Photo by Matt Hinshaw.
Originally Published: July 4, 2015 6 a.m.
PRESCOTT - They don't call it "wild" for nothing.
For decades, the Wild Horse Races - also known as Xtreme Bronc Riding - has served as the opening act of the "World's Oldest Rodeo" in Prescott.
And, regardless of whether it's called extreme or wild, the event lives up to its reputation.
The basic idea: Anywhere from 18 to 24 cowboys - competing in teams of three, each with its own "wild" horse - careen frantically around the rodeo arena, trying to get a saddle on their somewhat uncooperative horse. The first to get a rider in the saddle, and across the finishing line, wins.
The Tuesday, June 30, rodeo performance pitted six teams against one another. Released into the arena all at once, the teams had two minutes to achieve their goal.
To say that what ensued was chaotic is an understatement. Dramas were playing out in virtually all corners, with horses bucking wildly and then galloping around the arena, dirt flying; cowboys yanking on ropes; and rowdy music blaring from the loudspeaker.
Ultimately, a team from New Mexico came out on top. Afterward, the winning team members gathered at the rodeo grounds' Freeman building to regroup and collect their prize money.
Leon Stewart - a Crystal, N.M. cowboy who serves as the team's "shank man" (responsible for the shank rope that secures the horse) - said he and his team members are accustomed to dealing with wild horses on their property near the Navajo Reservation.
"We do ranching, and we break horses," Stewart said. "It's in our blood."
With obvious pride, Wyatt Gibson, the team's rider, noted that he and his fellow team members won a similar competition at the Cheyenne, Wyoming rodeo last year.
The team regularly competes in as many as 18 rodeos around the country, Stewart said.
Marshall Allen, the team's "mugger" - the cowboy responsible for holding onto the horse while the others saddle it - said he has a simple strategy: "I grab ahold of the horse's head," he said.
The Stewart team competed again on July 1, and finished in third place, while the T.C. Buntin team from Chino Valley came in first that night, as well as on the first night of the rodeo, Monday, June 29.
Bob Domicell, chairman of the Wild Horse Race, noted that the teams have "three goes" at the Wild Horse Race, and many compete on three consecutive nights.
"Day money" is awarded to each night's winner, and then the overall results are averaged at the end of the rodeo, and the first four finishers cash in.
Domicell, who has been helping with the Wild Horse Races for about 20 years, explained that all teams consist of a mugger, a shank man, and a rider. Each has a specific job.
"Once they have the horse stopped, then the rider attempts to put the saddle on and then get on the horse," Domicell said. "Once the rider's on, the shank man has to take the shank rope off. Then the rider tries to get the horse, which is bucking and kind of uncontrollable, across the finish line."
Domicell and Prescott Frontier Days Vice Chairman Joe Butner say the race has been a part of the Prescott rodeo for more than a century - starting as early as 1913,
"It's one of the oldest events in the rodeo," Butner said.
Added Domicell: "It actually came from cowboys trying to break horses."
Butner describes the horses in the race as "unbroken, wild horses" that are provided by the stock contractor. "They're not used to being handled."
That was obvious on June 30 and July 1, as several of the horses took strong exception to the saddles and riders.
This year, Prescott Frontier Days opted to become sanctioned through the Xtreme Bronc Riding Association - a move aimed at attracting more teams, Domicell said.
As Kriss Agin, a race judge with the Xtreme Bronc Riding Association, waited near the chutes on June 30, she explained that while the race is mostly "man against beast," teams must comply with a number of basic rules. "It doesn't look like there are any rules, but there are," Agin said.
For instance, she said, team members must release the shank rope from the halter within a set timeframe, or they're disqualified - a rule that is somewhat unique to Prescott Frontier Days. Also, the rider must be in the saddle when he crosses the finish line.
When it comes to what makes a good wild-horse racer, everyone appeared to agree.
"Well, you gotta be a little bit crazy," Butner said.
Tony Adams, a rodeo volunteer who has been helping with the races for about five years, agreed. "Those guys are crazy," he said.
Of course, that's not all. "The rider has to be a good rider," Butner said, "And the mugger and the shank man have to big, strong guys."
The Wild Horse Races continue at "World's Oldest Rodeo" on Saturday, July 4, and Sunday, July 5.
Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-642-0951.