Midnight: The world’s greatest bucking horse
August 3, 2009
Almost 100 years ago, on the prairies of Alberta, Canada, a horse was foaled unlike any other on the ranch of Jim McNab. At maturity, in McNab’s words, he “was a well-made horse, with maybe a strain of thoroughbred and a dash of Percheron – a little too long in the barrel, but put together real solid-like. He stood about 15.1, and about 1,300 pounds strong.” Big, powerful, and coal black, with the look of eagles in his dark eyes, Midnight would never become the cow horse McNab dreamed of, but was destined instead to make a name for himself all over the world as the greatest bucking horse of all time.
The black horse soon gained a local reputation as a horse no one could ride. The best in the cowboy business came and went during his early years and were duly humbled by the big black horse with the gentle disposition, who with a rider on his back, became a veritable four-footed explosion – a horse to be reckoned with. Not one man was able to stay aboard the notorious black tornado. After a stunning performance at the Calgary Stampede Rodeo, where he was proclaimed the champion bucking horse of Western Canada, his fate was cast. Midnight was sold to Calgary rodeo promoter Peter Welch. It broke Jim McNab’s heart to part with this special horse with the untamed spirit he had come to love so much, but “money talks” and sell him he did. Some say he never stopped regretting it.
By 1928 Midnight was still unridden and his career was off and running, or should I say, bucking. The horse was purchased from the Calgary outfit by rodeo producer and stock contractor Verne Elliot, an ex-bronc rider who had competed against the famous bucking horse, Steamboat in his youth. Midnight’s reputation preceded him wherever he went, and he began drawing huge crowds at the rodeos, as well as confident cowboys, each of whom just knew they were the one to finally ride the infamous outlaw.
With the fame of a rock star, Midnight was campaigned at every rodeo from Calgary, Pendleton and Cheyenne, to Salt Lake City and Fort Worth, and east to Madison Square Garden in New York, gaining him the adulation of fans and the respect of the bronc riders. In those days bronc riders rode for 10 seconds instead of eight as they do now, but it didn’t matter – one by one they made intimate acquaintance with the ground in two or three seconds, including the renowned Pete Knight, one of the best at that time.
The late Verne Elliot, a native of Platteville, Colo., who owned a ranch near Johnstown, Colo., believed “a good bucking horse is likely to be born, not made. 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 who owns him, and the audience that watches him battle his way around an arena. And above all he should be consistent – every time that chute gate swings open, he should come out fighting and never say die!”
Midnight did not disappoint. He never weakened, never grew tired of the game and never gave up. His heart was as big as the Canadian prairies from whence he came.
So many top riders were biting the dust when they drew Midnight, the claim was made by some people that it was just a big publicity stunt and that the cowboys were paid to take a dive, but that was not true. Any contestant would have sold his soul for the honor of making history as the first to ride “the buckingest horse in the world,” as he was called.
Midnight loved to buck and took great delight in bucking circles around his fallen would-be conqueror before heading for the exit gate. The horse never intentionally went out of his way to hurt someone, but he was considered an outlaw, that is, a horse that couldn’t be broken, that refused to allow a human on his back. He was also an artist who loved his craft and worked at it with a vengeance. According to one cowboy, “trying to ride him meant having your backbone telescoped and twisted and jammed through the top of your skull. It was like having 1,300 pounds fall on you with every jump – only it was a piledriver coming from underneath.” After he hit the ground, a cowboy felt as if he’d been run over by a tank, and every bone and muscle in his body ached for weeks afterward. Some who drew Midnight in the rodeo tried to swap him for another bronc, knowing full well he’d be eating dirt and out of the money.
Champion bronc rider Pete Knight tried to ride Midnight on four separate occasions throughout his career and failed every time, but he never lost the desire to challenge the old warrior one last time. And in 1930, when Midnight was 15 years old, he got his chance. Cheyenne Frontier Days offered him $100 to give a 10-second exhibition ride – world champion cowboy against world champion bucking horse. Knight had been rodeoing for over 20 years, and knowing this would probably be his last opportunity, he agreed and gallantly met his old adversary once again. It was a fantastic ride that had the audience on their feet screaming hysterically – an awesome duel of champions in which Midnight triumphed as victor in seven seconds, the longest anyone had ever stayed aboard. Nor would any other rider even come close to that time in the next three years. (There is still some controversy over this statement, with several cowboys claiming they did in fact ride Midnight, but if they accomplished this feat, it was not in sanctioned competition with judges on hand. News of such an event would have been flashed around the world, so great was Midnight’s reputation and avid following.)
In 1933 the horse that wouldn’t be ridden made his farewell appearance at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, unloading two top riders that day, before leaving for a trip to England, where he made his last public appearance in four exhibition rides at Wembley Stadium. When they returned home, Verne Elliot turned Midnight out to pasture on his ranch to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. The world’s champion bucking horse never felt the weight of a saddle or an erstwhile rider ever again and lived out his life happily munching grass and snoozing in the sun. On Nov. 5, 1936, a challenger he couldn’t beat finally won, as death climbed aboard and rode him to a standstill.
Elliot buried Midnight on the ranch. Word that the great horse had died traveled the circuit as he himself once did, and the cowboys he had fought and beaten took up a collection and bought him a monument befitting a champion to place over his grave. A Colorado senator at the time, Chris Cusack, wrote the epitaph:
Underneath this sod lies
a great bucking hoss.
There never lived a cowboy
he couldn’t toss.
His name was Midnight
his coat was black as coal.
If there’s a hoss heaven,
please God, rest his soul.
Hundreds of people visited the site until, in 1995, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum had Midnight’s remains exhumed and interred on the grounds in Oklahoma City, along with Verne Elliot’s other famous bucking horse Five Minutes to Midnight. Besides the fact he owned two of the greatest bucking horses of all time, Elliot’s contribution to the early days of the sport of rodeo was huge: He was instrumental in initiating indoor rodeos, beginning with Fort Worth in 1917; he built the first bucking chutes used in competition; he also produced the National Western Rodeo in Denver, Colo., from 1931-62. Verne Elliot died in 1962 at the age of 81 and was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs in 1990.