Tony Vagneur: Casey Tibbs, a horse-riding idol
In the strangeness of the dream, my dad told me we were going to (Old) Snowmass to meet Casey Tibbs. That name hadn’t crossed my consciousness in maybe 20 years.
Casey Tibbs (1929 to 1990), in case you didn’t know, was a big deal, and still is. He won six Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association saddle bronc championships plus two all-around cowboy championships and one bareback riding championship. That’s what you call one tough and talented dude.
I’d never heard of Tibbs until around 1956-57. Up there on our Homestead Mesa, working with one of the hired hands and talking about how I’d like to be a saddle bronc rider when I got older, “You mean like Casey Tibbs,” he said. “Who’s that?” came my reply.
We didn’t have television and only the occasional magazine or newspaper on the ranch so it was difficult to keep up with national or international events on a regular basis. For a kid like me, hired hands often brought the exciting world outside of Aspen and Woody Creek into my daily life. Besides, the Vagneurs were known as ropers, not bronc riders, so I didn’t really have any role models.
Things come and go and I rode all the bronc-type horses we had on the ranch and during junior and senior summers, a buddy and I rode the W/J bulls two or three nights a week, including Snuffy. Nobody in the Roaring Fork Valley seemed to know much about saddle bronc riding. And then college, where I rode bareback in some eastern slope rodeos, and before it seemed possible, I was 23 years old and riding in wild horse races, about as close to saddle bronc riding as I could find.
Moose Rusher, a man I admired, took me under his wing. He knew about saddle broncs and told me I should go to school for such a thing. Couldn’t, for some reason. Moose and I put together a bucking barrel in his backyard, a 55-gallon drum tied off to trees or posts in four directions that could tear you up good with four strong people pulling on the ropes. Precursor to a mechanical bull. We wore it out almost before we got started.
Casey Tibb’s dad, a true horseman who at one time ran about 2,000 head of horses, told Casey that if he ever rode in a rodeo, he would never speak to him again. At 13, his dad intentionally left him at the rodeo grounds in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, after Casey did the unthinkable by riding in the annual rodeo. The rift was never repaired.
Here was a man who, at 19 had made more money in one rodeo than his dad might have ever seen in a lifetime, and was accused of robbing a bank. That has to color a young man’s attitude toward life. But as Casey said about bronc riding, “Get back up and get back on. And don’t be afraid to get bucked off again.” Hurt makes you tough.
Casey was a helluva bronc rider, but he wasn’t the hero he might have been, not in my mind. I’d have liked to have been another Casey Tibbs, but to me the hero was the rodeo, especially behind the chutes. The dirt, the dust, the stomping of snorting horses, the slinging snot of raunchy bulls, the s— that is always prevalent around grass-eating animals, and the noise of the crowd when you did something right, or terribly wrong. Ride hard, party hard, and stay up all night. That’s how I thought it was supposed to be done, following in the mold of the world champion. And I was good at it.
Out of all Casey, the “Rainbow Man,” did, taking his only child, his daughter into his life after many years of separation might have been his greatest act. The separation wasn’t exactly anyone’s fault, nor was the unmarried pregnancy, but things happen. Casey, who was on the road almost continuously, paid child support until the child’s mother got married and insisted her new husband be the sole father and supporter of her daughter. Visits with Casey were strongly discouraged.
Casey’s daughter, at 21, approached him in the hospital where he was recovering from an injury, a visit during which Casey asked if they could begin to get to know each other. Of course, if you read of things his daughter has said about their relationship, the love and respect shine through, especially Casey’s love for his granddaughter.
You can be the world’s best at anything, including bronc riding, and you can make rodeo a popular sport amongst the populace, but when you show yourself as human and work with what family you have, then you are a true hero. Casey Tibbs, who knew the importance of fathers, ultimately rode the rainbow to the end as a man of strength and courage.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.