The Miles City Bucking Horse Sale has an action-packed heritage Western enthusiasts can’t resist.
By Mark Bedor
It’s raining, cold and the rodeo arena is a sea of mud. Restless broncs thrash and bang about inside the rodeo chutes, as brave young cowboys prepare to step on board the seething animals, hoping to stay in the saddle long enough for eight seconds of glory. On the arena floor, the chute boss, in his long, wet slicker raincoat, grits his teeth and braces on the chute gate he will soon let fly. The young bronc rider secures himself in the saddle, gives a solemn nod, and suddenly the bronc explodes out of the chute. The young rider hangs on for all he’s worth, trying to stay with the bucking, twisting wild horse. But in an instant, the cowboy is airborne, his pressed Western shirt soaked in mud as he splashes down in the arena.
Welcome to the world famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. Rain or shine, on the third weekend of May since 1951, this historic town in Southeast Montana is the center of the cowboy world.
“It’s awesome!” cowgirl Shammah Gershom exclaimed on her way to a summer horse wrangling gig in South Dakota. “I’m having so much fun!”
“Awesome” is a common description of a gathering that’s become known as the Cowboy Mardis Gras—a weekend of roughstock riding, music, street dancing, parades and just all-around Western fun. Locals say over the years it’s become much more family friendly than the crazed days of the 1970s, but it’s still one big Wild West party.
“I love the mud and the partying,” Nebraska cowgirl Janel Sweley said.
“And the cowboys,” her smiling friend, Joan Lehr, added.
For the cowboys and roughstock ranchers at the center of the action, the Bucking Horse Sale is serious business, as it has been since the start.
“Back in the day, in the ’20s and ’30s, there were tens of thousands of horses in this country,” Bucking Horse Sale Official John Morford said. “Way too many. So they decided they’d gather some up and have a sale.”
In past years, as many as 600 bucking horses sold on a weekend. Today’s that’s down to less than 200. But add in the bucking bulls sold here too, and there’s plenty of money changing hands.
The cowboys who come to compete give rodeo stock contractors—who come here to buy—a chance to see the roughstock in action before they write a check. Once the cowboy gets tossed, the live bidding begins, with that familiar song of the auctioneer.
Meantime, every ride on a bronc or a bull, like any other rodeo, can mean money for the cowboy. And the top winner can earn $20,000 for a weekend in Miles City.
Riding those wild animals, of course, is easier said than done. Horsepower takes on a whole new meaning when you get up close to those dangerous broncs.
With temperatures just barely warm enough to keep the rain from turning to snow in 2019, bronc rider Jake Leppell stepped into the chute, secured himself in the saddle, took a good strong grip on the horse’s lead rope, and gave that familiar nod. The gate flew open, but well before eight seconds, Jake was flying too.
“Didn’t go well, that’s for sure,” he said afterward. “He just left really strong. I didn’t have my feet set as hard as I should have.”
It’s a tough sport.
Riding bulls seems even more formidable. Like football, it’s not if you get hurt, but when and how badly; it’s not uncommon to see courageous cowboys limping off in pain after being thrashed off the back of one of those monsters. Still, it’s clear these young gladiators love the adrenalin rush. And just where does Miles City rank in the rodeo world?
“They’re all good,” grinned a young rodeo cowboy behind the chutes, awaiting his shot at glory.
Fans love it too. The Bucking Horse Sale is action packed rodeo, especially on a wet weekend where the cowboys are making spectacular rain soaked splashdowns in an arena of mud. The crowd’s fever pitch rises to a crescendo in anticipation of the wild horse race, where teams of cowboys have to catch a loose bronc turned out from a chute, saddle the beast and somehow get a rider on board. That daring soul then tries to hang on, while navigating 1,000 pounds of pitching, twisting horse all the way around the racetrack that encircles the rodeo arena. It’s a wild and crazy contact sport, with contestants slipping, sliding and falling into the mud as the crowd roars in delight at the spectacle.
When it was all over, a Wyoming cowboy named Preston strolled by nursing a bloody and broken nose. “My bad,” he told me, acknowledging my stare. “I was looking down at [the mare] and she came up and hit me in the nose.”
But despite the wound, there’s no hard feelings. “A hell of a ride!” the young bronc rider grinned. “It was fun.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2020 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.