as they get an education.” Recipients can seek whichever degrees they want and even use their winnings for technical schools.
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McElroy and his staff all volunteer their time for the charity. They are also working with a rodeo company to provide free bronc riding school for students 21 and under. McElroy expects to recruit champion bronc riders to aid as instructors. “We’re giving them an opportunity to learn from the best for free,” he says.
After pulling his groin in competition a couple weeks ago, 2015 Stockyard Championship Rodeo Saddle bronc rider Blane Stacy was unable to compete at Saturday night’s event. But he showed up with his saddle anyway to help with promotion, and he plans to be a TBRA instructor. Stacy managed to compete in 50 or 60 events a year for a while, but his career as an environmental scientist in Oklahoma has prevented him from competing so frequently.
He notices kids gravitating more toward bull riding these days. “Bull riding has more money and more places to learn and develop your craft,” Stacy says, “whereas the bronc riders don’t have that same opportunity.” He has been competing since 2009. But without access to training, he more or less learned by entering competitions.
Stacy sees bronc riding as an integral part of rodeo and the cowboy lifestyle in general. “That’s how rodeo got started,” he says. “A ranch would say they had a horse that nobody could ride. Across the valley, another ranch would have a cowboy who thought otherwise.” From there, exhibitions with the best riders and wildest horses began. It’s not unusual for a rodeo audience to be half made up of people who have never seen this sort of competition before. But these skills were common to everyday life just a hundred years ago.