That's Life: In cowboys we trust

Tony Bender
Local Columnist

Editor's note: It's rodeo season, and this week we look back at Tony Bender's experience with the Ashley ND Rodeo which is this weekend.

There might be as many descriptions of what makes a cowboy as there are cowboys. I've known a lot of them, and there's no one mold. It involves more than wearing a hat and boots. It's not a uniform; it's a way of life that is harder to pin down than a politician or a greased pig. You know one when you see one. A cowboy, that is.

There are few things I know about cowboys that are universal. They can't all sing, but they hear music in the rustle of tall grass and the squeak of a properly-cinched saddle. They might chew but not that sissy stuff. They don't eat yogurt or tofu, they can't spell quiche, and they damn sure ain't vegetarians. Real cowboys eat meat yet have an abiding respect for the animals they raise and ride.

I was stationed at Chute #1 at the Ashley Community Rodeo last weekend watching cowboys rocket into the arena and come limping back in the dust. More than one stopped to offer appreciation for the the quality of the animal that dumped them to Jim Mosbrucker, whose company supplies rough stock to rodeos. Unfailingly, they called him sir. Cowboys are respectful.

When I come back, I want come back as Jim Mosbrucker. Black hat, black jacket, aviator sunglasses—cowboy cool—with a lifetime of knowledge accrued the old fashioned way. Each scar, the squint, the bones mended off center, a diploma of sorts.

From time to time, he predicted how a particular animal might perform and was spot on. Like it was scripted. He moved everyone back for one bull—1,500 pounds of ornery—that sent the chute gate screaming into the fence where we had been standing seconds before. Saved my camera and probably my nose. You couldn't miss the admiration Jim felt as he watched the contests between young cowboys and young horses. “Like any athlete, the young horses will keep trying something new until they figure out what works,” he said. The cowboys have to keep up. Action, reaction, call and response. Poetry.

The pen behind us was littered with riders, impossibly young, readying gear, one praying, and another nursing a shoulder injury, grimacing, after a brutal tumble.

Someone asked, “You okay?”

You could tell it hurt to talk. “Yeah,” he gasped.

He was just fine. It's pretty much against the law for a cowboy to be anything but fine. Cowboys don't complain. Cowboys don't give a lick about universal health care plans because they have a one size fits all remedy. You just get right back up. And maybe rub some dirt on it. Maybe.

In the afternoon, the kids lined up at the rodeo grounds—some as young as four—like they were

awaiting their executions. Mutton busting. One after another, they tumbled to the ground, kicked and stomped, tears turning dust to mud. Those in line, boys and girls, bore witness to the carnage, but most stoically marched forward when their names were called. A few of the smarter ones refused. Not everyone is cut out to be a cowboy.

In the wake of one particularly hard sheep-wreck, announcer Tim Fuller said in his homespun Oklahoma drawl, “I want you to remember something, son. Chicks dig scars... Just sayin'.”

Maybe it's because cowboys have more time to think—around here, eight seconds is forever—but every real cowboy is part philosopher. After another unfortunate dismount and subsequent trampling, Fuller said, “I've never been able to figure this out—you can't spank your kids at Wal-Mart, but you can strap them to the back of farm animals for entertainment.”

Cowboys are a uniquely American breed, closer to the root than the branches of the American soul. Evolved as a matter of necessity, Darwinians, with sunburns and scraped knuckles, adapting to the hardships of a hard land, but prayerful in appreciation of a higher power, who on any given day might be the boss, the chuck wagon cook, a pretty girl at the dance, or the man upstairs.

This is a world in which all things are earned but not boasted about. There is a certainty among cowboys that this is the best way to live. It's not arrogance. It's the certainty that comes from observation of the world around us compared to the Cowboy Way.

During a break in the action, rodeo clown “Backflip” Johnny Dudley polled the crowd: “Where you all from?”


He seemed taken off guard. “W-w well, welcome to America,” he said graciously before moving on.

“And where are you from?”

“New York!”

A brief pause.

“Well, welcome to America, too,” he said, softly.