Saddle bronc riders and bareback bronc riders competing in this week’s Junior NFR presented by YETI not only have special saddles and rigging as well as specially designed neck rolls to keep them safe, but they have the added luxury of some extra help in the Wrangler Rodeo Arena.
Beau Harrell from Toston, Montana, and Cortland Barker from Farson, Wyoming, are serving as Pony Muggers at the Junior NFR. Their job is similar to that of a bullfighter, which both have experience as.
“The only reason me and Cortland are out here is for the kids,” said Harrell, who first started fighting bulls about 25 years ago. “We’re not out here to put on a show, we’re out here to save these kids because this is the next generation of rodeo. We’ve got to make sure they’re safe so they can take that next step.”
Harrell, who rode bulls both during and after high school before becoming a bullfighter, took some time off from bullfighting before being called back to the sport.
“I took a break, but then my sister and brother-in-law bought some mini bulls so I had to dust off my pads and start doing that,” he said. “And then the Demers family got into the ponies and it evolved from there. And here I am.”
Barker, who is in his junior season at Farson-Eden High School, obviously doesn’t have the experience of Harrell. But the all-conference football player for the Class 1A/6-man runner-up Pronghorns, has been around rodeo his whole life.
“My dad, Jim Barker, fought bulls for about 30 years,” Barker said. “When I was 4 years old I remember watching him. Just like everybody else, I started out on sheep and then steers and then mini-bulls and now the big bulls. I probably first stepped in front of a big bull six years ago. I’m either fighting bulls or doing this.
Barker rode bulls until he was 12 and then he found his true rodeo passion.
“My dad asked me one time, ‘Hey, you want to fight some bulls with me?’” Barker said. “After the rodeo my dad handed me my paycheck and it was a lot better than the 50-50 chance of riding or getting bucked off.
One day a kid got hung up and I was the first one out there. (R and R Rodeo contractor) Casey (Riggs) kind of got an instinct that I was pretty good at,” he said. “There were no pick-up men when I started, it was just me … the Lone Ranger.”
Thankfully, neither Barker nor Harrell have to go it alone at the Junior NFR. And, given the unpredictable nature of the stock, that’s a good thing for the cowboys.
“Horses, in general, are a lot more unpredictable than bulls,” Barker said. “With a bull, you shake it one way and it will get all of its momentum going that way. You can’t do that with a pony because they can switch direction on a dime.”
“Every one of these ponies is different,” he said. “If one of those kids gets in a bind you don’t know what that pony is going to do.
“With a pony you’ve got to get in on their shoulder and get to the kid. With a bull, with both of us working it, one of us would be on the bull’s head and the other would save the bull rider. It’s got to be a team effort with a pony … we’ve got to haze the pony and have somebody on the kid rather than leading them away.”
It’s a lot of work, but Harrell knows it’s all worth it.
“I love being out there with these kids,” he said. “There are some of these kids who will look out the chute and look to make sure you’re there. It kinda makes your heart swell up.”