When eight seconds feels like an eternity that could make or break you, it takes a special sort to survive in the world of pro rodeo riders. It takes a fearless heart, an adventurous spirit and the acknowledgment that your life and career hangs on a 2,000 bucking animal. Sometimes breaking multiple bones is all in a day’s work.
In honor of the kickoff to rodeo season, here are eight of the most legendary pro rodeo riders in history.
Larry Mahan started on the rodeo circuit at the age of 14. After winning World All-Around Rodeo Champion for five consecutive years from 1966 to 1970, he became the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Great American Cowboy. The film focused on Mahan’s competitive rivalry with fellow cowboy Phil Lyne.
In addition to his bull riding prowess, Mahan also helped shape the rodeo cowboy image when he established the western wear line, the Larry Mahan Collection.
Mahan also released a 1976 album, Larry Mahan, King of the Rodeo.
Is there a better lyric about rodeo life than “a worn out tape of Chris LeDoux, lonely women and bad booze seem to be the only friends I’ve left at all”? Long before Garth Brooks immortalized his friend LeDoux in his song “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” LeDoux was revered in the rodeo community.
As a boy, LeDoux competed in junior rodeos across Texas. In 1970, he became a professional rodeo cowboy. Six years later, he won the world bareback riding championship at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. LeDoux began composing songs about the rodeo life. He developed a devoted following through selling records out of the back of his pickup truck.
LeDoux’s background as a rodeo champion paired with great songs and stage presence made him a natural country music star. His duet with Brooks, “Watcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy,” reached the Top 10 on the country charts.
LeDoux died from a rare form of liver cancer in 2005.
Saddle and bareback bronc rider Casey Tibbs won the title of World All-Around Rodeo Champion twice, in 1951 and 1955. Tibbs’ endearing personality and flashy style helped bring the rodeo into American pop culture at large. He was born to be a star, whether in the rodeo arena or on the silver screen. Tibbs parlayed his successful rodeo career into a career in film, working as a stunt man, livestock wrangler and actor in movies and television in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Tibbs is also honored in an Ian Tyson song.
Called “the Babe Ruth of rodeo cowboys”, Jim Shoulders was a rough stock rider who won 16 world championships in the 1940s and 50s.
Without the work of Jim Shoulders, cowboys today might look very different. Shoulders helped test and design Wrangler’s 13MZW Cowboy Cut jeans, a look that has become synonymous with the true blue cowboy.
Considered the First Lady of Rodeo, Tad Lucas changed the rodeo world forever with her showstopping trick riding. Lucas became a worldwide sensation in the 1920s and 30s, traveling with a Wild West Show-style rodeo company. She was influential in keeping women’s rodeo programs alive, helping to establish the Girl’s Rodeo Association in 1948. Lucas is the only woman to be inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame, Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
Ty Murray is a nine-time World Champion rodeo cowboy. He’s competed in the bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding events. Murray has become one of the most recognizable faces in professional rodeo, working as a commentator for Professional Bull Riding events on CBS Sports.
In 2009, Murray proved he was also light on his feet. He competed in the eighth season of Dancing With the Stars, making it to the 10th-week semi-finals before being eliminated.
Tuff Hedeman is a three-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PCRA) champion bull rider. Hedeman is known as being one of only seven riders to have spent eight seconds on the notoriously difficult bull Bodacious. Once, while riding Bodacious during the Professional Bull Riders competition in Las Vegas, Hedeman shattered nearly every bone in his face when he smashed his head against the bull’s skull. Two months later, after having reconstructive surgery on his face, Hedeman was back in the arena again.
Hedeman is in the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame as well as the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Lane Frost was already a rodeo icon at the age of 25. In 1987, he won the PCRA bull riding championship. The following year, he rode Red Rock, a bull that no man could ride–until Frost. Among cowboys and fans, Frost became known as The King.
Even non-rodeo fans are probably familiar with Frost from the movie 8 Seconds, which followed his career and untimely death. Frost met a tragic end during the 1989 Cheyenne Frontier Days. After riding a bull named K. Walsh (also known as “Takin’ Care of Business”) for a full eight seconds, Frost was pummeled by the bull, breaking at least two of his ribs. Frost suffered from a punctured artery and died shortly after.
Lane Frost is still remembered and honored within the rodeo community and beyond. Aaron Watson’s 2012 single “July in Cheyenne” memorializes Frost and his legacy.