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THE DANGEROUS LIFE
He hit the rodeo circuits in dead earnest as soon as he got out of the service. It was a dangerous and bruising life. In their quest for winning rides, good modern rodeo cowboys achieve effects such as were never attempted in the days of the Chisholm Trail. According to today's rodeo rules, a saddle bronc rider must spur his mount on both shoulders during the beast's first jump, thus abandoning, at the outset, any hope of gripping the animal with his legs. And if he rides to win he must spur continuously thereafter, from neck to flanks and back again.
A good "two-footed" rider (and there are probably fewer than 15 men who are complete masters of the art) steadies himself on a plunging, twisting horse only through his grip on the single rein, through the pressure of his spurs on the animal's side and through erratic contact with the swell and cantle of the saddle. The key to all this, of course, is balance?a delicate and vastly reckless talent for staying in perfect rhythm with the most violent brute for the 10 long seconds which comprise a rodeo ride. Since his score depends in part on the horse's performance, a bronc buster must pray for violent mounts. And although staying on the horse's back is elementary (if difficult) he must memorize the bucking patterns and the special tricks of hundreds of rodeo broncs.
Deb Copenhaver rode to win from the outset. "That man," says J. D. McKenna, a top rider himself, "doesn't ride any horse safe." In 1951 he was beaten in total prizes only by the fabulous Casey Tibbs, a handsome, black-haired, hard-drinking, Cadillac-loving Beau Geste of the rodeo circuits. He was a runner-up again in 1952 and 1953. This January Deb set off for Denver (which annually holds the first rodeo of the season) resolved to make 1954 Deb Copenhaver's year.
Many a cowboy rides the circuit just to savor the thrills, the quick money, the girls, the new towns, the gambling, the danger which the life provides. Copenhaver, a hard-faced, sober, pleasant little man rides to quit?to pay off on his 1,500-acre Idaho cattle ranch and get back to his wife and two children for good.
TAKE A JACKKNIFE
Between January and October he set a startling pace. He traveled 40,000 miles by automobile, 20,000 miles by plane, rode in 70 rodeos. At Union, Ore. a horse named Reckless Red slipped, fell, rolled completely over on him and then "tromped" him. He rode the same beast again 20 minutes later and won. He won at Salinas, Cheyenne, Phoenix and Fort Worth.
In three incredible days he rode a horse at Guymon, Okla. (where he won $131), drove with three other riders 1,500 miles to Saugus, Calif. (where he won $449) and drove 1,600 miles to Vernon, Tex. (where he won $38). He got ahead of Tibbs and stayed ahead. But at Puyallup, Wash. a few days before the "big one" at the Garden, his left leg caught between his mount and a pickup horse. His knee was so badly twisted that in a few hours he could not stand; in desperation he went to a doctor, who put a cast on his leg and told him to rest for three weeks.
"Well, I cut the cast off with my jackknife as soon as I got home," he says. "I never should have let him put it on?just did it because he seemed so anxious. It made my leg real stiff." He arrived in New York just able to hobble. "I don't see how I can ride," he muttered. But ride he did, twisted the knee again and finished out of the money. He consulted a Japanese physician, who injected it with hydrocortone?and made it feel even worse. For five days, despondent and tight-lipped, he tramped the streets in his high-heeled boots "to keep my leg loosened up" and went to three movies a day to pass the time. Tibbs, meanwhile, by flying between New York and rodeos in Omaha and Chicago, passed him, unofficially, in points.
But suddenly last week?apparently by virtue of natural toughness more than medication?his torn knee improved. He drew a black horse named Onyx, kicked him out of the chute and rode him high, wide and handsome while the band played and the thousands in the Garden galleries murmured and applauded. He was judged second. "I'll make it yet," he said. "I'm going to Chicago tonight, then back here, then Boston, then Detroit, then the Cow Palace in San Francisco. All I need is plenty of tough horses."