Rodeo Roots: Saddle bronc riding

John Jordan on Strawberry Roan, 1941. Photo: J.A. Stryker

Saddle bronc riding is a "roughstock" event, both rider and horse are judged. Many cowboys will tell you that Saddle bronc riding is the toughest event in rodeo. I believe that to be the case as well. The technical skills are hard to master. The rider must mark out his horse on the first jump from the chute. To score requires strength, style, grace and precise timing. To score well? Rider and mount must be 100% at odds with each other... yet each must leave the arena a winner. It is the classic rodeo event.

The Saddle bronc riding event as we know it today evolved from "busting"... old timer cowboy slang for breaking and training wild horses to work the cattle ranches in the Old West. It was hard and dangerous work.
"You know if you get a name for doing something they will always put you on it. It's like these fellows that don't mind riding broncs. Once it get known that they're willing to do it, if there's a mean horse in the outfit they'll get him in their string every time. I was good at wrastling calves even if I was small, so I'd always get the job. But I didn't like to ride broncs - said I was afriad of them. Well, I was. Lots of them were the same way. No good cowhand would work on a horse that was going to go to bucking with him in the middle of the herd. A green horse was all right for a long ride. But not when you were working with cattle."
- Teddy Blue Abbot

A cowboy who broke horses was a "buster". A specialist, he traveled from ranch to ranch every spring, breaking and training horses. Usually for $5.00 a head. The "busted" horses were destined to become cow ponies. A cowboy's livelihood and his life depended on his string of horses, the cow ponies in his string were the most important tool he had when working cattle.

One cowboy who didn't "mind riding broncs" was Lee Warren. Photographer and journalist L.A. Huffman captured Warren working the round corral on the Box and Arrow Ranch in Montana. The year was 1904.

"While we waited for the horses, Warren took stock of his outfit. Just a plain, ordinary, cow-saddle, bridle, and lariat, spurs, quirt, and some short pieces of grass rope for the cross-hobbing... The big gate is swung open, and the day's work is corralled. An inner gate swings, another swift rush and the six beautiful beasts are bunched, snorting and trembling, in the round corral..."
- L.A. Huffman

The Flying Noose Falls True, c.1904. Collotype. L.A. Huffman

After roping a bronc, Warren would bridle his catch. Next came a saddle blanket, then a forty-pound cow-saddle, Warren's slicker rolled under the pommel.

The First Pull at the Latigo, c.1904. Collotype. L.A. Huffman

Twisting the bronc's ear, Warren would mount the bronc. Eight hundred pounds of horse flesh and muscle ready to go off like dynamite, still for for the moment...

The Ear Twist, c.1904. Collotype. L.A. Huffman

Set in his saddle and ready, slicker for hazing in his right hand, Warren would grasp the rein in his left hand while releasing the bronc's ear. Then all hell broke loose.

Bucking Broncho, c.1904. Collotype. L.A. Huffman
"... one or two quick, short, nervous steps he discovers that his legs are once more unshackled. Up he goes in a long curving leap like a buck. Down goes his head, and he blats that indescribable bawl that only thoroughly maddened, terrified bronchos can fetch, something uncanny, something between a scream and a groan, that rasps the nerves and starts the chill hunted feeling working on your spine... as round and round he leaps, reined hard, now right, now left, by his rider. Again and again, he goes high, with hind feet drawn under, as if reaching for the stirrups. Fore-legs thrust forward, stiff as crowbars, driving hoofprints in the packed earth, like mauls as, as he lands; yet light and tight, seeming never to catch the brunt of the jolts, sits his rider."
- L.A. Huffman

The quirt. The spurs. The slicker for hazing. They were the ools that gave the cowboy an edge. But it was grit and mettle that prevailed in the end and the cowboy almost always won out. And the beautiful beasts that refused to be broken? They were called Outlaws and Killers. Cowboys from near and far tried to ride them for eight seconds at ranch rodeos... few met with success.

Bucked Off, c.1890. Photograph. L.A. Huffman

Cowboys today continue to break horses much the same as Lee Warren did in 1904. The outlaw horses are called roughstock now.
They will test the most able cowboy's grit... in the round corral and in the rodeo arena. Some things remain the same... as it should be.

We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher. E.C. Abbott And Helena Huntington Smith. Farrar & Rinehart, Inc, 1939
Before Barbed Wire: L.A. Huffman, Photographer on Horseback. Mark H. Brown and W.R. Felton. NY: Henry Holt and Co., 1956

Collotypes & Photographs: Collection J. Davis