What makes an outstanding bucking horse is a combination of the build to buck, the disposition to buck, and something that may as well be called technique. The lingo is full of expressions like "he fades away from the rein"; "bucks them off with his head"; "falls apart under them." "Bucking them off with his head" means that a horse can either "take the rein away" from the rider by sinking his head or else can throw him off balance by raising it and giving him too much slack. Either way, chances are he'll fling his man skyward and score one for the happy producer.
Rodeo lore is full of strange equine split-personality cases, like somebody's old Dobbin who ended up in the arena because of kids cracking nuts on the saddle horn on the way to school. Yet anybody could still ride him bareback any time. There reportedly have been broncos who could be ridden around the alleys at the rodeo grounds the morning before a performance and bucked in the afternoon.
In the view of Shirley Hussey, chute boss for the Cremer Rodeo Co., and one of the most skilled hands in the business with these temperamental animals, it doesn't take meanness to buck well, merely what he calls "a determined disposition." Although perhaps half the horses in an average bucking string will bite and strike and all are a bit touchy around the hindquarters, Hussey has known more gentle horses that bucked greatly than vicious ones; perhaps, he thinks, because they don't waste energy on side issues. One of the great buckers of the past two decades was a big, even-tempered black named Home Brew, who was featured for many years by Everett Colborn. Hussey was riding broncs at the time and went to New York with the horse every fall. Home Brew was pitching the best of them into the tanbark so regularly that he was saved for the last horse out at Madison Square Garden whenever he was on the program. Yet when Hussey had all the saddle broncs lined up in the chutes waiting for his turn, he would swing open the inner gate and drop down on the big fellow's back, to sit comfortably until time for the bronc riding to begin.
"He never hurt anybody," Hussey says fondly. "If he bucked a guy off over his head he'd land short on the next jump to keep from stepping on him."
Hussey, also one of the great bronco scouts in the business, grew up with horses on his father's ranch in eastern Washington. For five summers, 1946 through 1950, he went scouting for good bucking horses in northern Alberta. He and his wife, Nora, visited farms and ranches, tracking down every report of a horse that was throwing the local cowboys. Once they came upon three big buckskin geldings later known to fame as Gold Pheasant, Gold Nugget and Vitalis—all said to have been sired by a Shetland pony stallion out of Clydesdale mares! Gold Pheasant, after five years, is still star of the Cremer string.
Hussey's favorite hunting ground was the Red Deer River country, where cattle, cowboys and small rodeos flourished. The discovery of a star bucking horse in this remote country one summer is typical of the flukes of such talent scouting. A cowboy who acted as local liaison for Hussey mentioned one day: "My daddy-in-law's got an old fat horse he thinks can buck."
They drove out to the farm to have a look. After having pulled a plow for seven or eight years, the horse was semiretired at the age of 11, and the pet of the farmer's wife who kept referring to him as "dear old Roy." At first, the horse looked unimpressive, but then Hussey saw what he was looking for in the big, ugly head and that indescribable glint in the eye—"I can't tell you what it is, but I could show you." So he bought him, and "dear old Roy," rechristened Fiddleface, became one of Cremer's most formidable horses. He's still going strong despite old age and partial blindness.
NEXT YEAR'S BRONCOS
The big problem for everybody in the rodeo business is next year's broncos, for all over the West, work horses, good or bad, are disappearing. By the tens of thousands a year they are swallowed up by the dog-meat canneries which claim all old and unwanted horses today. The story is told by the statistics of the annual bucking-horse sale in Miles City, Montana: 1,272 head of bucking-horse prospects were put up for auction in 1951; 824 head in 1952; 449 in 1953; 266 in 1954. This year only 258 "collector's items" appeared, but the Cremer firm offered an additional 150 bred specifically as buckers.
Ten years ago a producer could start from scratch and build his own bucking string if he knew where to find them. Today he has to buy someone else out. As for the future, it depends on which producer you're talking to. The Christensen brothers, for example, are content as long as Oregon ranchers and Indians can furnish them with a supply of potential Miss Klamaths. The gloomier Hussey feels that modern mass civilization and the bucking horse aren't going to mix, as economic pressure remorselessly shrinks his breeding grounds.