There are few places left in America that retain the flavor of rodeo as it started a century ago. But you can find it alive and well every spring in the southeastern Montana plains.
The World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale is world famous partly for the old-school nature of its bucking, bawling broncs and bronc tamers, but even more so as a sunny rendezvous for winter-weary ranchers and destination for thousands of people from across the country and abroad.
The event celebrated its 60th straight year of old-fashioned cowboying and partying in 2010 in a town that’s a true relic of the Old West. Miles City began as a military outpost just after the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn, and by 1917 the bustling cowtown had two rail lines and was another up-and-coming Denver.
But the 1930s dustbowl broke several area homesteaders and they released their horses into the wild. When the first bucking horse sale was held in 1951, many of the tens of thousands of roaming wild horses were auctioned. The informal gathering of stock contractors who organized the first sale has evolved so that now a board of governors operates the event, commonly referred to as a three-day cowboy Mardi Gras.
Roughly 150 buckers, from untried 3-year-olds to former NFR broncs to spoiled saddle horses, are auctioned after each ride with the chant starting as soon as the whistle blows or the cowboy hits the dirt. Anybody can enter to ride the sale horses for an entry fee of $35, with $1,000 added to the purse.
Aside from the broncs and bulls for sale, the auction features a parade, trade show, wild horse races, art shows, barbecues and street dances, plus some of the last pari-mutuel horse racing in Montana.
One of the biggest draws to the sale is the annual Ride of Champions—a match among 20 of the best saddle bronc riders in the world on rank Burch Rodeo horses. It could be the only bronc riding in the world for which pari-mutuel betting is available, in addition to the traditional calcutta.
National Finals Rodeo bronc and bull rider Jesse Bail from Camp Crook, S.D., cut his teeth in Miles City riding the sale horses as an eighth-grader, and he’s never missed the big match since they added it to the program six years ago.
This year, he flew into Billings, Mont., from the Helldorado Days rodeo in Las Vegas just for the bronc riding, and won the long round on one of Burch Rodeo’s rising superstars.
Bail’s check, worth $3,480 was a welcome bonus after a slow winter at PRCA rodeos. He blew a stirrup and was bucked off in the top-10 short round, but the Elshere boys, also of South Dakota, put on a show worthy of the PRCA’s best.
J.J. Elshere has been on fire in 2010, having won the National Western Stock Show in Denver and San Antonio already this winter. The 30-year-old former NFR average winner drew Burch’s Lunatic Fringe to win the invitation-only match in Miles City and $3,280.
The match regularly draws top-ranked bronc riders like Elshere, who was third in the world the past two seasons and won three rounds at the 2009 NFR. J.J.’s cousin, Cole Elshere, placed second on Burch’s Hippy Chick for $3,680, and his brother, Ryan Elshere, took third on Crazy Train.
“It’s a really good thing for us,” said Ryan Elshere of the match. “They add a lot of money there and have really good horses to get on. There’s getting to be more and more bronc riding matches, which are great for me because I don’t rodeo a whole lot anymore and it’s a place for me to go.”
In the sale itself, Bail’s sometime traveling partner Cody Buller of Glendive, Mont., took top honors in the derby bull riding, while Jason Mills of Bozeman won the bareback riding average on three head and Will Neilson of Terry won the two-head bronc riding average.
Burch Rodeo had the contract on the match broncs, but also took a load of bucking horses and bulls to the sale. Matt Burch said Miles City was one of the premier places to buy great bucking stock in the mid-1980s, when buyers included Hall-of-Fame-caliber contractors like Harry Vold and Mike Cervi.
This year, Burch didn’t stop at selling roughstock and supplying some of the best broncs in the world for the match. In the Ride of Champions calcutta, he simply bought whomever drew his great stallion Lunatic Fringe, and the gamble paid off when Elshere’s ride earned Burch $8,287.
The Burch brothers have been making a name for themselves for the past decade as the source of some of the rankest broncs in professional rodeo, and Lunatic Fringe is their newest claim to fame.
Just 8 years old this year, the flashy Paint NFR bronc is out of a solid Tooke-bred bucking mare named Wipeout and by a son of the great War Paint. He was bucked as a bareback bronc for two years in the PRCA and was switched over into the saddle bronc riding in 2009.
“He just keeps getting better with more outs,” said Burch. “I think he’s Bronc of the Year material. They’re talking about him winning the halter at some point.”
The Burches decided to keep Lunatic Fringe a stallion after the sire died a few years ago, and it likely was the best decision they could have made. Although his babies aren’t yet old enough to buck at rodeos, they’ve been “dummy bucked,” or turned out of the chute with a dummy on their back, and according to Matt, the colts coming up look “outstanding.”
Matt and his twin brother, Chad, run Burch Rodeo from their sprawling ranch near Gillette, Wyo., and breed roughly 150 mares each season, so they need to continually make room for the young broncs coming up.
Their sale offerings at Miles City were all proven buckers and included several older broncs that had performed at the NFR or had recently won rounds at rodeos like the National Western in Denver. Most are geldings, from 12 to 17 years old, because Burch mares are generally not for sale or only available through private purchase.
“We can’t keep them all around,” he said. “We sold 23 bulls and 26 horses, so really a guy could have gone up there and bought his own rodeo company.”
In fact, Burch recalls that when he first bought his PRCA card as a contractor in 1999, there were roughly 60 roughstock companies, and this season he reckons that number is in the 90s.
“I’m not sure why people want in—you’re not going to get rich,” he says. “But every year more people are getting into the rodeo business. It’s a tough business—you really have to love it.”
Indeed, Matt, a former bareback rider, has always loved bucking horses.
“It’s like raising kids,” he says. “You watch them foal and then the first time you buck them you can’t wait for them to get another year older and get somebody on them.”
Burch said it’s much like the racehorse breeding business.
“You have to have money to get into it and you spend all your time and effort and money to raise those horses and see just how good you can get them,” he said.
The Burch brothers are contemplating having their own production sale in the fall, with the hope that it, too, would become one of the best places in America to buy buckers. The ranch-raised cowboy twins would maintain the true Miles City spirit with an Old West affair that showcases a deep love for wild broncs.
Miles City’s own version was showcased in a 2004 documentary that examined contemporary cowboy culture as a way of life that’s vanishing. “The Last Stronghold: The Miles City Bucking Horse Sale,” was produced by Jon Dodson and Ian Kellett, and offers a glimpse at rodeo in the context of Montana’s frontier history.
Expect just as many throngs of revelers in Miles City next May, spilling out of the grandstands and throughout the streets, as spring returns to Big Sky country and a new rodeo season beckons.
It’s a perspective captured in the documentary by historian John Moore, who could have been describing today’s professional rodeo cowboy as well as Western life in Montana when he said, “This is a ‘next year’ country. People out here live on hope. If you can saddle hope and ride it, you’ll get over the next divide.”