Wild Horse Racing is reminiscent of the days when you could not buy a horse that was broke to saddle. Back ‘in the day’ you had to do all that yourself and many potential ranch horses were captured from the wild bands that roamed the open range of the west. Wild Horse Racing is like most rodeo events in that its roots are in things that cowboys did in a real ranching environment.
A Wild Horse Racing team is made up of three people, a mugger, a shank man and a rider. The muggers job is to control the head of the horse to keep it from rearing and hurting someone. The mugger is able to calm the horse somewhat by covering the eyes of the horse with his arm.
The shank man keeps the horse from running off by holding on to a large diameter rope, or shank, attached to the horse’s bridle. The rider carries his saddle and his job is to saddle the horse, climb aboard, and ride the horse once around the track. The event is timed and the first rider across the finish line wins.
All that sounds pretty straight forward, but in actual implementation is anything but. The first complication is there is not just one team on the track at the start but 12 to 14. At 14 teams that works out to 14 horses and 42 contestants on the track at the same time. The pickup men bring the horses onto the track one at a time and give the shank to the team. At least that is how it is supposed to be done. Most of the time the pickup man is dallyed off and his horse is being dragged across the arena to the track. The situation is further complicated by multiple horses arriving at the same time, which leads to shanks being crossed or wrapped around horses or contestants.
Until all the teams have their horses and the gun sounds, the shank man and the mugger are the only ones that can control the horse and they can only use the shank to do that. The horses do not know that the plan is that they stand quietly and wait for the starting gun. There is always a lot of action that takes place before the start. There are usually a couple of teams that are dragged by their horses before the start. If a team completely loses control of their horse, their day is done, with no time.
In past years fresh, straight off the range, horses were used. This year, 5- and 6-year-old, second and third string bucking horses were used. Even though they had been exposed to humans, they definitely did not like being held by a shank, touched or ridden. To make it even tougher for the cowboys, the horses were much bigger and stronger than in previous years.
When all the teams have their horses, the real and very loud, starting gun fires. The horses are startled by the noise and suddenly each horse is grabbed by a mugger, and then it’s on — total chaos! All over the track horses are rearing, running, dragging and kicking. Cowboys are doing their best to control their horses while trying to not be injured. A 5-year-old horse can easily lift a 200 pound mugger off the ground. Riders are up and horses are bucking. Ropes are crossing and catching cowboys.
Unfortunately, in all of this, cowboys are hurt. There are no injury time-outs in this event, cowboys are expected to get over the track fence and out of harms way on their own. Only if the cowboy is unconscious or unable to move do the pickup men ride in and make a protective cordon around the fallen cowboy to protect him from being trampled.
You have to wonder why the cowboys would subject themselves to this kind of abuse and danger. It is certainly not for the very limited prize money. It is more for the pride and the buckle. Another underlying reason may be the desire to compete in the “Daddy of ’Em All.”
“Stovepipe” Pette is a Cheyenne Frontier Days Champion Wild Horse Racer. He was born in Long Island, New York. His father had lived in Wyoming in the 1930s, and used to used to point out scenes on TV to his young son and tell him “that’s what Wyoming looks like.” He also would tell the young boy fascinating tales of Cheyenne Frontier Days.
This all made an impression and according to “Stovepipe,” “Soon as I got old enough, I couldn’t get to Cheyenne, Wyo., fast enough. I got here a little late, but I still got to compete in the greatest rodeo in the world.”
“I started Wild Horse Racing in 1974 and retired when I was 41,” said “Stovepipe,” “Then my two boys started Wild Horse Racing and when they couldn’t show up, they got me in it again, so I ended up doing it about 20 years.” “Stovepipe” finally decided to give up Wild Horse Racing in 2001 when, “this horse laid down on me and I went over to grab his halter and get him up and he kind of bent in two and got me with both hind feet and busted my knee. That was my 78th Wild Horse Race and I decided that was it.”
“Stovepipe” is still associated with the rodeo and he proudly states, “I’m a volunteer for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Contestants Committee and this is my 30th year. I’m also one of the Wild Horse Racing judges and I work behind the South Chutes on the ‘double-ought’ chute.”
Next time you are at Cheyenne Frontier Days, if you see “Stovepipe,” be sure to stop and say ‘hello.’ Just look for the tall cowboy with his jeans stuck into the tall tops of stovepipe cowboy boots. ❖