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home : columns : columns January 23, 2019

6/5/2018 12:40:00 PM
The Bunkhouse Chronicle - 8-Ball
By Craig Rullman

With the rodeo back in town I've been thinking about horse-wrecks. Depending on how you look at it, it's either fortunate or unfortunate that I have a considerable library of personal wrecks to choose from. It's a qualifying roster of equine catastrophes that would, sadly, make more of a book than a column - something like Thomas McGuane's marvelous musings about the cutting-horse crowd in "Some Horses" - but in the spirit of all things dust and blood and the roar of a Sunday crowd, I thought I'd take a crack at it.

My professional rodeo career ended in a spectacular wreck at the Lost Dutchman Days Rodeo in Apache Junction, Arizona. It's hard to say exactly what went wrong because a lot of things can go wrong in the first few milliseconds of a bronc ride. Not enough rosin, too much rosin, unlucky socks, bad vibes, a mean girlfriend casting spells from the contestant parking lot, or even a really good bucking horse can all play a role in what is essentially an incalculable mystery of gravity and centrifugal force.

It's important to have some sense of what is going on in the chute. In the chute you don't really hear the crowd. You hear your own heartbeat in your ears because a few million years of evolution have taken over your body. That will happen when you drop in on a 1,400-pound home-wrecker that breathes fire. It's a physiological reaction to danger and there isn't anything you can do about it. There is a loss of fine motor functions. Tunnel vision. Auditory exclusion.

You can never entirely control an adrenaline-induced survival response, but like a frisky blonde buckle-bunny from Chandler, Arizona, you can eventually learn to live with it.

It's also important to note that professional bucking stock quickly separates the wheat from the chaff. Bucking out your uncle's rank old buckethead in the round corral is not quite the same thing as forking a horse specifically bred and cared for because it produces high-point rides and puts a lot of cowboys in the dirt.

And it's generally better not to confuse the two.

8-Ball was a professional bucking horse. She was big and she was strong and she did not care one whit for my gold-buckle delusions. In that wreck, like so many others a life can bring, it's probably better to just finally admit that 8-Ball was a better bucking horse than I was a bronc rider, and leave it at that - even if, after all these years, I still think I might have covered her on another day.

I was once bucked off a colt in front of a school bus full of children. This happened at the Queen Valley Ranch in Montgomery Pass, Nevada, which is precisely 65 miles from anywhere else. It's not clear to me at all why there was a school bus traveling on Highway 6, or where they found the kids to put in it, and it was also not clear to the froggy little colt I was trying to put some miles on.

When that big yellow banana full of kids materialized out of the desert the colt broke in half and eventually kicked me out the back door and into the bar ditch.

The kids, who had seen the whole thing developing for a mile or more, were leaning out the windows cheering and laughing as they and the big banana vanished again into the desert.

Not that getting bucked off should mess with your self-confidence. The idea is to get back on, and getting bucked off is usually the easy part. Walking down a scared young colt in the middle of nowhere is the real lesson because it teaches humility in a way that merely getting dumped can't even approach.

That was proven to me again at High Rock Lake in Nevada, when I was trying to push some cows home. I tried to put a young remuda horse across a fast-running creek, and it turned out that creek was also pretty deep. We were swimming before I fully appreciated the problem and though I managed to slip out of the stirrups and slide off the horse panicked and finally left me on the bank like a wet wool blanket before he went bucking and squealing across the desert.

When I'd finished pouring the creek out of my boots I was able to enjoy another long, humiliating walk-down in all of that marvelous country.

But 8-Ball, that marvelous old gal, gets all of the credit for convincing me - after some broken ribs and a really fantastic concussion - that I was better suited for chasing cows around the desert, far from the crowds and the entry fees and the paramedics. She taught me respect in a way that I hold onto and revive every time I watch those young cowboys pouring their hearts out in the arena. And while 8-Ball may not live on in anyone else's memory, she does in mine, proving once again the old adage that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man - even when, maybe especially when - they buck like hell.

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