MEL HYLAND'S HOME ON THE RANGE
The Calgary Stampede as a rough ride on the way to the saddle bronc championship of the world
Not everybody who goes to the Calgary Stampede — last year or any year — is there to see the rodeo. Some bet on the horse races. Some ride the roller coaster. They go to see skin games, skin shows, purebred Jerseys and elixir salesmen. But the 30,000-odd who jam the grandstand every afternoon observe an ancient struggle brought up to date — the contest between man and beast. And at times the moans and cheers of the crowd can be heard at the farthest corner of the grounds, or even in the city streets an eighth of a mile beyond.
“The public doesn’t understand it. When they understand it, like football or hockey, then it’ll really go. ”
Within half an hour Mel Hyland will climb on the back of Red Gold, a horse as pampered as a polo pony and just as skilled at his job. Red Gold’s job is bucking. Most of the fans will watch with the idea that they’re viewing a spectacle instead of a sport. Mel would like to change that. He thinks of himself as a professional athlete.
“ƒ quit smoking about six months ago. I can really tell a difference in my breathing. ‘Course I still get out of breath, but it comes back faster. I’m never goin’ to smoke any more. ”
Except for a flying trip to Oregon on Saturday to ride in Eugene, he’s been waiting since Friday. Now at last it’s Wednesday, and he’s up again.
“Yes, I think Calgary’s the biggest and best — better stock, the best run, the most professional. ”
Watching Mel in action, you would suppose he must be a different species, made of solid grit and rubber. Surely nothing as fragile as flesh and bone could spur those broncs the way he does — and sometimes fall and roll, and get up and walk away.
“I been lucky. One time, though, I landed on my neck — knocked the wind right out of me. When I could breathe again, I noticed my shoulder was hurting like crazy. I thought it was broken, but it turned out to be a sprain. I was right in the middle of a hot streak, so I tied down
my shoulder and was back riding the next day. I won $2,300 in the following week, then laid back for a few days to let my shoulder heal. ”
You see him standing behind the chutes, though, and he looks like any other man — a little smaller than most,
slim as a matador, short body, long legs, shoulders slightly humped, smiling; black hat, close-cropped hair, Levi’s, scuffed boots. He bends over to spit. In his hip pocket is a round bulge made by his tin of Copenhagen chewing tobacco.
“I’ve never had very good luck in Calgary, though. I guess Cheyenne’s my sentimental favorite. For four years I never scored lower than fourth. And then last year — nothing. ”
Behind the infield bleachers the ground is strewn with saddles, chaps, duffel bags and cowboys getting their gear ready. A few of them are somehow different from the rest — perhaps it’s the way they stand, maybe their faces give them away; you can’t be sure. They carry themselves with a rustic grace that
is as illusive as it is unmistakable. You are not surprised to learn that these are the champions: Kenny McLean, Vernon, British Columbia; Marty Wood, Colorado Springs, Colorado; Jim Gladstone, Cardston, Alberta; Tom Bews, Pekisko, Alberta; J. C. Bonine, Hysham, Montana; Dale Trottier, Clarkson Valley, Alberta; Phil Lyne, George West, Texas; Bill Smith, Cody, Wyoming; Larry Mahan, Fresco, Texas.
“My dad got me started. Him and my Uncle Keith. When I was about two years old, Dad used to strap a leather belt around his middle and buck me across the living room floor. Till one day I spurred him in the rear. . . and that ended that. ” There’s not much talk as the cowboys get ready — that all happened back in front of the Stampede Office an hour ago:
“Geeze, you’re hot, ain’t you?” “Yeh. But I’se a cold son of a bitch last week.” “What y’all been doin’, eh?” [That’s a Canadian cowboy from Texas.]
“Those fellas over there are makin’ a movie about the ‘true’ cowboy. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t swear. Don’t chase women . . . Hell!”
“I got a hot one today. Old Calcimine. Wow! A $2,000 week.”
“If a fellow walked in among the cowboys with long hair and a beard, unless he was from the press or something, he’d get the coldest shoulder you ever saw. ”
The men seem preoccupied now, going about their business with quiet seriousness. They ride their de-homed saddles on the ground in what appears to be a rather inane pantomime of riding a bronco, until you learn they’re just working the rosin into the swells of the saddle.
“You’ve got to keep loose, though. You can’t give a good ride if you’re sqeezin’ those saddle swells. ”
Mel zips open his duffel bag. He changes to a pair of boots with blunted spurs already on them, then drops his wallet and his Copenhagen into one of the boots he just took off. He puts on his chaps, pats his pockets to be sure they’re
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empty, checks his spurs. Sitting in his saddle on the ground, he dabs liis inner thighs with rosin, and kicks once with each leg, his toes turned out.
“Mine’s a Hamley saddle, made in Pendleton, Oregon, about 1955. I got it seven years ago. My uncle told me about this saddle for sale, and I went over to look at it. I knew the minute I saw it that it was the one I wanted — even before I tried it out. I paid $175 for it. I could probably sell it for $500 now. ”
The first event of the afternoon is the Indian buffalo ride. Behind the bucking chutes stands a Blackfoot boy, perhaps 16, all togged out in red leggings and bone necklace, bare chested as his great grandfather used to be. The Indian boy sets his hat down on his folded shirt. “You watch my things for me?”
“Sure,” I tell him.
He hands me a fat, worn wallet, two dirty combs and a large new stag-handled jackknife.
When he has changed there is nothing to do but stand there behind the chute and wait. His buffalo kicks the metal bars a couple of times, and seems to jump straight up.
I say, “This isn’t a competition? They just pay you a flat fee for riding?” “Yah. They pay me $ 100.” He says it as though it were a great deal of money. “For one ride?”
“For the week, I guess.”
The call comes, and he climbs the chute, and lowers himself onto the buffalo, clutching with his legs, and taking firm hold with both hands on the surcingle. He looks straight ahead, but his mouth is drawn down and the lower half of his face shakes convulsively. His eyes seem to glow, first with a sort of fear, but finally with reckless pride, almost an exultation. “Let ’er go!” he says. But the moment passes, and they don’t let ’er go, and he still has to sit there and wait. You can almost see the courage drain away. Then the horn blows, and the chutes clang open. The buffalo leaps out with a force that seems to leave the boy’s body pale. The arena is suddenly filled with bucking buffalo and their youthful Indian riders. . .
In a book I have there is an old photograph of the prairie in winter, with the carcasses of several buffalo lying in the snow. The man who shot them is seen taking the hide of one of them. When I look at that picture I am filled with a strange melancholy, as if it recalls to me images that I have never seen. I sense a progression of events almost as keenly as if I had lived them.
The last days of the buffalo signaled the world of the cowboy, with his 10,000 cattle. Now the cattle too have gone from the plain — moved into feed yards. And the cowboy, by yielding much ground to a changing world, has man-
aged to avoid extinction, just as the buffalo did. But again like the buffalo, he is rarely seen in his natural setting. From the wide, lonely prairie, he has moved into the arena surrounded by thousands of people. He spends less time on a horse than he does in a car, traveling between rodeos. He doesn’t work for $30 a month all found. If he wins, he’s paid handsomely — sometimes more than $500 for one go-round, and as much as $2,000 for final prize money. But if he’s hurt or sick so he can’t compete or if he doesn’t win, it’s all for fun and glory. “My dad can ride. He’s been a longshoreman for 15 years, I guess, but he rode before the war — and after. In fact, he rode a bronc last year; rode two of ’em, and stuck ’em too. ”
Mel Hyland, this summer of ’72, is quietly determined to become saddle bronc champion of the world. He grew up in Surrey, BC, and still calls it home, but he was born in Edmonton. That was 24 years ago, and he’s been a cowboy almost that long. Where most kids play cowboy on stick horses, Mel used a real one, and while they grow up to be the drugstore variety one week out of the year Mel became a real full-time cowboy. He used to break horses for other kids. When he was eight he rode a pony called Spook into the winner’s circle at the Cloverdale flat races. At nine, he competed in the boys’ steer riding at the Calgary Stampede. He began riding in the saddle bronc event when he was 13, won his first prize two years later at the Innisfail Little Britches Rodeo, took the Canadian Amateur Saddle Bronc title at age 18, and the next year, his first as a professional, was Canadian Saddle Bronc Champ. Since then his goal has been the World’s Championship. He’s placed among the top four in three of the last four years. This mid-season, he’s second. The ride to the top of the bronc riding profession has to be one of the roughest anywhere.
“When I was about 12 we had a little black mare which liked to buck. I’d ride her for a while, and then tie her in the corner of the corral until she was rested. Then ride some more. I’ve still got her — still ride her. We’ve both improved. She bucks better than she ever did, and I ride better. ”
Mel risks his neck every working day, but has no real superstitions; tools around home in a ’38 Ford pickup on a ’53 Mercury frame; wonders whether to buy a Cadillac or a camper to travel in; spends a good deal of time promoting his favorite sport; left high school at age 16, but has earned close to $20,000 a year since then. Though he is one of the top bronc riders in the world, Mel is perhaps unknown to 90% of Canadians.
“I lived on a horse when I was a kid. Delivered papers on a horse. Played tag on a horse. Rode in flat races. At
Cloverdale when I was about 12 I rode a thoroughbred that my dad and I had trained. There were races on Saturday and Monday. Dad told me that if I beat either one of them, he’d give me the horse. On Saturday we won by five lengths. Man! There was tears in my eyes when I crossed the finish line. Shorty was mine. And we won again on Monday.
“Later, a chuckwagon driver saw Shorty run and wanted to buy him for one of his outriders. I told him he didn’t have enough money. But my uncle said, ‘You should never get that
attached to an animal. ’ I finally sold him for $350. ”
From the first show in January until the National Finals Rodeo staged in Oklahoma City during early December, Mel is doing one of three things: competing, traveling, or waiting. Since his time in actual competition is measured in seconds, that means many hours spent traveling, and sometimes days on end of waiting.
“There are boys who ride very well, but they don’t want to be world champions. They don’t want to give what it
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costs in time and travel, and what you miss. ”
The world’s championship is decided by a cowboy’s score for the year — each dollar of prize money is worth one point. When the championship, end-ofthe-year rodeo was held in Madison Square Garden, it was a sudden-death contest, decided then and there. Some people would like to see that method of choosing the champ revived. If it is changed, Mel hopes that he will be able to look back and know that he won the title when it represented a year of effort, rather than one good week when it counted most.
“I don’t drink, so I started playin’ the guitar and singing at parties, just for something to do. Now I sing quite a bit. I’ve wrote a few songs, and I try to make them about something that I really feel.”
The songs he has written, when he sings them, have a roughshod authenticity which is wholly convincing. In one called Rodeo Cowboy he sums up the kind of life he lives, and the goals he works for. This is the first verse:
I’m a rodeo cowboy in the RCA,* Riding saddle broncs to earn my pay. Want to be the champion of the world some day,
And workin’ ’em all * Rodeo Cowboys’ Association
Big and small
From Calgary . . . Stettler ... to Omaha.
This day Mel looks like an Australian sheep dog — one eye light, and one dark. He popped a contact lens in the arena the other day, so he has to use what’s left of two sets — one tinted and one clear. Until it’s his turn up, he’s around the bucking chutes, helping his competitors saddle their horses. Occasionally he has a word for the novices: “Brian — hold your feet in that son of a buck. Don’t jerk them out like that.”
“Trouble with kids today — they can’t even ride a saddle horse. They got no feel for the horse. When I was six my dad gave me a Shetland, but he didn’t get me a saddle right away. He made me ride bareback. I learned how to feel a horse through the seat of my pants, and that helps when you ’re tryin ’ to get tapped to a bronc on the first jump out of the chute. ”
A cowboy calls to him: “Hey, Big Bull. You got Red Gold today?” “Yeh.” “Too bad.” Red Gold is a runner, but sometimes he bucks. Mel hopes he bucks today — he’ll need a good score to overcome the 55 he posted Friday.
Mel will be judged on a scale of one to 25, depending on his control of the nine-second ride, his style, and how he spurs. At the same time, and using the
same scale, the judges will score Red Gold on his ability to throw his rider. Two judges then, scoring both horse and man, make a possible 100. Mel’s best ever is an 86 at Cheyenne in 1967.
“I guess one of the highlights for me this year was when I won a couple of airline tickets in an exhibition ride at a Stampeders football game. Anywhere Air Canada flies. My mother was a war bride, and I’m tryin’ to get Dad to use ’em — take her back for a visit to her home in Holland.”
A few girls mingle with the cowboys — slender pretty girls in thigh-hugging flares, boots and big hat. There are wives, too, still slim and pretty, but a little older, some with a miniature cowboy in tow.
“Big Bull? I got that name on account of an Indian who got throwed every time he come out of the chute. One day I got throwed, and a couple of the guys started calling me ‘Big Bull. ’ It just stuck. ”
In the chute, Red Gold is waiting for him. Mel loops his own soft-woven rope rein into the halter the Stampede has provided, and gently nets Red Gold’s unwilling head.
“I was really pleased when Winston Bruce called and asked me to instruct at the Rodeo College here. I thought we had completely different riding
styles, but working together at the college, we got along fine. I been here two years now, for a couple of weeks in April. ”
Mel eases the saddle over the top of the chute and onto Red Gold’s back, setting it high on the withers. I ask, “You have to saddle them yourself?” “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” With a long piece of bent wire he fishes under Red Gold’s belly for the cinch.
“The hardest thing to teach is ‘getting tapped. ’ But if you don’t get the feel of the horse the first jump or two out of the chute, it’s probably too late. Get ’im tapped, then try to stay ahead of your horse — waitin’ for him.”
At the same time, another man is fastening the flank strap around Red Gold’s body at the point where his belly meets his hind legs. The big horse steps back and forth nervously.
“The thing that makes a horse hardest to ride is power. ”
Winston Bruce, dressed in Savile Row Western, stops his horse beside the chute. “Who’s this, Ray?” he asks, smiling at Mel. He knows well enough who it is. This is himself 10 or 12 years ago — a kid from Canada reaching for the crown of the cowboy world. Bruce won it in 1961. Now he’s Arena Director, and given high marks by the cowboys for the calibre of his show.
“When you’re breaking a horse, you ride him till he won’t buck any more. Finally he learns that bucking doesn’t do any good. But these horses buck for nine seconds, and then it’s back to the stable, so if they like to buck it’s a good life for a horse. Out of the arena they’re just like other horses. Many of them are pets. ”
Mel stretches the halter rope back across the top of the saddle. He measures with fist and two extended thumbs behind the back of the pommel, to determine exactly how much rope to give his bronco. Then, holding the place on the rope firmly, he double-checks by passing it over Red Gold’s head and measuring beside his eye. Satisfied, he pulls a strand of mane and ties it into the rope at the place he has marked.
“My mother’s living room is full of trophy saddles. I think Fve got seven now, but none of them are the right size. Fll probably have to buy me a roping saddle. After I snap that World’s Champion buckle on my belt — this year, or next, or the one after, or whenever — I want to go in for roping and bareback riding, and try for allround cowboy.”
Mel does a sort of slow march up and down the alley behind the chutes, occasionally kicking his foot in a swift spurring motion, at the same time raising his
hand against an imaginary halter rope. It’s sort of like a man shadow boxing just before he goes into the ring, or a baseball player swinging a bat in the ondeck circle.
“We were at the National Finals in Oklahoma City. I thought it was a night event, so we were laying around the hotel room in the afternoon when somebody phoned and said the show was starting. There was a $10 fine for missing the grand entry, and I was s’posed to carry the Canadian flag. Man, we were running red lights... I jammed on the brakes just outside the arena, left my dad to park the camper, borrowed a horse and went riding in just as the band started to play. It was plain luck we didn’t plough somebody. I’d been in such a hurry I got my contact lenses in the wrong eye, andfor an hour I wondered why everything was blurred. I’se the laugh of the herdfor a while. ”
At one moment he seems completely preoccupied and alone; then he stops to chat with a friend.
“You got to rake that booger. Your legs straighten till your heels are high in the neck. Then you bring them all the way back so the spurs rub his side clear to the saddle skirt. If you’ll do that, and you’re in rhythm with every
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jump, you ’ll make a 25 ride. That’s the perfect ride. You’ll never make it, but you always try for it. ”
It’s time. He climbs over the chute, and straddles Red Gold, his feet resting on the rails above the horse’s body. Then he lowers himself to the saddle and pushes his boots as far into the stirrups as they will go. He pulls his hat down, takes the rope at the place he marked, raises it in his left hand until it’s stretched tight, sinks deeper into the saddle, leans back, almost submerges his chin in his chest. His whole body is taut. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t even nod — it’s more of an up-and-down shiver of his head. He keeps that chin welded to his chest.
The chute swings wide. Red Gold is off, straight across the infield, like a thoroughbred out of the starting gate. Surely when he blows he’ll explode all over the arena. But there is no explosion. At the fence he breaks stride, turns, and then starts to buck. Mel is flashing his spurs, but with little effect. The horn blows. The ride is over. And so, unquestionably, is Mel’s chance to be in the money at Calgary.
But then, while he is still walking back to the chutes, the judges announce a reride for him. He almost does cartwheels in front of the grandstand, but he doesn’t have time for that. The afternoon is almost over, and he must pick up his gear, saddle his re-ride mount, and be ready to go.
“When you’re fighting for top place you only think of one thing. The ride. If you worry about how the other fellow has done, or what he’s going to do, you might as well forget it. You go out of that chute, there’s only one thing on your mind. ”
This time it’s a horse called Apple Juice — a rangy pink ginger that makes you think of 01’ Strawberry Roan. Mel knows him from days gone by. Maybe he has a chance after all. No leisurely preparations this time. Horse, halter, saddle, flank strap, rein, cowboy. Ready. J. C. Bonine, front runner for the world this summer, is at Apple Juice’s head, quieting him.
Mel: “Do they want me to go, or
Not. Out on the track a horse race is just starting. Though for the most part the horse racing and the rodeo events exist in different worlds — almost different dimensions — the infield action is stopped during the actual running of one of the races. Mel sits back on top of the chute. At this point, two more minutes of waiting seem like a week. “Someday I’d like a ranch, maybe up west of Olds somewhere. That’s pretty country. Nothin’ fancy. Just a small place with good grass and water, a house and a white fence. Maybe before I get married . . . ‘Course, if I meet
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the right girl, I won’t wait for that.” A ranch and a wife, and sometime a son who perhaps will be a bronc buster too. His dream has been around as long as there have been cowboys, but in Mel it finds the kind of human resource to make it possible one more time.
“I guess that’s something I’ve always wanted — to say ‘Look at that grass. It’s mine.’ ”
The race is over. The excitement of the crowd is probably nothing to what Mel is feeling by now, but he keeps it all under his skin. Cool. Into the saddle. Rein hand high. Hat down. Toes out.
Chin in. That shivery nod.
Apple Juice blows, right out of the chute. He lands with a jolt that rolls his innards. His squeals, the thump of his hooves, the shriek of straining leather, the rush of his great body are awesome as an avalanche. And there sits Mel in the middle of it, solemn now, absorbed, working at the job he does best.
Somebody shouts: “Charge, Bull! Charge! Charge!”
Mel’s spurs flash like pinwheels. For all Apple Juice’s desperate lunges, the ride is highly stylized. You could almost
set it to music.
The horn blows. The pickup men ride in and set Mel on the ground. Almost at once, it seems, the man with the little blackboard posts his score: 67.
Mel hurries from the infield, and I find him behind the bleachers. As soon as he speaks, I see the cool has blown. The ride is over. The curtain falls. The cowboy shakes with rage and disappointment. “It’s damn discouragin’. You give it everything you’ve got. . .”
He needed a 75, at least. Perhaps he earned it, but the judges didn’t think so. And in a few moments he’s defending them, apologizing. “Maybe they saw something. . . I guess it looked that way to them.” The other cowboys come around, talking about the ride.
“I love the sport. ”
Mel gets day money for second place, about $700, and that’s all he takes home from the Calgary Stampede. But there are still almost 50 rodeos to go before the end of the season. Fifty rodeos. Fifty thousand miles in a car. How far can he go on a bucking horse?
Afterword: Mel Hyland of Surrey, BC, took the 1972 world saddle bronc title in Oklahoma City with winnings for the year of $26,812 — and Calgary, which must be Canada’s rodeo capital if such a thing exists, noted the event with one line buried in the back of the afternoon paper. What was it Mel said? “You give it everything you’ve got.” ■