The Ghosts of the Rodeo Arena
The coolest job in rodeo, I’d say, is the exhilaration of chasing rank broncs and bulls around the arena. Loosening those flank straps, "picking up” Cowboys whom might be struggling to free themselves from their rigging, and chasing the stock out of the arena to keep the performance running smoothly. Then, waiting in the proverbial shadows for the next rider to exit the chute. They're the cowboy's cowboy.
Pickup men are the riders and unsung heroes in padded chaps and kick pads. Riding horses as handy as themselves, running around the arena to help cowboys off their hopefully 8 second mounts, they are almost never the stars of the show. While every year during finals the top PRCA pick up men are awarded, they don't get the kind of recognition other athletes do. If you've seen the photos or video from last year dramatically showing the rank bull that took out a pickup man, Brent Sutton and his horse at the Tucson Rodeo- La Fiesta De Las Vaqueros, you'd understand that kind of bravery it takes to have this job.
Not only does it take courage to get in the arena, keeping fired up bulls away from their cowboy challengers, but it also takes skill to communicate with the other pick up men, constantly pay attention to their surroundings. They have to be handy with a rope and ensure that their own horse is safe from being hooked or kicked. Talented and strong horsemen are needed in these positions, especially during Finals, where 10 rounds of rodeo means keeping the cowboys from harm so they can continue to compete. This is why the top pick up men are voted to attend the finals every year in December and are awarded year end awards for their efforts.
Horses used to pick up are rotated to ensure they aren't overworked and are impressive in their own right. A horse has to handle loud, large crowds, arena action, potentially dangerous situations, and having cowboys thrown over their backs after jumping off the bulls or broncs. Pickup horses have to be stout enough to handle the large broncs and bulls they will handle in the arena. Using their horses, pick up men can help the stock improve its buck pattern by turning them back, which helps the cowboy and stock score better.
Between each audience members gasps and grimaces as a cowboy lands on the ground, sometimes with hooves stomping a cloud of dust around their tough, but breakable bodies, and relying on a great performance to all the cowboys and rough stock needing to stay safe to keep traveling down that rodeo road, pickup men are the hidden gems of rodeo. Blending into the background to keep the stars of rodeo shining bright.
Cover photo courtesy of Covy Moore Photo