A bareback rigging is a simple slab of leather and rawhide that fits over the horse's withers. It must be no more than 10 inches wide at the hand-hold, which looks something like a suitcase handle. Bits of resin are usually crushed into the handle with the leather glove worn during rides, and I worked on this with the zeal of a kid trying to form a pocket in a new baseball mitt. The most invigorating step in preparation, however, was cinching the rigging to the horse in the chute. That was when the adrenaline began to flow.
Randy loaned me his rigging for my first ride and instructed me in its use in his backyard. He fastened it to a bale of hay, which I mounted gingerly as he explained the proper spurring technique. The spurs must remain above the shoulder of the horse through his first jump out of the chute or the rider is disqualified. Once out, the object is to determine the horse's bucking rhythm and attempt to harmonize with it a spurring motion along the shoulders which, when properly executed, is similar to a snappy breaststroke kick in swimming.
Such movement is contrary to an instinctive leg-lock on the horse's ribs, and I found it difficult to spur even Randy's hay bale properly, let alone a feisty horse with a repertoire of jumps, dips and turns. Nevertheless, I practiced conscientiously, knowing that control and rhythmic spurring were essential if I were to score well on a ride. What I overlooked was that to score at all required staying on the animal for a full eight seconds. That first ride, however, quickly reordered my priorities.
My informal initiation into bareback riding was arranged with a stockman named Ralph, who had recently acquired a spoiled saddle horse and was eager to see if he was worthy of adding to a bucking string. Ralph was a tobacco-chewing, dusty-clothed, droop-hatted piece of gristle who would have made a splendid extra in a spaghetti Western except for his folksy demeanor.
We met at an arena near Fort Collins where a calf-roping jackpot was underway, and Ralph was leading an indifferent brown-and-white paint when Randy introduced us. Despite the horse's docile appearance and unusual tolerance of humans, Ralph guaranteed that the animal was a bucker.
When Randy inquired about the horse's bucking pattern, however, Ralph's reply was rather vague. He hadn't actually seen the horse buck but had heard good things about it and intended to use that afternoon's performance as the inspiration for naming the animal. All he could tell us for certain was that the horse had a reputation as a spinner. Mindful that I was a beginner, Ralph warned me not to dawdle if I was thrown into "the well," the turf around which the horse spins. I told him he needn't worry.
The horse was quiet in the chute and easily rigged, but my anticipation furnished all the excitement necessary. Randy peppered me with last-minute instructions as I finally lowered myself onto the animal. Although I had always been uneasy around horses, I felt strangely comfortable in the chute. Perhaps it was because I knew this horse couldn't race off toward a canopy of low-hanging branches to strip me from its back—an amusement our family's horse perfected on our rides in the mountains.
Mouth dry and heart pounding, I fitted my glove hand around the handle of the rigging, carefully locking my thumb tightly over the tips of my fingers. I raised my boots to the horse's shoulder height, bracing my legs on the chute. The horse remained tranquil. I nodded to Ralph and said "Outside," the cowboy equivalent of "Play ball," and the chute gate swung open. The horse hesitated, but when I brought my spurs to his shoulders, he exploded. The surge of power underneath me was unlike anything I had ever experienced. To recall it gives me chills. At that instant, everything I had tried to memorize about technique evaporated from my mind.
The horse moved straight out with a couple of jumps, then went into a spin. I hung on for maybe four or five seconds before I was thrown. I scampered away feeling electric, as if my blood had been charged with exhilaration. But for the few people present and the cowboys taking a break from their roping jackpot, my adventure hardly merited a shrug.
As for Paradise Ranch, it blended ragged showmanship with a modest but enthusiastic audience, which I suspect gathered more out of curiosity than real interest. Because the arena was located directly next to Highway 24, the Paradise Ranch rodeo provided a convenient and inexpensive detour for those hankering for a taste of the Old West. My parents attended for a different reason. They were eager to see their son, whom they'd seen only at the mercy of the family horse, riding a bucker. For the benefit of the other family skeptics not present, my father was to verify my tales as a bareback rider with his movie camera.