In May 2011, the greatest cowboy party in the Rocky Mountain west drowned in eight inches of rain and a swamp of mud. Most of the raucous entertainment of the annual Bucking Horse Sale—wild horse races and bronc riding—was cancelled because of the downpour. But this year the show, a four-day event in mid-May in Miles City, Mont., went on without a hitch—the weather was perfect, and the rodeo wild.
“It was great—the weather was beautiful,” said John Laney, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, and an organizer. “God that was some good rodeo to see,”
The Cowboy Mardi Gras, as its known, lost the town’s board of governors $50,000 last year. This May, the event managed to make a small profit that will go back to the rodeo community, financing youth rodeos across the state.
Another rain-drenched May might have spelled disaster for Bucking Horse, which has been further crippled in recent years after a 2006 legislation that took federal money away from the horse slaughter industry, effectively shutting it down. The ban might have been a victory of animal rights activists, but for Miles City it came as a blow to is 65-year-old annual Bucking Horse Sale, a party that pays homage to the Wild West and the history of the cow town.
For Rob Fraser, who manages the livestock aspect of the event, Bucking Horse is more about the rodeos, the dancing, and the music than a nearly defunct stock sale. In years past, 400 head of horses were at this sale, this year, there were 80.
With the change in horse slaughter laws, the sale has become more of an entertainment piece, locals say, but nonetheless a favorite relic of the town’s past. But paying homage to the bygone days of ranching comes at a price—especially when the slaughter laws cost the event much of its legitimate rancher crowd.
The biggest cowboy party in the country survives because it brings business to a rural town, and the Chamber of Commerce will do anything to keep crowds coming.
“Everybody got used to it—it’s a tradition thing,” Laney said. “We’ve always did that, so I guess we’re going keep doing that.”
In years past, ranchers could sell bucking horses onto the rodeo circuit. If the horses couldn’t buck, there was always a check waiting at the slaughterhouse. Today, the bucking horse sale is mostly for show, with the occasional bucking bronc or bull making it into rodeo. To compensate, Miles City has brought in a slew of Wild West entertainment to the almost defunct sale—nightly wild horse races, concerts and rodeo competitions.
Still, putting on Bucking Horse can be costly venture.
“If a person were to look at it as a risk versus reward, then I don’t think we’d touch it,” Laney said.
Despite a struggle to make ends meet, the town’s population of over 8,000 doubles as international crowds flood its bars, restaurants, and hotels. The sale still provides and essential economic boost to the town’s economy, said local Terri Newby. Added to all that is the simple fact that weekend is the next best thing to Mardi Gras, but with cowboys.
For ranchers, there is a vague hope that American horse slaughter will start up again, after a 2011 bill re-granted the industry federal funding. In the meantime, locals say, it’s still the best party the west has known.
For more information on the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, visit www.BuckingHorseSale.com.