In 1951, Casey Tibbs, then 22, was considered the greatest bronc rider in the nation. A true rodeo celebrity, he had a world championship under his belt, a wild reputation, and his face on the cover of LIFE magazine. The accompanying LIFE article recounts his tendencies to drive fast, rodeo hard, and stay up all night. Of his rowdy rodeo lifestyle, Tibbs simply said, “I figured ... it would be a lot easier than ranch work.”
Casey Duane Tibbs was born March 5, 1929, near Fort Pierre, S.D. Times were lean on the eve of the Great Depression, but with so many cowboys gone to fight in World War II, Tibbs was able to supplement his family’s income by breaking horses. He allegedly had started 63 head by the time he was 13 years old. Visions of prize money and an easier life motivated the young cowboy to pursue rodeo, and, by age 15, he was riding in rodeos across the country.
A keen study, Tibbs closely watched more seasoned cowboys, learning how to ride, fall, and manage the tumultuous life of a bronc rider. He was also honing his own unique style of riding—a distinctive method of “floating,” where he held his rein arm out and away from his body rather than tight against it, which most bronc riders at the time favored. This allowed the horses to buck more naturally, but required much more precision and skill. Jim Shoulders said of Tibbs, “I never saw anybody ride who was so balance-wise. Casey was unreal.” Tibbs explained his style this way: “You jus’ fall into the rhythm and it’s like dancing with a girl.”
In 1949, Tibbs, just 19 years old, became the youngest rider ever to win the saddle-bronc world championship. By 1961, he’d added five more PRCA saddle-bronc championships to his name, a record matched only by Dan Mortensen (2003), along with a bareback championship and two all-around world championships. In addition to his winning record, Tibbs’s flamboyance (he was a fan of purple satin shirts, fast cars, high-society carousing, and appliquéd chaps) helped catapult rodeo to the national limelight.
Tibbs also served on the Rodeo Cowboy’s Association board, introduced the Bucking Horse of the Year Award, and most importantly, played a critical role in developing the idea of the National Finals Rodeo.
His vision extended beyond the rodeo arena as well. He was an enthusiastic advocate of the Western life and promoted it through Wild West shows, roundups, extravagant galas, international rodeos, and Hollywood. By 1980, Tibbs had 19 acting credits under his belt and had directed Born to Buck (1966) and The Young Rounders (1966). And though he never left the rodeo world completely, his last professional ride was in 1979 at Salt Lake City. He won. He was 50 years old.
In his later years, Tibbs spent his time breeding cattle, bucking stock, and race horses. In 1989, a massive bronze statue of Tibbs riding famed bucking horse Necktie was erected in front of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs—a testament to the larger-than-life cowboy. Tibbs passed away January 28, 1990.
The Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center in Pierre is devoted to the history of South Dakota rodeo and its stars. It boasts an extensive collection of Casey Tibbs memorabilia, a Hall of Champions, and an exhibit on the famous 1920s trick rider Mattie Newcombe. 605-494-1094, caseytibbs.com