JACKSON HOLE RODEO, Saturday night. The gate jerked open on bucking chute #2, and out came a 1,000-pound equine convulsion. The cowboy spurred out hard over the saddle bronc’s shoulders, holding his free hand high so that it didn’t touch the horse and disqualify himself. The cowboy slapped against the bronc’s back like a screen door in a hurricane. The bronc bucked three licks in a circle, and then in longer and faster strides humped toward the far rail where it wheeled hard left and almost launched the cowboy over the fence.
The spectators barely noticed the arrival of three “pickup men” whose job is to help saddle-bronc and bareback riders dismount safely and to keep the livestock safe. They funneled their horses behind the bronc to rescue the cowboy. The buzzer sounded, and the crowd applauded.
The cowboy grabbed hold of the bronc like a monkey on its mother’s back. One pickup man galloped behind, whooping, hollering, and slapping his rope against his chaps. Another pickup man crowded the bronc’s hip and pinched the horse along the fence, keeping it just out of kicking range. Spectators focused on the gyrating rider, his teeth clenched and eyes bulged as big as ostrich eggs, his head swiveled around looking for salvation. And here it came. Jim Stoddard, 53, all jaw, mustache, and hat, a toothpick clamped in the corner of his mouth as if in a vice. With his leg smashed between his gelding and the bronc, he was already ahead of the bronc’s shoulder. His arm extended across and hooked the cowboy under the armpit. As if about to drown, the cowboy reached out clamped around his rescuer’s waist. Stoddard’s gelding slowed. The bronc ran out from beneath the cowboy, who released his bear hug, dropped to his feet, and rolled in the soft dirt.
Ninety points, high score of the night. The crowd roared. The cowboy raised his arms and tossed his hat into the air, spinning, tilting, and flying like a Frisbee toward the ether. This sight was what the people had paid to see: the rodeo rough-stock rider, all muscle, sinew, and courage—the hatted, booted, and chapped icon of the American West, symbol of freedom and wild, open country. Long live cowboys!
BUT THE REAL hands of the Jackson Hole Rodeo may be the pickup men. While the cowboy took his bow, they galloped off unnoticed, urging the riderless bronc around the fence toward the stock pens. Stoddard leaned down and grabbed the bronc’s lead rope, or “buck rein.” He took two dallies around his saddle horn and slowed his gelding in a circle. The bronc continued bucking, its nose tied one foot from Stoddard’s saddle, and almost nailed the rear pickup man. Stoddard hollered at his partner and nodded toward the bronc’s offside. The second pickup man veered slightly to avoid the kicks, spurred his horse alongside, and leaned over to unhook the flank strap, which fell to the dirt. The bronc’s thirty-second workday was complete. It fell as complacent as a dude horse and trotted alongside Stoddard through a gate to the pen where the rest of the broncs stood with heads hung as if sleeping.
So far, the night had gone smoothly, nothing more than the normal bumps and bruises. But eventually every rough-stock rider has his wreck. Case in point: the cowboy in chute #6 the following Wednesday night.
Any sport in which 100-plus pound humans ride 1,000-plus pound livestock inevitably leads to accidents, but though injuries to man and beast are common in rodeo, few are fatal. According to the Rodeo Catastrophic Injury Registry, the catastrophic injury incidence rate from 1989-2009 was 9.45 per 100,000, only 4.05 being fatal. Compare that to vehicle and firearms statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control, vehicle fatalities are 10.9 per 100,000 and those from firearms are 10.3.
Pickup men, who work all rodeos that conduct rough-stock events, are one reason for the relative safety. But the safety statistics do not rid Jim Stoddard of remembering the Jackson Hole Rodeo in 2010 when twenty year-old Nicolas Gillett hung his left spur in his rigging and experienced every cowboy’s worst nightmare—being dragged. According to several witnesses, the horse fell on Gillett and then stepped on his head. He died competing in the sport he loved. “That’ll be an image I’ll never forget,” Stoddard says. “I had to sit there and watch that kid bleed to death. There was nothing anyone could do.”
When not picking up three nights a week, all three pickup men work regular jobs. Stoddard, who has picked up for thirty years, works as a brand inspector in Teton Valley, Idaho. Jason Wheeldon builds fences and houses. Bart Westergard caretakes a ranch and shoes horses.
Some pickup men are former rough-stock riders who pick up as a way to continue rodeoing. After riding a bit of rough-stock in his younger years, Stoddard began picking up to help his kids when they started rodeoing. Some pickup men love the work so much they think about little else. But if you ask Jim Stoddard about his motivation, he simply says, “It lines up nice with the things I do.” In other words, a cowboy would rather earn his living cowboying than wiring homes or designing websites. Although Stoddard enjoys the work, he relies on the extra income to support his family. He worked every Jackson rodeo last summerexcept for the one week he took off to pick up at the Idaho High School Rodeo Association Finals. What’s the key to being a pickup man? “If we don’t work together, we look like idiots. If we’re doing our job right, no one ever notices us,” he says.
Midway through Wednesday night’s rodeo, Stoddard, Wheeldon, and Westergard maneuvered into their triangle position and waited for chute #6. The cowboy nodded, and the gate flew open. Stoddard clamped down on his toothpick and began counting. One…two…three…. Instead of kicking hard, this bronc bucked in long strides, half loping toward the far fence and the main grandstand where an earlier horse had tossed a rider over the fence and nearly into a block wall. The cowboy’s eyes widened as the fence neared. Four…five…. The bronc wasn’t performing well enough to generate a high score, but the cowboy eked out all the points he could by spurring hard and clean.
Six…seven…. The pickup men closed in, and the bronc jerked left along the fence. Stoddard’s mare pinned her ears back, dug in, and galloped up hard behind the bronc. Eight…. The buzzer sounded, the crowd applauded for the cowboy, and Stoddard rode up alongside. Westergard rode just off the bronc’s hip, pushing it along the fence while Wheeldon pressed from behind. The cowboy reached out, leaped like a flying squirrel, and grabbed Stoddard around the waist, teetering on the back of Stoddard’s horse.
Suddenly the buck rein wrapped around the cowboy’s boot and spur. Stretched between the bronc and Stoddard’s horse, he held on tightly to prevent being pulled off and dragged. Stoddard leaned hard to free him. In tandem, Stoddard’s mare and the bronc continued around the fence back toward the chutes with the cowboy stretched in between like a clothesline until the buck rein pulled loose and dragged along in the sand.
Stoddard reined back and released the cowboy, who landed feet first. As usual, spectators focused on him. They had no idea Stoddard had prevented a catastrophe. Unnoticed, the three pickup men rode off with the bronc toward the pens. The cowboy turned and saluted the crowd, which applauded and whistled for the great American rodeo cowboy.