Saddle bronc rider Bryan Hammons shares what rodeo life has been like for him.
It’s May, and although most of the larger Texas rodeos ended last month, Bryan Hammons is still on the road. He’s chatting with me via cell phone as he heads to Jasper where he’ll ride and rope in events for the next four days.
Speaking to him on a staticky cell phone as he drives through the countryside to his next event, I can almost hear the fiddle from Garth Brooks “Much Too Young (to Feel This Damn Old)”. It’s surprising to me that this cowboy and I are from the same hometown, though it’s not hard to believe the little South Texas city could produce such a fascinating individual.
The Victoria, Texas native has been a saddle bronc rider since the age of 24, and he’s been roping since he was in high school. Growing up in what he calls a “South Texas cowboy kind of country,” his family kept horses and he rode all throughout his youth. But his roots make him something of an anomaly in the world of rodeo.
“I rode and roped bulls all the way through high school, and it’s real unusual to have a bronc rider come from anywhere south of Interstate 10, that’s really more of a northern thing,” Hammons informs me in his southern drawl. “Most bronc riders come from up north. There’s very few in Texas and hardly any in south Texas.”
That hasn’t stopped him, however. The 41-year-old has been competing in rodeos since he was a teenager. In fact, he is currently the oldest bronc rider in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). This year’s season marks his retirement tour.
Preparation for each rodeo involves physical training, research, and a whole lot of prayer. “I’m a Christian so of course I probably start praying about it in the morning when I wake up,” Hammons explains. “I’m a lot more nervous now than I was ten years ago, so I probably pray a lot more and stay in shape. And it depends on the horse. “If it’s a mean sucker I probably start worrying about it a week in advance, but if it’s a real nice one I can probably put it in the back of my mind and not worry about it until I’m on my way to the rodeo.”
“You can’t train like a boxer, because it’s hard to practice, you just can’t get on a horse and practice all the time.”
Rodeos tend to be held in the spring in Texas and other southern states, but they go on year round nationwide, not ending until the finals are held in December each year. Because of the travel involved, rodeo riding, it seems, is an investment game.
Hammons makes sure to research the bronc he’s drawn before deciding if it’s worth the time and money to travel to the event. Modern bronc riders can find out about their horses by going online. “You can kinda do your homework before you get there, you know about a week before the rodeo what you’ve drawn and there’s plenty of time to call around, and we have a website that keeps track of it so you can look up who got on it where and what they scored on it.”
Preparing for a rodeo physically, however, is not as simple. Saddle bronc riding is a sport based on the historic way cowboys would break horses for riding, but wild horses largely don’t even exist anymore. “You can’t train like a boxer because it’s hard to practice, you just can’t get on a horse and practice all the time. So mostly, the training is just staying in shape and shadow boxing a lot, keeping it on your mind. Once you’ve done it for so many years you can almost just go down the road riding them in your head while you’re driving.”
Hammons also uses a spur board to train and credits his successes to muscle memory.
Just don’t be scared,” Hammons jokes when asked how he deals with fear of injuries. “Once you break something, and you realize you’re not made of glass, you heal and it kind of takes the fear away.”
The fear is sometimes necessary though, “It’s very very dangerous, so you kinda have to be half-crazy and I wouldn’t say superstitious, but have a really good belief and kinda be scared at the same time because it’s so dangerous. Everybody gets hurt, I’ve had a few broken bones, I messed up my knees, not both at the same time, but one and then the other, and that sets you out for six months to a year. A knee is really hard to get over. I broke my arm once, and that didn’t take very long to get over, because once you get a cast on it you can keep riding. But I’ve been very fortunate not to have a career-ending injury.”
Hammons had a hard time picking just one person he looked up to when he started out in rodeo as a kid. “That’s a hard one and there’s so many of them to look up to in the rodeo world. Mine were a lot of time in the roping events because I didn’t start riding broncs till I was out of college. So I was 24 when I started riding broncs. In the rodeo world, winning is winning, and you can look up to people in different events to build your dream and make you want it. I’d say Roy Cooper and Joe Beaver were my biggest mentors.”
“In the rodeo world, winning is winning, and you can look up to people in different events to build your dream and make you want it.”
I asked Hammons what was the craziest thing that had ever happened to him, and he simply replied, “I could write a book.”
In January, Hammons learned from family and friends that he’d inadvertently been cast in the movie American Sniper, the film based on the life of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. A clip of Hammons competing at the Laughlin, Nevada rodeo flashes on the television screen that actor Bradley Cooper is watching during a scene of the movie.
Hammons was inundated with phone calls from friends and family informing him of his silver screen debut. “I’ve been getting phone calls from all my buddies all over,” he told the Victoria Advocate. “They’ve been taking a picture of the screen and sending it to me. My brother called me right away. They were excited. They said the whole theater kind of got loud.”
Hammons says he can identify with Kyle because he is a military man himself, having joined the Marines after graduating high school in 1992.
While we’re waiting on his book of crazy stories, Hammons wants the public at large to know rodeo people are not cruel to the animals they work with. “PETA, (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) the animal activists, they’re hard on rodeo people, they think we’re cruel to animals. Everybody else seems to love rodeo but sometimes we have a hard time dealing with those kind of people, and it’s just hard to make them understand that its not cruel to the animals, it’s just a misconception.”
Although animal activism isn’t a new hindrance to the sport of rodeo, Hammons and his contemporaries are dealing with a uniquely modern issue. “They show up at the rodeo sometimes and take pictures of things and put it on the Internet and try to make it look like we’re being cruel, but we’re not. If that animal weren’t with us on the road it’d be in a slaughterhouse or on a plate getting eaten. And they’re very well-fed and taken care of, people love them and they’re worth a lot of money.”
Currently, Hammons resides in Stephenville, Texas, the home of Tarleton State University, and such a small, out-of-the-way town that you only encounter it if you’re looking for it. Divorced, with three kids and a girlfriend of five years, Hammons explains how his love of rodeo has complicated his life somewhat.
“My first marriage, rodeo is the reason I’m not married anymore. To live on the road and rodeo, I mean…” Hammons trails off. “My kids love it though, they’re all gonna grow up to be rodeo people.” His eldest, Jared, at 17 already competes in roping events, and the younger two, Clancy, a daughter aged 9, and Caleb, a son aged 6, ride horses.
“What are you looking forward to in your retirement?” I ask him. “Fishing,” he replies immediately and adamantly. “Fishing, and I’m probably gonna be a soccer coach for my kids.”