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Riding high on a bull market
Giles Tippette
February 11, 1974
Wall Street's thundering herd is tame in comparison with the outlaw, ornery bulls and broncs that crisscross America for Stock Contractor Tommy Steiner, kicking up heels and all kinds of hell on the rodeo circuit
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February 11, 1974

Riding High On A Bull Market

Wall Street's thundering herd is tame in comparison with the outlaw, ornery bulls and broncs that crisscross America for Stock Contractor Tommy Steiner, kicking up heels and all kinds of hell on the rodeo circuit

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Over in a small catch pen near the bucking chutes, bull No. 73 stood calmly, his head lowered, his jaw working on a cud. He was an old bull in his sixth season of rodeo, and he stood quietly, his only movement the slow switching of his tail and the oscillation of his jaw. The rodeo arena was empty and still, and the old bull instinctively knew that he wouldn't be wanted for several hours. It was not so with a pen of young bulls just over from No. 73. They milled about restlessly, shoving each other, working their horns against a handy side, pawing the earth. They were rookies just brought up from Tommy Steiner's ranch outside of Austin, Texas. Tommy Steiner is a rodeo stock contractor and No. 73, like all the other animals to be used at this rodeo in Waco, belonged to him.

No. 73 was a brindle Brahma, weighing almost 1,600 pounds. There were bulges and ripples of muscle under his sheen smooth coat. He appeared to be what he was, a well-conditioned athlete showing the effects of proper care and treatment. But there was almost a prehistoric cast to his huge face and the heavy blunt horns that curved sharply upward from each side of his massive head. With his eyes half closed he looked gentle and docile, but in a matter of hours he would be going one-on-one with the cowboy who had drawn him in the bull riding that night. Then, out there in the arena, he wouldn't seem so gentle. He would seem like what he was—big-time professional rodeo stock.

Outside the arena Tommy Steiner and his chute boss, John Farris, were walking down a long line of holding pens. Some of the pens held more bulls, but others contained bucking horses, both saddle broncs and bareback horses. Steiner was worrying about the mud in the pens. "Look at that stuff, John," he said. "That's no good." The mud was six inches deep and the stock was splashed and daubed with it. Steiner was worrying that standing around in the muck for long periods of time would drain the strength out of his animals, wear them down, like walking through water would a man. "We've got to get them out of this," he told Farris. "At least the ones that will be up tomorrow night. Give them 24 hours to rest."

For this rodeo, Steiner had shipped in 80 bulls, 40 saddle broncs, 40 bareback horses and a couple of hundred dogging steers and roping calves. The bulls were a problem because so many cowboys had entered the bull riding. Normally he only had to have 12 ready each night. But because of the heavy load of entrants, he was going to have to do some juggling. He never liked to buck any of his stock with less than three days' rest. Tonight, however, he would have to contest 45 bulls, forcing him to utilize some relatively inexperienced stock he would not ordinarily put in a big-time rodeo such as Waco. This was of particular concern to Steiner because, though he is one of the top stock contractors in the country, he is best known for his fine string of bucking bulls—just like a pro football team might be known for excellent linebackers or receivers. His reputation wasn't on the line at every performance, but he did not like to put unproven stock in the arena. You never could tell what a green animal might do.

"I guess you might consider me and my stock the visiting team," he said. "That's about the way it feels, anyway. We are always on the road, always playing a strange arena. And the crowd is always pulling for the cowboys—just like in Dallas." He looked around at the muddy holding pens. "We even get the visitors' dressing room."

Bucking stock is fed a special high protein diet, trailered and hauled with care from show to show and given the amounts of rest and exercise that an athlete deserves. A bull, for instance, is fed about 20 pounds of supplemented grain a day, a carefully prepared formula that varies depending upon the season and the schedule the bull is working. Steiner finds that some of his stock bucks best with three days rest; other animals need four. "Of course you keep your stock in shape," he said. "In the first place bucking stock costs a lot of money. I guess I got upward of $300,000 invested in it. But mainly you keep them at their best because bucking is hard, demanding work. You don't want the cowboys riding everything you throw at them."

No one really knows what makes a bull or bronc buck and buck consistently and dependably. It is not necessarily just an outlaw streak in an animal, because some bucking stock is as gentle and handles as nicely as you could want—except for the eight or 10 seconds that the contest with the cowboy lasts. They will stand quietly in the bucking chute, permit the cowboy to get down on them with no trouble, suffer the rigging and flank strap to be cinched, then explode as the chute gate opens, buck hard until the whistle blows, and then settle back to the docility of a milk cow.

Nor is this quality necessarily hereditary, as speed is in racehorses. Occasionally a bucking stallion will produce a short line of offspring that can make it in rodeo, but this is a rare occurrence. Steiner says, "There is no reason for it to be hereditary, any more than a guy is able to pitch a baseball because his father could. I don't know what it is myself. I only know when I find a good bull he's worth plenty of money to me."

Steiner finds his stock in a variety of ways. One method is the occasional bucking stock sales that are held around the country. These, however, operate like the waiver system used in professional football. No team is offering its best players and if any quality is to be found it is in unrecognized talent that a keen eye detects. "If a man can find one good bull or bronc at one of those sales he's done a day's work," Steiner says. "You know nobody is bringing their best stock, despite the lies they tell. You've got to look for something nobody else sees. You notice a bronc that ought to buck but doesn't for some reason. Maybe he has never been put in the chute right; or maybe he needs the flank girth a little forward. Some little something."

Steiner scouts the small amateur and independent rodeos that are held across the country almost any weekend night. "I don't get to as many of these as I should, but I've got people on the lookout. Friends of mine. Or a producer of one of these shows might bring me something. Of course, he'll have a real big idea about what the animal's worth."

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