School of Hard Knocks

Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

I learned not to drink and rodeo. I learned hospitals are expensive. Paul Bianchi breaks it down.

This picture was taken in 2013 at the Marysville Stampede in California. I had been competing in the wild horse race. I’d been there before and never had any luck there. That continues to this day.

The rodeo starts later in the afternoon, around five or six o’clock. Most guys just show up and sleep or find some buddy they know and hang out at their house until the rodeo. That year, we went out to breakfast at a place that had endless mimosas. Let’s just say I took it to heart. I tried to sleep it off for a couple of hours, but I didn’t have enough time. I tried to rodeo and paid the price.

The Call

My introduction to wild horse racing came from a bartender, a guy I went to high school with, who was working at the 19th Hole in Tres Pinos, near Hollister, California, where we grew up. This was back in 2010. He called me at home. “Hey,” he said. “I need a mugger for the wild horse race at the Saddle Horse Show and Rodeo. You’re pretty athletic. Why don’t you give it a try?”

I was in my late twenties, working on a ranch as a welder and driving a tractor. Generally speaking, I was just hanging out, trying to find a direction in life. I used to ride dirt bikes out in the desert a good bit, but I had no horse experience.

“What’s in it for me?” I asked.

“I promise you a buckle,” he said.

“That’s a pretty big promise,” I said.

“Just get me mounted on all three horses, and we’ll win,” he said. “Give it a shot. What do you have to lose?”

The rodeo was three weeks away. I don’t think we practiced at all. He just said, “Here, watch these videos.”

Sure as shit, we won. I took home a buckle and maybe sixty bucks. I was hooked.

The Event

There’s not a lot of money in wild horse racing. During the few years I competed, I was mostly involved with the Professional Wild Horse Race Association and the Xtreme Bronc Riding Association.

There are three people on a team. The shankman tries to control the horse with a leadrope. The mugger grabs the halter and tries to steady the horse. The rider saddles and mounts the horse and tries to be the first to ride his horse past a barrel at one end of the arena. From what I’ve been told, back in the day that’s the way they used to break horses. Three guys, a rope and a halter. It gets pretty Western, that’s for sure.

I’m a big guy. I played football, defensive end. Mugging felt good. It felt like something I could go do on weekends, go have some fun with friends and get out of the house. Have a hobby, I guess I’d say. I was decent at it. From my days playing football, I learned to react quickly, to almost read stuff before it happens. Everything slows down in my mind. I was fortunate to have some really great football coaches and to be surrounded by great players also. When I started horse racing, I surrounded myself with some of the better guys and learned to read horses from them. You can’t be scared. That’s for dang sure. You always get some nerves. If you’re not nervous, you shouldn’t be doing it, in my eyes. It’s almost like a drug. You’re looking for next fix. It’s bad to say, but you’re always looking for the next adrenaline rush.

I competed for a few years, going to maybe twelve or thirteen races a year. Shoot, I’ve been to Cheyenne, Prescott. I’ve mugged horses all over the place. There was no money in it. If we won enough to cover our entry fees, it was a good weekend. One year, we made the wild horse racing finals at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. That was fun stuff.

The Mistake

Like I said, on the day this picture was taken, we showed up in Marysville and did some day drinking. We drank for a few hours and then went to the rodeo grounds and tried to sleep it off out behind the bucking chutes. Me and the shanker were drinking. The rider was smarter about the situation.

This was a PRCA rodeo, and the wild horse race was the very first event. There were five or six teams entered. All the teams go at once, first one to ride past the barrel wins. The rodeo was about to start, but I was still passed out behind the bucking chutes. The shanker and rider were yelling at me to get up. They had our horse haltered and ready to go. During the National Anthem, I was splashing water on my face, telling myself, Okay, it’s time to go, and thinking it was just going to be another run.

I believe it was a shotgun start. They swung the gate open, and we went to work. The shankman held the rope, and I grabbed the halter, and we tried to work the horse across the arena. Your goal is to get as close as you can, so the rider doesn’t have to ride that far.

Well, the horse started picking up speed, heading towards a fence. I was leaning forward, losing my footing. The horse turned and hit the fence sideways, and the momentum slammed me into the fence, knocking me to the ground. If I had stood up, I probably would have been fine, but instead I kind of dove down thinking he’d get away, but I ended up underneath him. He caught my forehead with his front hoof. I just remember thinking, Get up!

Knowing our shankman never let go of a horse, I got back up and was looking for him. Sure enough, he still had the horse. I went over and tried mugging the horse again, and that’s when another horse came over and T-boned me. That was a double whammy, like somebody was saying, He didn’t learn. Take it a second time!

We ended up losing the horse.

I looked at my rider and said, “How bad is it?”

He was like, “Just go to the ambulance.”

I was walking out of the arena in disgust, when Matt got that picture. It’s amazing how fast you sober up when the adrenaline gets pumping.

At the ambulance, I said, “How bad is it?”

“Oh, you’re gonna need some stitches,” they said. They probably thought I was crazy.

I have a picture of the doctor holding the skin apart. You can see my skull. I ended up getting three rows of thirteen stitches.

This all happened on a Sunday. By Tuesday, it hurt pretty bad. On Wednesday, I was back at work. It was like playing a hard football game, getting your ass beat and then getting back to the grind. The guys at the ranch where I worked gave me a bunch of shit, mostly because they wondered where I was for two days.

Two weeks later, I was the best man at my best friend’s wedding. To say the bride wasn’t happy is an understatement.

The Silver Lining

Did any good come from it? I learned not to drink and rodeo. I learned hospitals are expensive. I have a pretty decent scar to remember it by. When I’m drinking, it comes out red.

After my head healed, I entered a couple of wild horse races, but I was over it. Mugging wasn’t the thing to fill the void I was looking for. A friend of mine, Charles Harris, got me started steer wrestling. He helped me out with my ground game and introduced me to some great people, like Luke Branquinho and Blaine Jones. Those guys have helped me out quite a bit.

The first year I started bulldogging, back in 2015, I blew out my knee and had to have it completely rebuilt. I blew it out on January 1, had surgery on February 11 and was back bulldogging by my birthday on July 10. Things kind of took off from there. In 2017, I finished in the top five of the PRCA Permit Member of the Year Challenge, which allowed me to compete in Las Vegas at the permit finals.

Probably the best thing about wild horse racing is that it led me to steer wrestling. I was never really a cowboy to start out with. This was my foot in the door. Steer wrestling is way funner than mugging a horse, I’ll tell you that.

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