A good, tough fighting bronco is likely to be born, not made, and the odd thing about him is that the meaner and more murderous he is, the higher the esteem in which he is held by the cowboy who rides him, the stock contractor that owns him, and the audience that watches him battle his way around an arena.
He is not only thoroughly bad-mannered but he frequently is ugly, and as if this were not enough, his background is indescribably confused. His ancestry may combine the blood of round-haunched Percherons and ponderous Clydesdales; bony, snake-eyed Indian mares; neat little Texas-bred cow-pony types; Shetland ponies; and Thoroughbred stallions. As a type, he emerged late in the 19th century, when farm horses were introduced to the unfenced ranges of the West and all sorts of mismatches were made, mostly at the discretion of the horses.
In the past a bronco sometimes bucked because of the judicious use of stimulants like tabasco under the tail, a burr under the saddle or an electric buzzer, and here and there, perhaps, such practices are still in use, though the ASPCA, with the help of rodeo officials, has almost eliminated them. But a really good bronc will also buck because that is what he has in him. He is encouraged in it, having shown an aptitude for it, and such a one is like the good old trouper who always puts on an exciting show. Even great riders like Casey Tibbs or Deb Copenhaver look inept if they draw horses that just crowhop around the arena; the next cowboy may be less skilled, but if he draws a horse that turns itself inside out and jars a few teeth loose, he can take it all.
When Midnight, generally regarded as the toughest of them all, died in 1936, his funeral was attended by 300 mourning cowboys, most of whom he had laid low at one time or another (SI, Aug. 1, 1955). Bill Linderman, three-time Ail-Around Cowboy Champion, says: "There are some of those old bucking horses that the boys really love. Why? Because a contestant can't win on a bronc that does nothing...The rougher he is, the better—they're the ones we look for."
Since a big-time contractor like the Cremer Rodeo Co. or Everett Colborn or Elliott and Beutler must keep at least 250 head of the magnificent misfits on hand, a determined search is made each year for replacements, usually in Canada or Montana, where the cold winters "put the hell into them," as they say, and there's enough range to give a horse independent ideas.
Most of the great broncs get into the game as spoiled horses, not as wild ones. They don't buck out of panic and desperation like the wild horse. They know man and seem to have a contempt for him. This is what makes them dependable in their awful way.
Strangest of the broncos' many quirks is the fact that they may spend several well-behaved years before doing the Jekyll-Hyde switch that lands them in rodeo. Then "something happens." Nobody ever seems to know just what—"maybe only a tumbleweed blowing across the road." But when it does happen, it leaves some cowboy or farmhand nursing broken bones and marks the debut of another rodeo horse.
DOBBINS WITH DYNAMITE
The great Midnight was foaled near Medicine Hat, Alberta before the start of World War I and is thought to have been a mixture of Thoroughbred and Percheron. The legend is that a schoolmarm rode him to school all one winter when he was a 4-year-old. Next year he changed his mind and bucked her off and from then on until his death 20-odd years later, he was ridden perhaps half a dozen times.
Hell's Angel, the long-unridden star of the Colborn string in the late '30s and early '40s, started out as a saddle horse in Idaho. Miss Klamath was ridden and even packed on for several years by an eastern Oregon rancher before the eruption of the inevitable "something." The Christensen brothers, her owners, are still doing a war dance because she bucked off Casey Tibbs last spring. The Black Hills rodeo producer, Harley Roth, had a horse that began its career by wrecking a mower on a South Dakota farm, because "the blade hit a rock, or maybe a snake scared him." Another one of his was an ex-dude horse that suddenly exploded under a 16-year-old boy after the latter had been riding him all summer.