MILES CITY — They call the Bucking Horse Sale the cowboy Mardi Gras. Some spectators even wore purple and gold plastic beads around their necks last weekend at the fairgrounds in Miles City.
It wasn’t hard to spot the real cowboys. For every dude trying to look the part with new Wranglers and a pair of shiny Tony Lamas, there was a real, working ranch hand whose first word as a baby was likely the name of his horse. These are the guys who grew up feeding stock with their dad or grandfather, riding and roping before they started kindergarten.
You could find some of these cowboys behind the auction arena and the race track — stretching sore muscles, rubbing a bruised shoulder or stretching out next to a dusty gear bag and a beat-up saddle. These are the guys who look for their 8 seconds at center stage atop a no-name bucking horse who might sell for $400. These aren’t professional rodeo competitors but ranch hands and college rodeo riders who ride bucking horses
because it’s part of who they are and where they come from. Miles City is definitely the epicenter of the cowboy lifestyle.
For the 12,000 spectators who took part in the four-day Bucking Horse Sale, it’s a glimpse of a life that’s almost gone.
“Miles City is definitely the Wild West,” said 22-year-old Shane Wheeler, of Ashland.
Wheeler was competing in the Bucking Horse Futurity. That meant he got a shot at trying to stay on a bucking horse for 8 seconds in the arena with 2,000 screaming fans. During that event, the goal is to show off the horse, not necessarily the rider. An auctioneer works to get the highest bid for the horse, some of which are known simply by a number, not a name.
“I’ve been here eight years now, and I haven’t missed one yet,” Wheeler said, noting that those first few years he just watched. “It’s a tradition for my family, and a lot of my buddies are here.”
Wheeler is lucky. He practices riding a wild horse one or two days a week at a neighboring ranch. So far, he’s dislocated an elbow flying off a horse. He figures he’s got another eight years — until he’s 30 — to get a perfect ride.
Dusty Morigeau, 19, made the long drive to Miles City from Dixon, north of Missoula, to compete in the futurity. He just finished spring semester at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., and was looking for some excitement. He said it takes two things to climb on top of a bucking bronc.
“A lot of stupidity and strength,” Morigeau said.
He also works on his flexibility and technique. His folks didn’t come down to watch him ride, but that’s OK; his rodeo buddies were there.
“It’s like having one big happy family,” Morigeau said.
For 64 years, the Bucking Horse Sale has been held in Miles City in its current spectator format, but the event started long before that. In 1914, area ranchers discovered that if they sold a horse considered broke to the cavalry, they’d get a couple dollars extra, said Don Richards, director of horse racing for the Bucking Horse Sale committee. In the old days, the sale was known as the Miles City Roundup.
“The ranchers around the area rounded up the horses for the cavalry to buy for Fort Keogh or wherever. The horse buyer would come down the river on the steamboat,” Richards said.
If a ranch hand could stay on the horse for 7 to 10 seconds in front of the buyer, that was good enough to prove the horse was broke.
“Somebody came up with the bright idea to charge admission and the livestock people got involved. It progressed onward and upward,” Richards said.
These days, there is another set of corrals downtown — corrals to keep the drinkers contained.
The drinking got so out of hand in the 1970s and early 1980s that the police cracked down, arresting 200 people one year for open containers and public drunkenness before they decided to create the people corral, Richards said.
That party atmosphere continues, though. On Saturday, a drum corps dressed as cavalrymen started a pub crawl in downtown Miles City at 11 a.m.
Kevin Hodge drove over from Dillon to rendezvous with friends for some serious socializing.
“I come to see old friends, who went to school with me at Montana State University,” Hodge said. “I used to come for three days, but I’m too old for that. Two days are all I can handle.”
Others are there just to gawk at all the horses.
“The horses are beautiful,” said Colstrip retiree Sheri Paull, who sat in the stands with her husband and son.
One man observed from the stands last weekend, “There’s a $2,100 saddle on a $600 horse.”
Another quipped, “This is no place for the timid; I’ll tell you that right now.”
The horses that are sold during the futurity event don’t all make it as rodeo stock. Most of these horses don’t have a pedigree and nobody is sure what they’ll do in the ring.
“It takes a pretty good athlete to be a rodeo horse,” Richards said. “Some of these horses wind up as breeding stock. Some of them are lined up as dog food. You never know what’s going to be a bucker until you get it there. Most of the horses come from the ranches around here.”
Horses sold for as little as $275 Saturday and as much as $800. The buyers were scattered around the arena, many seated on the staging side of the arena.
The spectators were more interested in the wild bucking horse races than the futurity auction. Sixteen to 18 teams of three cowboys each were set to compete in the event.
In the wild bucking horse race, the teams each get one horse. Two men hold ropes to keep the horse as still as possible. The other man throws on the saddle, cinches it and then swings on top of the horse. Once a rider is seated, he attempts to steer the horse onto the racetrack for a loop around the arena.
It’s a chaotic few minutes in the arena filled with dust, flying manes, high-kicking horses and cowboys slamming the ground.
You never know what’s going to happen.
In the last race on Saturday night, only four of the eight horses got saddled and hit the track. Then all four abruptly turned around and headed back to the arena without finishing the lap. The crowd went nuts. The horses eventually did the loop several minutes later.
It’s that adrenaline rush that keeps the fans coming back year after year.
“It’s called the world-famous bucking horse sale for a reason,” Richards said. “They come here from England, France, Sweden, Germany, Africa, Japan, China, Korea and every state in the U.S.”
But even with the worldwide draw, the event is still a taste of local, lasting culture. Richards estimated at least half of the attendees last weekend came from Eastern Montana and North Dakota — and not for the first time. “There are some I run into that say, ‘This is my 29th year here,’ ” he said.
At the end of the day, while fans nursed sunburns and wondered where they parked their RVs, the cowboys limped away from the arena, boots covered in dust, some still grinning about that wild ride on the back of an untamed horse.