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Let ’Er Buck! Rodeo—The Early Years

Longhorn Media Productions, Scottsdale, Ariz., 2007 DVD format (produced in 1994), 75- minute documentary, $19.95, plus $3.50 shipping.

Rodeo ain’t what it used to be—which is both a good and a bad thing. Today, at hundreds of commercial rodeos, cowboys continue to let ’er buck, but not exactly the way those fellahs (and cowgirls, too) let ’er buck at the cowboy contests in the old days. This 1990s Emmy-nominated documentary, now available on DVD, is loaded with action-packed vintage film footage that more than hints at the courage and devil-may-care attitude of the old-time rodeo performers—the humans, and some four-legged buckers, too.

Rodeo, the only sport based on an industry (the cattle industry), evolved from the cowboy competitions on and off the range after the Civil War. Indeed, the documentary opens as the Civil War ends, continues through the cattle drives and Wild West shows, highlights the various places that can lay claim to the “first” rodeo and follows the thrilling and dangerous sport through the mid-1930s. The wild and woolly wild horse races that they used to have at these competitions are something to behold (though holding on isn’t easy). Legendary cowboys— future stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Kanutt, Lee Caldwell, Jackson Sundown, George Fletcher, Leonard Stroud, Bill Pickett, etc.—get their due. So do such famous bucking horses as Steamboat, Long Tom (a plow horse gone wild) and No Name (who actually had several aliases, because bronc riders feared him, and with good reason).

A most enjoyable segment of the documentary focuses on cowgirl performers such as Lucille Mulhall, Mable Strickland, Tillie Baldwin, Bonnie McCarroll and Lulu Belle Parr. Some were pretty, all were pretty darn tough. There are a few sobering facts included, such as how seven female bronc busters bit the dust before women were barred from that rodeo event. Some cowgirls used to ride bulls, too. Interesting, though, that most early bull riding by cowboys was done in exhibitions while steer riding (first Longhorn steers and than Brahma steers) was one of the main events.

Cowboys and plenty of non-cowboys will delight over executive producer Lance Valdespino’s well-researched, lively documentary. Old photographs shine in this straightforward but virtually flawless production, but it’s the old film footage that makes Let ’Er Buck a moving experience for even couch potatoes. Down the road, look for Volume II, a sequel about rodeo events since the mid-1930s.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here