Wild Horse Race - The History

Wildes Equestrias Rapidious Celeritous. Properly translated that means “unbroken horses quickly moving” but we just call it a wild horse race. Just because you’ve seen one, you haven’t seen them all.

Each race is different, even though the players are the same: three cowboys, an ornery wild horse and dogged determination — all the ingredients needed for the most exciting race on earth.

Rodeo 100 years ago was Pony Express racing, bronc riding, steer roping and the wild horse race. Cheyenne, Pendleton, Calgary, Prescott, Burwell, Ellensburg, every rodeo that laid claim to a future boasted the wild horse race. Sometimes the streets of town or a line of wagons and later automobiles were enough of a fence to hold a wild horse race, a natural form of western entertainment.

The coming of age and the 20th century brought calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback riding and bull riding to rodeo, but the wild horse race remained constant. A cowboy at the New York Madison square Gardens Rodeo quipped: “I get a bull every third performance and a bareback horse every other, but so many cowboys are entered in the wild horse race, I only compete every 5th performance. It wouldn’t be so bad, but the wild horse race is my bread and butter!”

Everyone entered the wild horse races: Yakima Canutt, Casey Tibbs, Jim Shoulders, Benny Reynolds and Cotton Rosser. Even Larry Mahan, Hawkeye Henson and Gary Leffew tried their dawned. This made recruiting a three-man wild horse race almost impossible. But cowboys know that tradition is tangible and not wanting to lose a good event, they searched for a new source of contestants. The local cowboy filled the ranks and for years this ploy worked remarkably well. But by the sixties, even cowboys wanting to enter the wild horse race were becoming scarce and beginning to dwindle.

In all of the Canadian and American rodeos at the time, it was hard to find 20 wild horse races. But 53 contestants in a dusty horse barn at Cheyenne Frontier Days refused to let the sport die. The year was 1973 and with the help of contractors, rodeo secretaries, committees and contestants, a plan for the future was engineered three directors elected and a general statement of what the wild horse race should be was established.

In 1976, this body of contestants petitioned the PRCA (at the time it was still the RCA) for the authority to govern and conduct the affairs of the wild horse race event. This was granted and within five years a rulebook was published, national champions were crowned, a national finals was established and a full board of directors steered a course for the future.

Today the Professional Wild Horse Racing Association (once known as the Wild Horse Racers of America) is organized and energetic. With a well-staffed office in Madras, Oregon, trained judges, a responsible secretary and a hard-working board of directors who double as contestants, the level of competition continues to intensify.

Wild Horse Racing cowboys tend to be one-event specialists who love what they do. Ranches have become fewer and the rodeo fan has become a city dweller, but nothing has really changed.

Wild Horse Racers are still a part of rodeo and rodeo is still a part of the American West.

Event Breakdown

The Wild Horse Race was one of the three original events in rodeo during the late 1800’s. Ranch hands would put a team together to compete against other ranch teams. As a rodeo progressed, the team aspect faded away.

It was too difficult to transport three men and still make it profitable for rodeo. At that point in time, the Wild Horse Race became more of a local event and continued on that course until the mid 1970’s, when a group of cowboys formed the Wild Horse Racers of America, now called the Professional Wild Horse Racing Association.

In the year 1981, the Professional Wild Horse Racers held it’s first National Finals at the NILE Indoor Arena in Billings, Montana. We feel at that time the event was “born again.” This meant there would be World Champions.

Many spectators have never witnessed a Wild Horse Race, but those who have will never forget it. The event is probably the most explosive, exciting event in rodeo. The event is very unpredictable and very western.

A Wild Horse Race Team consists of three people, positions are known as shankman, mugger and rider, and none of the positions are any easier than the other. The equipment used is a lead shank, halter and saddle.

The event works like this: The stock contractor loads the chutes and the horses are closed into individual chutes. As soon as this is accomplished the contestants and a representative draw numbers from a hat. The number drawn applies to the chute in which they will put halters on their horses.
 Halters are made of heavy leather with sheepskin lining to protect the horse from injury. A team cannot win if the horse is accidentally injured, so it is important not to afflict injury to the horse. Many of the halters have leather handles making it easier for the mugger to get ahold of the halter instead of grabbing the animal.

The lead shank is a maximum length of 16 feet and made of cotton/hemp or braided nylon. Usually the shanks are 1” – 2” in diameter. The shanks being of a large diameter decrease the chance of injury to both animal and contestant.

Now that all is ready, it’s time for the excitement to begin. The whistle is blown, the chute gates are opened and the spectators do not know which way to look.

Amongst all the chaos, the shankman holds the horse in a position so that the mugger can move up the shank and grab the horse by the halter. The next moment, the rider sets the saddle on the horse and secures it by the quick cinch.

This cinch has a quick release built in so that it may be quickly removed if a problem occurs. The rider climbs aboard the horse and stays on the horse until it crosses a pre-designated finish line. Most arena races have an imaginary line between the fence and a barrel.

The finish is approximately 30 – 35 feet long. In arena races the winning team usually crosses in 30-40 seconds, which other less fortunate teams may take up to the 2 minute time limit. Prepare yourself for the wildest event in rodeo!