This biography puts readers in the saddle to experience the life of a champion rider in his quest for the gold buckle. Drawing on interviews with Smith and his family and friends, Margot Kahn recreates the days in the late 1960s and early 1970s when rodeo first became a major sports enterprise. She captures the realities of that world: winning enough money to get to the next competition, and competing even when in pain. She also tells how, in his career’s second phase, Smith married cowgirl Carole O’Rourke and went into business raising horses, gaining notoriety for his gentle hand with animals and winning acclaim for his and Carole’s Circle 7 brand.
Inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1979 and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2000, Smith was a legend in his own time. His story is a genuine slice of rodeo life—a life of magic for those good enough to win. This book will delight rodeo and cowboy enthusiasts alike.
About the Author
Margot Kahn spent seven years attending rodeos and interviewing and riding with Bill and Carole Smith at their ranch near Thermopolis, Wyoming. She is a graduate of Bates College and Columbia University's MFA program in nonfiction, and was the recipient of the Ohioana Library Association's Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant for a promising young writer in 2005. She lives in Seattle.
Read an Excerpt
Horses That Buck
The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith
By Margot Kahn
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2008 Margot Kahn
All rights reserved.
All That Ever Mattered
On a hot, dry day in June 2002, at the age of sixty-one, Bill Smith rode across a high pasture in southeastern Wyoming with a string of young cowboys and me behind him. The cowboys sang songs and told jokes, gesturing gently with their hands, holding their reins loosely so they draped in soft arcs to the horses' mouths. Seventy thousand acres surrounded us in patches of dusty gold and sage. In the distance, a hundred head of Angus and Charolais speckled the plain. The cowboys had been riding all day, running for miles at a stretch, racing and playing grab-ass, trying to get one another bucked off. The horses were green, two-year-olds being ridden for the first time. At week's end, the horses would be returned to pasture until the fall, when they would be sold. Having been ridden and trained to accept a halter, bridle, saddle, and rider, they would command a premium at auction. The buyers would be horsemen, dude ranch owners, gentlemen farmers, and East Coast bankers who fancied a ride in the woods on Sunday.
We crossed the plain like a band of disorderly cavalry, and above us the clouds scattered across the sky as if they were blown out along a sheet of glass, all hovering, flat-bottomed, at the same altitude. It was Tuesday, or perhaps Wednesday; no one was keeping track. The cattle that dotted the dry pasture brought no real money; they barely paid for their own feed in a good hay year, and cost money in a bad one. The colts would bring around $1,500 each, just slightly more than the cost of raising them. The boys were working for free for the privilege of riding with Bill Smith. They considered it their summer vacation—room and board in exchange for eight hours of work a day. When the week was up, they would go back to shoeing horses, riding the rodeo circuit, or studying agriculture at one of Wyoming's community colleges. Bill would go back to his ranch, where he would focus on his own herd of horses.
As we rode, Bill looked around. He stacked his hands one on top of the other on the saddle horn. "I wonder what the poor people are doing today," he said to the horses, to the sky, to his brother, and to the young boys who were following reverently in their footsteps. The boys shrugged and snickered and rode on. The only one among them who wasn't poor was the man who owned the land, and he had made his millions investing family money in the stock market. But riding across this pasture on a weekday, they all considered themselves rich. They—the men and boys who live in double-wide trailers or out of their pickup trucks or in employers' bunkhouses—think anyone with an office job, a shift boss, or a time sheet is poor. It's the worst kind of life they can imagine.
Bill Smith is the first to admit that a man can't make a living as a cowboy anymore. But in the same breath he will declare that people will always want horses, that there will always be a market for horses no matter how industrialized our culture gets. People need animals, he thinks, to keep them human. And since he was a kid, this is what Bill Smith dreamed his life would be. "When I was a boy," he said, "I thought if you weren't a cowboy you were just underprivileged. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to be anything else."
* * *
When he was a boy, Bill would ride with his friend Chuck Swanson out of the valley and the town of Bearcreek, Montana, into the mountains and over the pass to Red Lodge. They would ride horses that belonged to Bill's father, Glenn, or they would ride horses they caught, horses that belonged to neighbors or friends. The town of Bearcreek had no fences, and a boy could ride any horse he could catch. Bill rarely waited for permission from anyone.
Bill perfected his horse-catching skills in grade school. It was a mile and a half from home to school, and in the winter, especially through deep snow, the journey was better on horseback. But most of the time Bill caught a horse to get away from school, not as a vehicle to get there. He skipped school as much as he could, riding into the mountains for the day, often with Chuck. On the many days that Bill and Chuck were caught playing hooky, the principal scolded them, saying that they would never make a living riding horses. But, Bill said, "horses was all that ever mattered to me." When it was too cold to ride, his mother, Edna, would watch him play for hours with empty glass bottles, fashioning bridles and saddles out of string and herding the bottles into corrals made of sticks.
When Bill turned nine, his father gave him a horse of his own. Glenn Smith usually bought mean horses, horses that no one else wanted, since they were the only ones he could afford. With this one relatively gentle gelding, Glenn showed Bill how a horse was broken—tied to a post, legs hobbled, exhausted until it quit fighting—a process that took hours or days, depending on the person's skill and the horse's temperament. A photograph taken a couple of years later shows the pair: an expressionless, towheaded boy seated astride a black horse with a stripe down its face.
Besides his horse, his siblings, and Chuck Swanson, Bill had few friends. He was shy and small for his age, which made him an ideal target for the bullies at school. Most days he took a beating, returning home with a bloody nose or black eye. If he was lucky he would hide in a shed or barn until after dark. On those days his mother would have to go and look for him, rescue him from his hiding place, and bring him home. The beatings, coupled with the fact that Bill had no interest in lessons and never wanted to be indoors, made his school years miserable.
In the evenings, home life was little better than the schoolyard. When Glenn came home from the bar, he had his boys practice boxing. Bill faced off against his brother Chuck, a fight he was never allowed to win. "Chuck was two years younger than me, and they would never let me hit him," Bill remembered. "They'd just let me box, and I hated that. We'd box around there, and he'd swing at me, and I'd just have to defend myself, and I'd do that for as long as I could stand it, and then I'd just hit him. Well, as soon as I did that, my dad would take the boxing gloves and he'd box me, so I wasn't going to win." For Glenn, fighting was a way of life. He and his father both were famous for bar brawls, which they often instigated and usually won. "My family, especially on my dad's side, they were all fighters," Bill said, "for as long as I can remember."
"Looking back," Bill said, "I don't know how my mother stood it." Edna cleaned the house top to bottom every day, made and mended all their clothes, and equaled or surpassed her sewing talents in the kitchen. When the chickens laid eggs, they ate eggs; when the cows gave milk, they drank milk; and when there was nothing, they ate the potatoes that the kids complained about harvesting, always trying to run off before they were made to "pick stones." If they had chickens, Edna would make fried chicken on Sundays. On Christmas they had turkey and all the trimmings; they didn't always have presents. The luxury of the Bearcreek house, while it had no bathroom, was its running water. When the children came home, filthy and exhausted, it was to a galvanized washtub and Eileen, the eldest sibling, with a scrub brush. "We might be poor," Eileen would say, "but we're gonna be clean!" Bill remembers her commanding them like a sergeant. "That was her battle cry," he said.
* * *
Bill celebrated his tenth birthday on June 28, 1951. That summer, like most summers in Bearcreek, meant at least one trip to the rodeo in Red Lodge, five miles over the mountains to the west. He would ride with Chuck Swanson, perhaps with his sister Barbara in hot pursuit, and they would sneak in without tickets and hide underneath the bleachers. The way Bill tells it, they would sneak under the bleachers and peer out from between the boards. From their vantage point, they could see the bucking chutes on the far side of the oval arena painted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Behind the numbered gates, a system of fenced pens and alleys organized the horses. Above the chutes cowboys sat ready on the fence rails like birds on a wire, and above the rails the bleachers rose up to the crow's nest, where the announcer sat with a microphone and a list of contestants. But everything above and behind the chutes, everything except the numbered fences and the stretch of dirt before them, was blocked from view.
There is no way to describe exactly what happened at that rodeo in 1951, but this is how I imagine it. Boots shuffled back and forth above the boys. Peanut shells fell gently on their heads. Girls galloped around the arena to the sound of a bugle with the flags of America and Montana. The announcer welcomed the crowd, casting his voice out like a fishing line, a slow drawl quickened with excitement, landing lightly and drawing everyone's attention to the arena. And then a beautiful horse—strong-built, heavy in the hindquarters, and broad in the chest—lay himself out in long, fast strides, hugging the edge of the arena fence. A cowboy sat back in the saddle, confident and relaxed.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer said, "the current world champion saddle bronc rider, steer wrestler, and all-around cowboy— born and raised right here in Red Lodge, Montana—Bill Linderman!" The crowd jumped to its feet and cheered. Beneath the bleachers, Bill Smith yelped and punched his fist in the air.
"Watch you don't get us thrown out again," Chuck said.
"Nobody's payin' attention to us now," Bill replied, his eyes trained on Linderman.
Bill Linderman and his brother, Bud, were hometown boys who had made it big. They had left Red Lodge and its one place of employment, the coal mines, to try their luck on the road. The only thing they knew how to do was ride, so they took their saddles and drove from town to town entering every rodeo they could find. If they were lucky, which they frequently were, they would win some prize money—usually enough to buy a steak dinner, a few rounds of drinks, and enough gasoline to get to the next town. Even when they won they were as good as broke, but all they needed was to keep driving, and eventually they'd win again.
When the champion cowboys had taken their introductions and the people had taken off their hats for the national anthem, cowboys scrambled over the numbered chute gates where the horses were being loaded. "The first event of the afternoon will be the bareback bronc riding," the announcer explained. He had the smooth voice of a radio man. "Each cowboy draws a horse from the lottery before the rodeo begins, and his job this afternoon is to ride that bronc for eight seconds. If the cowboy makes it, the judges will give him a score for how well he rides. The judges will also give a score to the horse for how hard he bucks. The combined score will determine the winner." Bill and Chuck watched the chutes. In chute 2 a horse reared and pawed at the gate, his head and forefeet coming over the top rails. The cowboys clinging to the top rails skittered away and then quickly resumed their places like shooed flies. In chute 3, a cowboy was looking steady, one hand on the top rail, hat and shoulders above the fence.
"Each one of these broncs is here today because he is a wild, ornery son of a buck that just does not like to be messed with," the announcer said. "So you see, ladies and gentlemen, the predicament we have here."
Each horse in the chutes was outfitted with rigging, which amounted to a strap around the chest with a handle for the cowboy to hold. Around the horse's flanks, they strapped a sheepskin belt. Most broncs stood quiet for all this, up until a cowboy climbed over the chute and settled onto its back.
The cowboy in chute 3 had gotten this far. He nodded his head. Two men on the ground pulled the gate open and the announcer called, "... and out of chute three!"
A stout bay horse lunged from the gate, and the cowboy, holding the grip with one hand, set his spurs in the horse's shoulders. The horse jumped and kicked and jumped again, sinking its front feet into the sand and lifting its hindquarters high in the air. With each jump and kick he tried to dislodge the cowboy from his back, and with each jump and kick, the cowboy whipped forward and back like a switch. The cowboy held his free hand high in the air so that he would not be disqualified for touching the horse, and he waved it back and forth as if he were waving a white flag. His hat flew off on the second jump and landed in the dirt. On the fourth jump, he slipped to the left. On the fifth, he regained his balance. And on the sixth jump, he lost it completely and went flying over the horse's head. He landed solidly on his shoulder, some twenty paces from his hat. As he got up and brushed himself off, the horse bucked toward the end of the arena. Two seconds later the whistle sounded.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer said, "this cowboy's only pay this afternoon is your applause." The crowd compensated him kindly, and the cowboy waved his thanks before disappearing back behind the fence.
Chute 6 was ready to go.
"Now," the announcer continued, "this next waddie broke his wrist and three ribs down in Abilene a few weeks ago, and now he's back in competition. That's called courage in my book. Let's give him a little encouragement." The announcer had gone to law school and had a handle on the language. The crowd responded to his request with applause and cheers, just as they had been asked. The kid nodded his head, the chute flew open, the horse lunged out, and the kid went flying—his hat in one direction and his body in another—to land in the dirt.
After the bareback riding, the six chute gates were closed, and the announcer directed the crowd's attention to the far end of the arena for the calf-roping event. Wrangling a calf was an impressive feat, certainly nothing Bill and Chuck could do themselves, but nothing the rodeo had to offer would hold the boys' attention as much as the saddle bronc riding, which came near the end of the program. Since they had snuck in and held no tickets, they had to stay put and hope they weren't noticed until then.
Bill was nearly champing at the bit by the time the team ropers were clearing out of the arena and the chutes were once again bustling with cowboys and horses. Each of the six chutes had two or three cowboys at the ready. One set the saddle while another fastened the flank strap. The one who was riding measured his rein, wiped his hands on his thighs, pressed his hat down low on his head, and would eventually climb over the chute rails to mount his draw. The horses that were particularly wild or those unfamiliar with the rodeo's events snorted and kicked at the chute gates. Others stood steady until they felt a cowboy hovering above them or the weight of a man on their back. The announcer watched the chutes and tried to time his banter to the activity.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, we're moving on to the oldest event in rodeo," the announcer said. "Before a cowboy could rope a steer or catch a calf, before he could ride out a storm, before a cowboy could be a cowboy, he had to find himself a horse, and then he had to get on that horse somehow, someway. Now, in case we have any tenderfeet in the audience, allow me to remind you that horses don't come off the range ready to ride. They need to be taught that. In every batch of cowboys, there are always a few who are better at this than others, and they are called bronc busters." Bill knew this story well. He had heard it at the rodeo, and he had seen it at home. His father and his grandfather were both horsemen first, miners second, and miners only because there was no money to be made with horses anymore, unless you were a successful rodeo cowboy, and barely even then. Several cowboys flocked, ducked, and scattered from the chute on the far left. A hand rose above the fence rail to signal the gate. The cuff and sleeve were lavender.
"Out of chute number one," the announcer called, "a kid who wanted to rodeo so bad he used to lie down in the highway just to hitch a ride to the next town over. So far this year, he's the best bronc rider in the world—Casey Tibbs—out of Fort Pierre, South Dakota!"
The gate swung open and a dull dun-colored horse charged out, threw his head to the right and his heels high to the left. From a distance it looked like Casey was smiling. Sitting straight up in his saddle, he held the rope rein with his right hand and waved his left hand above his head. He wore chocolate-colored chaps with his initials scripted in silver at each ankle, and he worked them up and back with the horse's movements. His timing was perfect. His balance was enviable. He made it look so easy. "You fall into a rhythm, and it's like dancing with a girl," he later explained.
Excerpted from Horses That Buck by Margot Kahn. Copyright © 2008 Margot Kahn. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1. All That Ever Mattered,
2. The First Go-Round,
3. Down the Road,
4. Horses That Buck,
5. The Bill Smith Style,
7. Winning the World,
10. A Life of Magic,
11. Into the Normal,
12. Some Horses,