The Folks Who Make The Cody Nite Rodeo Go On Without A Hitch
Written by Grace Ballou on June 28, 2023
What most of us imagine when we think of the word “rodeo” are men and women on horses and bulls, competing to have the fastest time or stay on a bucking animal the longest. We are familiar with those cowboys and cowgirls who are brave enough to take the center stage, defying the odds, riding bucking broncs. We watch with awe and reverence as people dare try to hang on for dear life, riding the thin line between life and being crushed to death, as a one-ton bull turns into a wrecking ball, smashing anyone and anything in its path. We recognize the beauty and grace of the precise timing and control of barrel racing as well as calf roping.
However, not as many people think about those riders after they dismount their animal or what happens when they’re bucked off and hit the ground. After a few brief seconds, the rodeo quickly continues after competitors hurriedly wipe off the dirt from their ironed and starched Wranglers and shake the cobwebs out of their minds from landing too hard on the hard-packed ground. Loose animals are corralled and then escorted out of the arena. As the saying goes, “the show must go on,” and it usually does without a hitch.
The rodeo is a scripted show, a well-oiled competition of controlled chaos that is made to look easy and seamless because of the few people whose purpose in and around that arena is to risk their limbs and sometimes their life, ensuring the safety of the riders and keep the event in the arena going smoothly.
Pickup Men are an important, some would argue integral, part of keeping the show going, having the main responsibility of keeping riders safe while after they are finished battling in the arena. During the bucking horse events, Safety Riders are off to the side of the bucking shoots. If the competitor makes it to that much-sought after eight-second mark, the Pickup Riders are responsible for getting the competitor off the horse as quickly and safely as possible. Then, they have to work together to catch the horse, and take the flank strap, a sheepskin-lined leather strap used to encourage the animal to buck, off the horse so it can be returned to the pen as quickly and as safely as possible.
Maury Tate, stock contractor and co-owner of the Mo Betta Rodeo Company, which puts on both the Cody Nite Rodeo and the Cody Stampede every year, speaks about the important role of the Pickup Men, saying “they make the rodeo go so fast, and people don’t realize, you know, just how much they do to protect the cowboys as well.”
The Pickup Men at the Cody Nite Rodeo not only are very dedicated to their jobs, but they love doing it. Darrell Lamb, a veteran rider, who has been with the nightly rodeo for 15 years, talks about how Pickup Men love what they do, and the role they play in making the rodeo a fast-paced, entertaining spectacle that has been around since the “bronco-busting contests” were first held on July 4th, 1869, in Deer Trail, Colorado Territory.
“There were no Pickup Men here 15 years ago,” says Lamb. Upon noticing this, he decided that he was the man for the job and learned his technique through years of experience.
Augustus Gifford, a Pickup Man at the Cody Nite Rodeo, says a lot of people don’t realize how difficult their task is. “Picking up is way harder than it looks. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Teamwork also plays a huge role in the success of Pickup Men, unlike many rodeo events. “I really have to focus on teamwork. One guy alone can’t do this,” Gifford relates.
But despite the challenges, these riders love their job, and say they want to continue to pick up for as long as they can.
But Pickup Men are not the only ones who put themselves at risk in the arena.
Bullfighters find their spotlight during the bull riding events. They’re responsible for protecting the rider from the angry animal when the contestant gets bucked off. It is the bullfighters’ job to ensure that they are in between the rider and the bull at all times, even if there are mere inches separating them. They have to focus on the safety of the cowboy, themselves, and their fellow bullfighters in the ring with them at all times.
Lance Bolar, a fighter who has been with the Cody Night Rodeo for 4 years, says that when it comes down to it, the main goal is to get the cowboy out without him getting hurt, even if they have to get run over. “If it is gonna happen, it might as well be you on the stretcher than somebody else.”
Although there is an enormous risk involved in the job, bullfighters love the adrenaline.
“It comes with the love of bullfighting itself,” Cody Nite Rodeo Bullfighter Connor Kimbrough says. “It’s [the risk] part of the game, and you know that when you go into it.”
But there is more to fighting than just trying to distract and run away from the bulls. And it’s not a game to try to avoid getting hit by the bull.
“There are times when you know you can get away, but you can’t because the rider is knocked out or behind you, and you just have to belly up to one and eat it,” Kimbrough says. Meaning that even if they can outmaneuver the bull, they can’t neglect their duty as the sole protection of the bull riders.
Tate regards the fighters and their job, commenting that “It’s amazing, you sit here and watch them step into an 8-inch gap, and get smashed into the bucking shoots, and keep doing it again, again, again.” He continues, “They’ll save two or three guys every night.”