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That saddle is too loose," the teacher says. "I wouldn't ride a Shetland pony to water with a saddle that loose." The students cluster around the bucking chute, listening with studied cowboy nonchalance as Larry Mahan demonstrates the proper way to cinch a saddle. Inside, a bronc by the name of Slippery Sue stands as still as a sultry afternoon before a thunderstorm.
Mahan balances on the middle rung of the gate and leans over to untie the latigo from the D ring. "I'll get it done in a New York minute," he says. Slippery Sue's ears are laid flat back against her head, a sure sign of impending violence. On the other side of the chute, an aspiring 19-year-old bronc rider from Mount Laurel, N.J., who is having his saddle adjusted by the biggest name in rodeo, tries to take it all in.
Slippery Sue is one of a string of 80 bucking horses owned by a rodeo contractor in Arcadia, Fla. There are 35 bulls as well—Brahma and cross-bred—wandering among the palmettos. Larry Mahan's school (which after this go-round moves to Mesquite, Texas) provides instruction in the three riding events—bull, saddle bronc and bareback. A rodeo contractor, in this case Pat Hansel, supplies the stock for a share of the tuition. Cowboys respect these animals, honoring them as competitors and fellow athletes. They remember their names and how they buck, for each bronc or bull has his own distinctive pattern of moves. Mahan advises his students to keep a notebook and jot down what they recall after each ride. Should they draw the same animal in the future they'll know what to expect. Occasionally, when Mahan or Dennis Reiners, the 1970 world champion saddle bronc rider who is assisting Mahan, asks the chute man the names of the broncs, he gets reintroduced to an old opponent. Bad River is a horse on which Reiners placed sixth in Denver in 1969. And Larry Mahan remembers placing on Ridge Runner back in Vernon, Texas.
"Ninety-nine percent of what goes wrong is my fault," says young Phil Lyne, standing in the cool half-light of the indoor arena in Cardston, Alberta, facing the first rodeo school class he's ever taught. A coil of hemp rope is clamped under one arm. Above his head, barn swallows dart and glide between the rafters and the chattering birdsong never stops.
Phil Lyne's voice is pure Texas, and in his blue baseball cap, denim work shirt and jeans he could easily be the fellow down the road, except the fellow down the road probably wouldn't be wearing a golden belt buckle that says he was the Worlds Champion All Around Cowboy. Phil Lyne "won the World" two years in succession. He was champion calf roper both those years as well. These achievements are his credentials for teaching this calf-roping seminar and soon he will have his own school.
"You're a bulldogger, you've got to get tough, to get aggressive for this game." The teacher is on horseback. The students are on foot. Warren Wuthier's first warm-up exercise for novice steer wrestlers teaches the footwork required to bring 550 pounds of highly motivated T-bone to a standing stop from 35 mph.
The student, looking like a water skier minus the water and the skis, hangs on to a 3�-foot pole tied to a length of rope dallied around the horn of Warren Wuthier's saddle. The object is to be dragged down the arena, heels dug in and leaning back, and not end face-first in the dirt, plowing a furrow with your nose.
Wuthier dismounts to demonstrate the correct style: the pole held like a steer's horns, left hand gripping one end of the pole and the other end cradled in his right elbow. As he starts to slide he drops into a low crouch, feet forward, a position he maintains all the way to the back fence of the Cardston arena without getting his sweat shirt dirty.
Rodeo announcers always like to point out that Jim Gladstone's grandfather was the first Indian senator in Canada. A three-time Canadian calf-roping champion, Gladstone started his first rodeo school—for Indian boys—nine years ago with a government grant. Although his new indoor arena is located on the edge of the Blood Reserve in Alberta and the student roster is sprinkled with names like Leslie Tail Feathers, Jim Severalreed, Marvin Many Chief, Everett Eagle Plume, Brian Many Grey Horses and Leroy Heavy Runner, his school is no longer primarily for Indians.
Now billed as the World's Largest Rodeo College, Jim Gladstone's school offers all the events from barrel racing to bull riding. The faculty at any one time may include not only Warren Wuthier and Phil Lyne, but also world champions Joe Alexander, "Cody Bill" Smith and John Quintana. You'd have to go to Harvard or Berkeley to find another college with so many distinguished names on the payroll. In comparison, the Mahan school is largely a one-man show.