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  • Mary Fichtner

The Steer Ride

How one stupid decision changed my life.

Pioneer Junior Rodeo, Littleton, Colorado, Number 210
Pioneer Junior Rodeo, Littleton, Colorado, Number 210

The steer wasn’t really bucking, he was basically running in a crow hop fashion, as we rodeo people call it. It all sort of resembled Mutton Bustin’ for dumb teenage girls. Of course, the decision to enter the Girl’s Steer Riding was made with a teenage brain and the belief that had been written on my soul; real cowgirls enter every event! That and the added opportunity to win the All-Around Saddle. That is how the whole incident started in fact. I could not/would not let one person know that I was scared to ride a bucking steer for 8 seconds.

Some bull riders found this quite entertaining and offered their advice, input, and cheering; along with the offer to “put me down” on the steer, as rough stock riders call it. This term means being behind the chutes, helping tie the bull rope on, and advising as I sat down on the steer to nod my head for the open chute.

How could any of us have ever known that I would need the “tuck and roll” advice? My coaches said they truly never thought of explaining to me how to get off safely, as most people get “removed” against their will and there is no time for planning the landing!

Steer Ride at Littleton Jr Rodeo
Steer Ride at Littleton Jr Rodeo

They thought it was a good idea to have me ride holding on with both hands, even though that is not how real bull riders ride, it was recommended for girls. They coated my gloves with the traditional sticky rosin and helped me get my hands “good and stuck” through the rope. I jammed my hat down over my ears, which of course brings some lack of sight also. Without giving myself a second to change my mind, I gave the traditional “open the chute and let him buck” nod. Off we went, the steer and I, across the arena, while he tried to remove me from his back. Eight seconds felt like 49 hours, but when the buzzer rang, I found myself still there. One hand came right out of the bull rope but the other was quite stuck. As I used my free hand to try and leverage the other out, I fell off balance and landed on the palm of my hand.

Of course, in hindsight, that was a terrible landing. I was apparently not gifted with quick-thinking skills. I knew immediately I wasn’t getting up. The clown was there in an instant; he noticed my arm was misshapen and pointed in the wrong direction. This is also when it was noted that the ambulance was actually not there. It had left with someone who had been run over by a mule.

Injured woman with being helped by a group of people
A terrible landing

Now it is a rule at rodeos that an ambulance has to be present and ready during each and every rodeo event. Somehow there was a gap in that process during the Girl’s Steer Riding Event. And it just happened to be when this cowgirl performed one of her worst dismounts in the history of her cowgirling.

It was also the first Junior Rodeo to start out the summer; the High School Rodeo season had just ended. I was 18 and just going into my last summer of Junior Rodeos. A very poor start to the season I might add. Thank goodness for everyday heroes who show up and ask nothing in return. I was loaded into the back of my dad’s Wagoneer by those who immediately stepped up to help. It was by far the most pain I had ever experienced in my young life to that point. It turned out I had shattered my elbow. The surgeon described my elbow as a bag of pretzels. That is the moment I realized my last rodeo summer at this level wasn’t going to happen, one of the hardest pills I have ever had to swallow.

I had never been in a hospital at all and was quite shocked by some of the methods, causing me to ask questions such as, “Why can’t I have my underwear???” Along with the fact that anyone who worked there could come in and check on things at any time, day or night, whether I liked it or not. As it is told, I was not a very good patient; I protested and tried to get my way and fight against something I couldn’t change or control. This of course made the whole experience much more difficult, and at my young age, I did not connect the dots until much later.

Meanwhile, they patiently helped me work through all the steps of having a few surgeries and a lot of physical therapy. I had several screws in my arm and looked a lot like a puppet, as the screws came out through my skin. This is how the doctor wanted it. I was grossed out by my own arm but it was time to Cowgirl Up and face the music. After a week or so in the hospital, I was sent out to face the reality of what to do with the rest of my summer.

It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to look back and analyze what good came from it all. As a matter of fact, I was certain no good could or would ever come from this screeching halt to my big plans and enormous dreams. It wasn’t until all these many years later I was able to ask “what purpose may have come from this seemingly dream-shattering event?” It may seem small to some, but to me it was devastating.

I won the barrel racing the night before the steer riding which was a beautiful gift since it was the last time I would really enter at that level. And just a side note, I also won 3rd in the steer riding (see buckle in the picture). I have always rolled my eyes at that since I scored a lowly 39! All the scores were low for us girls, which was mostly to do with the steers. An absolutely terrible score if you are familiar with rough stock events. But I know now it would have been a lot more painful if I had bucked off with no buckle to walk away with. Not to mention a great story.

Pioneer Junior Rodeo 3rd Place Buckle
3rd Place in the Steer Riding

I’d like to say that I took it all with grace but that was not the case. I headed off to college that fall and never finished my physical therapy so my arm has never fully recovered. I couldn’t rodeo that year at all, or the next. And looking back now I realize it was the beginning of the end of rodeo for me. Yes, I was able to enter some college rodeos a few years later but things would never be the same.

So, was it a win or a loss?

After all these years and using my therapy of “writing” I am finally able to call it a WIN.

What was the prize you ask?

The award is as follows:

1. The confirmation that I have courage, something no one can ever take away from me.

It was written on my heart “I can do hard things.” The hard things included riding the steer, getting through the recovery, and going on with my rodeoless summer with as much grit as I could muster…a lifetime badge of honor.

2. The lifelong lesson that most of the time things don’t turn out as you had planned, but there is always a way ahead. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28. A sub-lesson of this was learning that fighting things you can’t change is a waste of time and energy. Experiencing this gives wisdom, even though sometimes it isn’t realized right away. It could be the most prized award of all.

3. Most importantly, I got to live the mantra “when you get bucked off, it doesn’t matter what breaks, it only matters if you choose to get back in the saddle again.” Another gem of wisdom to carry through life.

It reminds me of one of my favorite movie lines ever, from the movie Sea Biscuit. The jockey breaks his leg and they are deciding whether or not to let him ride when the famous George Woolf says “It’s better to break a man’s leg than his heart.” My heart was definitely in a lot more broken pieces than my arm. Time doesn’t always completely heal the heart, but it can patch it up and put it back together with new character and strength. Every scar offers a gift if we are willing to unwrap it. How about that for turning an apparent loss into a win?

It all grew my warrioress heart. I look back on my young years with so much thankfulness for these experiences that have given me purpose and the most important gifts of my life. I am incredibly grateful my parents were willing to haul me and my horses all over to pursue my dreams of being a courageous cowgirl. So, here’s to the big W! I strive for more Ws in everyday challenges and am holding on with both hands! Here’s to hoping I remember to tuck and roll. And when the roll stops, I can unwrap the gifts the scars left me. I hope the same for you.

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