Gary and the Wild Horses

I just searched through my blog to find something I wrote about my rodeo experience ten years ago and realized it wasn’t a blog post, it was a newspaper article. I did mention this in a blog post (Rodeos, beer, and cancer), and even included the picture below, but I’d like to share it here on my blog today. This was first printed in the July 2008 issue of The Local Rag newspaper.

Like any PRCA-sanctioned event, the Home of Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge, Montana draws contestants from all over the U.S. and Canada. There are two events, though, that are all about the locals: mutton busting and the wild horse race. A few years ago, a fellow came into the bookstore and asked me if I’d be interested in joining his team.

The wild horse race uses a team of three. The horses are assigned by random draw, and the team is allowed to put a halter and a long rope on the horse before the event. The rope is threaded through the gap on the latch side of the gate to the chute, and one of the team members is assigned to stop the horse when the gate opens, so the others can get hold of the animal and put a saddle on it. This person, known as the anchor, is generally a big guy. Size alone isn’t enough to stop a mustang, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Since I was 6’5″ and 260 pounds, he figured I’d be perfect for the job.

It was long before the event, and I had plenty of time to think over the offer. I was–how shall I say this?–a few years past my prime, and had never done a wild horse race before. The other team members assured me that all I needed was strength and persistence: there really wasn’t that much agility or technique involved. I agreed to do it.

Now, we fast-forward a few months. I had an odd lump in my chest, which puzzled my doctor. The dermatologist, equally puzzled, had taken a biopsy. I received a phone call with the results when I was on a business trip in Las Vegas. “Come home now,” he told me. “You have an appointment with an oncologist tomorrow morning.”



Yes, indeed. I had been diagnosed with lymphoma, and they needed to start me on chemotherapy and monoclonal antibodies right away. Obviously, a lot went through my mind those first few days, and my plans for the summer were changed dramatically. At first, I forgot all about the wild horse race.

Then, the doctor began explaining the effects chemo would have on me. It would destroy my immune system, meaning that seemingly minor cuts and scrapes could develop into nasty–possibly even fatal–infections. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked the oncologist. “My ranch is a small one, but I still have two miles of barbed-wire fence and a bunch of critters with horns and hooves. Someone has to take care of things, and my wife can’t do all of it.”

He assured me that I could go about my business, except for the days right after a treatment, which would knock me flat. If I got a cut, scrape, or scratch, I just needed to clean out the wound and watch for signs of infection. He said I could do anything I felt up to.

“Even including a rodeo?” I asked him. I could almost hear my wife thinking, “Tell him no! Tell him no!” but the doctor said if I thought I could do it, then more power to me. The Wild Horse Race became my goal in the battle against the lymphoma. If I could compete between cancer treatments, I could do anything.

I explained everything to my teammates. The Home of Champions Rodeo would be right before a chemo treatment, so I’d have maximum recovery time from the previous treatment. I’d be shaky and have little endurance, but I thought I could do it if they’d still have me. They said yes, and we were on.

Gary in the Wild Horse Race

Day 1: July 2nd

Day one of the rodeo arrived. There were only four teams signed up, so we actually had a shot at this. We met the other teams, and drew our horse. A spunky little mustang filly. I had a case of butterflies in my stomach like I’ve never had before. As the bullriders took their rides, we got ready. We were up next.

They got the horses in the chutes and marked the finish line across the arena. It looked miles away. We haltered the horse and ran the rope out to the arena. I stood there with my partners, holding the rope. What did I think I was doing? Thousands of people crowded the stands, and I was about to get knocked silly by a horse. I braced myself. The chutes opened…

The horse didn’t know what was going on, but she knew she wanted out of there. She charged straight at me, and I got a good grip on the rope. She stopped, unsure of which way to go, and one of my teammates stepped in and grabbed her halter. He pulled her head down and looked her right in the eye. She reared up, kicked him in the head, and charged me. My partner went down like a sack of grain, the horse pulled me off my feet, and I lost the rope.

We managed to catch the horse again, and this time two of us (I and the poor fellow with a big bruise on his forehead) managed to hold her still while teammate #3 got the saddle on. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the latigo and we couldn’t get the saddle cinched securely. He hung on valiantly, but by the time we hazed our horse to the other side of the arena, it was too late. The 90-second timer went off.

We lost, but I still felt good as I walked out of the arena. All PRCA-sanctioned rodeos must have a doctor on site at all times. As it turned out, my regular family doctor–who specializes in sports medicine–was on that day. As I approached the gate, I saw him standing next to my wife. She turned to him and said, “is this the kind of therapy you recommend for all of your cancer patients?” He just shook his head. “Yeah, I thought that looked like Gary out there.”

Day 2: July 3rd

We’re down one team member. His forehead contusion turned out to be a mild concussion and the doc said, “Don’t compete.” Our fearless leader, however, had come up with a substitution. He found a wiry little bullrider ready to step in and join us. Like many bullriders, he was small, but full of muscle and spunk.

This time, since we had only four teams, the rodeo committee decided to make things a bit more exciting by putting horses in the empty chutes, too. When the gates opened, I was focused on holding our horse. When one of the “extra” mustangs ran into me, I lost the rope. Our bullrider buddy had a good grip, but didn’t have the sheer mass to stop the horse (he was probably half my weight). The horse took off for parts unknown, and our new teammate held onto the rope and got dragged along behind like a water-skiier. He stayed upright the full length of the arena, and then went down and got dragged on the ground.

I caught up to them and grabbed the horse again. I got a deathgrip on the rope, and held on even when another horse bumped my back. I took a step, and found myself standing on another team’s rope (see picture). It was a scary moment–getting tangled in that rope would not have been a good thing–but I held on this time.

Our team leader arrived toting the saddle, and threw his arm over the mustang’s neck. She took a jump sideways, right into the fence. His arm was caught between the horse and the pipe, and I could tell it hurt. He’d already taken a blow to the face and he was spitting blood, but he was determined to get on the horse. Alas, by the time we got the saddle on, our 90 seconds was up again.

One fractured arm and one concussion. Two days, and two teammates out. We hadn’t even made it across the finish line. But I felt good. We pulled our team from competition on July 4th, and I watched from another team’s chute.

I didn’t win a buckle, but we bought one as a souvenir. Two treatments later, my chemo was done, and this summer will mark five years cancer-free. I doubt that I’ll ever compete again, but I’ll treasure the memory of that 2003 Wild Horse Race forever.

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