The Risky Business of Raising Broncs
Some folks might take for granted the high-kicking broncs of the rodeo arena, but not the cowboys, the rodeo committees and certainly not the stock contractors.
Franklin’s famous bareback mare, Blue Too, with Lan LaJeunesse on board at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo
Contractors are independent, and each has their own methods. I spoke with veterans Bruce and Iloe Flewelling of Outlaw Buckers and Shane Franklin of Franklin Rodeo Company about what goes into raising a bucking horse. While some of their philosophies converge, for the most part each has their own way of doing things. With that in mind, this is what works for them on their outfit…
Bruce and Iloe Flewelling have run an un-countable number of bucking horses through the chutes over the years. There are about 125 head on their place, ranging from newborn up to 24-year-old American Royal, one of their stallions. They’ve won umpteen awards and are one of a handful of contractors that have had horses at every Canadian Finals since it began in 1974.
Iloe is a major part of the operation. She has a near-eidetic (photographic) memory, keeping track of bloodlines, stats on every trip the horse makes, who the rider was and the horses mark given by the judges. (50 per cent of a bronc ride is earned by the rider, 50 per cent by the horse.)
The veteran couple doesn’t have “luck” with bucking horses, “We have a breeding program,” says Iloe. Their mares are highly prized, because, as she points out, “60 per cent of the buck comes from the mare.” Their Cheadle horses, now in their fourth generation, are one of their proven lines.
“I don’t like too much cold [draft horse] blood,” says Iloe. “You have to have some, but too much and they don’t have any heart. The same goes for hot blood; there can be too much of that too.”
The Flewelling’s wait until their horses’ bodies and minds are mature and never buck their horses until they are at least four, but more often five years old. “We wait and give them time to grow,” says Bruce.
The couple raises some 30 foals a year and from their birth, the horses are handled the same way they would be at a rodeo; they come out of the pasture and travel up panelled alleys; they are loaded into chutes and handled kindly, even when they are getting de-wormed or their feet trimmed, they are put in a “squeeze” —?essentially a levered gate?—?all to get them used to the idea that confinement is safe, which keeps them quiet in the chute.
“There’s never any problem with getting them into an alley or a chute because they have no fear of that,” says Iloe.
Their attention to detail has added to their success, including the knowledge that, just like people, horses are either left- or right-handed.
“We have a lot of left-hand delivery horses,” explains Bruce. “We found that if the mare bucked out of a left-hand delivery, 95 per cent of the time her colt will too.” Choosing the correct delivery starts the young horse out on its natural lead.
Bruce is emphatic on one point; the flank man is the most important guy behind the chutes.
Flanking is an art in itself. The snugness of each fleece-lined flank is set by adjusting two opposing rings on the latigo. When the chute opens and the bronc starts to leave, the latigo is pulled and the flank tightens to a pre-determined circumference and the rings come together, a fail-safe, full stop. You’ll hear the term, “ring-to-ring”?—?and depending on the horse, the flank is set for a light, medium or a heavy flank.
“We know that if it’s a Cheadle horse, you don’t flank them at all, you just hang it on there so it doesn’t fall off,” says Bruce.
“Now Gene Allen,” he continues, “You did an article on him a while ago (June/July 2011). He’s the best flank man in Canada. I’ve never seen a guy that could read horses like him,” Bruce says admiringly. “With our Silver Wings horse, I said to Gene one time, ‘the mare only kicked at her belly.’ He told me, ‘You want to know why she didn’t buck? Cause you took the colt off her.’ For years afterwards I always took her colt with her?—?even to Edmonton (CFR). Folks would ask me, ‘Why haven’t you weaned that colt yet?’ ‘Cause momma won’t buck without him here,” laughs Bruce.
Colin Adams on Outlaw Buckers J Bar Nine at the Canadian Finals Rodeo
Yet even with proven bloodlines there’s no guarantee. “If you can just look at a horse and tell it bucks, you’d be a multi-millionaire,” states Iloe.
“Sometimes it skips a generation; the grandmother was a great bucking horse and then the granddaughter, which happens,” says Bruce. “You can’t train or make a horse buck?—?they either buck or they don’t.”
Shane Franklin of the Franklin Rodeo Company is a second-generation, multi-awarded bucking horse man, the son of Rodeo Hall of Famer Verne Franklin.
“We don’t buck our horses til they’re five coming six?—?mature. There are two-and-three-year-old [bucking horse] futurities and I’ve got guys phoning me all the time to enter them. I tell ‘wem, ‘Why would I get some little young two-year-old that’s not developed and run him in the bucking chutes?’ I’m not interested in that. You can’t send a boy to do a man’s job.”
Franklin breeds 25 to 30 mares. “And every one of them has either been to the Canadian Finals or the National Finals,” he says.
Two of his herd sires are Blue Rocket (out of Blue Too by Majestic Rocket) and Wolfie, his famous clone of their multiple Rodeo Hall of Famer, Airwolf.
But just like people, bloodlines only count for so much. “There’s no guarantee,” he says. “Sometimes you can get a crop of colts and none of ’em buck.”
“With our young horses that are going to buck this year, we’ve already had them in the bucking chutes at home once. We handle them, pat them all over, lean over top?—?so they get used to all that. We chute-break those horses before we buck them for safety reasons for the contestants.”
Make no mistake, Franklin horses are not gentle. “We make no bones about it,” he continues. “Our horses are wilder than anybody else’s. Them greys, that’s born and bred in them 30 years back. You cannot get that outta them and I’m not going to try.”
And he doesn’t halter break any of his saddle broncs. “That’s where I’m different,” he asserts. “I want the wildness back in rodeo and halter breaking a horse takes some of that out. We’re trying to keep it in,” he laughs.
At the start of each young horse’s career, the flank is only tightened enough “so it doesn’t fall off.” His caution is justified. “Their first few trips are all a blur to them,” he explains. “I don’t want to put on too much and have them buck so hard they hurt themselves.”
Franklin also starts his horses in saddle bronc. “I don’t like the way the body of the [bareback] rigging’s are made,” explains Shane. “And some guys have a tendency to hang up more than usual, and that is absolutely detrimental to a horse.”
For The Canadian and National Finals, the rough stock is voted in by the contestants. According to Shane, that’s what’s ‘wrong’ with professional rodeo. “It’s the only professional sport that at playoff time, one team gets to pick its opposition.”
“The sport has changed,” he states. “The wildness is being taken out of rodeo. They want things more even and quiet so there’s no risk, and rodeo is not meant to be like that. Rodeo used to be extreme excitement, and that’s what sells tickets.”