For any PRCA Rodeo to be successful, there are a myriad of items that have to be well-organized, well-run and carried out in a professional manner.
Great rodeo stock is a good place to start. An excellent and energetic public address announcer would be another. Clowns and bullfighters, too. Local committee volunteers and the crew from the stock contractor to make sure things flow smoothly during the mostly two-hour performance.
Also, there is the Pickup Man.
That’s the cowboy, or in most cases, three of them, who sit atop their own horses at different locales in the arena, waiting to see where and when a cowboy gets bucked off before the 8-second horn sounds or even after a completed ride, where they can be situated to have a cowboy slip off the bucking horse or bull and end up on the back end of the Pickup Man’s horse for a safe escape.
During the three-night run of the Beef Empire Days PRCA Rodeo at the Finney County Fairgrounds Arena, that responsibility rests in the hands of three experienced former rodeo cowboys who competed in either bucking horses or bull riding.
For this week’s visit to Garden City, the trifecta of Pickup Men are Troy Heinert, of Mission, S.D.; Tucker Stocklin, of Hayes, S.D.; and Luke Newsam, of Murdow, S.D. All are experienced, all have worked together for nearly a decade and all have worked for Korkow Rodeos, LLC, the stock contractor for this year’s BED event.
All three have other careers, so their venture into being a Pickup Man is limited to schedules when they can get away from other responsibilities.
Heinert has been handling Pickup duties for 17 years after getting his start in rodeos riding bucking horses for what he said was a “very long time.”
“I’ve always enjoyed being around where we were breakin’ horses or now get as close as you can without getting on the buckin’ horses,” said Heinert, who serves as the Minority Leader for the South Dakota State Senate Legislature. “You learn a lot about the specific skills for being a good Pickup Man, and I think one of them is being able to read livestock; which way a horse is moving; what the rider is doing. Put all that together and you can be a better Pickup Man.”
Heinert said that he enjoys the sessions where it’s the horses who are buckin’ as opposed to the bulls. They’re two entirely different approaches once a ride is over.
“The (buckin’) horses are out there doing a job like any professional athlete,” Heinert said. “The bulls you don’t need to help so much. You’re really not doing much until the ride is done and you’re trying to rope the bull to help get them to the back chutes.”
When assisting a cowboy who is trying to get off a bucking horse, Heinert said it was all about positioning.
“Our horses (each brought 6 to the BED event) are highly-skilled and expensive, and you just try to make sure that a bull doesn’t get under you and throw you,” Heinert said. “You don’t want them comin’ up the rope. Your goal is to get them to ride to the out-gate.”
Heinert said training a horse usually takes one to two years of seasoning before their ready for the main arena, but always is cognizant of the No. 1 objective, that is to keep the riders safe.
“A good pickup horse has the right mind because it’s against their normal nature,” Heinert said. “A lot of time it’s all about having the right DNA for a pickup horse. You can teach them a lot, but if they’re not of the right mind, then they won’t work for you.”
Heinert, who also serves as a consultant for the St. Francis Indian School in his hometown. He is a member of the Rosebud Tribe and lives with his family on the reservation. He also works in shipping buffalo in and out of national parks to different tribes around the country.
“Doing this is a lot of fun, and while you’re in the arena, you’re focused on doing your job well,” Heinert said. “But we have a lot of fun, too. The rodeo people I’m around are some of the best people you’ll ever meet, so this becomes not like work for me.”
Stocklin said he got his start in rodeo by riding broncs for about 10 years. That was before he and his wife had their first child, a girl. In his full-time work, he is in the ranching and cattle business in South Dakota.
“I guess I quit riding so I’d know I wasn’t gonna get hurt so much,” Stocklin said with a smile. “That’s when I started looking into being a pickup man. I do some ranching and raise cattle, too.”
Stocklin said for him, pickup horses either have the characteristics or they don’t.
“A good pickup horse has to have an attitude, and I think they’ve either good the skill or they don’t” Stocklin said. “The hardest part is learning how to red the animals, knowing where to be and when to be there.”
Stocklin said he communicates a lot with the cowboys themselves and then also knowing the bucking horses and bulls from the experience of being around them at many rodeos over the years, as he is now in his 19th year as a pickup rider.
“I’ve found that I need to be just in front of the shoulders of the bucking horse because that puts me in good position to be able to have the cowboy just slide straight over to the back of my horse,” Stocklin said. “Then you can just clear them away from the bucking horse.”
While he enjoys working with the bucking horses, Stocklin said he also enjoys roping the bulls to get them to the out chute from the arena.
“You don’t want to lose a rope and you want a horse that will hold (with the bull),” Stocklin said. “You can’t get your fingers caught in the rope either.”
Newsam, who has 15 years of experience in the pickup business, said he got his start when some friends had a rodeo company and asked him to help out.
“You’re learning a little all the time and it took me a couple of years to really know what I should be doing,” Newsam said. “No. 1, your horse has gotta be fast and level-headed and you need to have good gear.”
Newsam said the most difficult aspect of the job is that it is physically demanding due to the amount of time he’s on a horse during a 2-hour rodeo performance. He, like Heinert and Stocklin, interchanges several horses during the performance to keep them fresh.
“A lot of time you’ll get finished at night and discover you’ve got a lot of bruises, so you know that it’s physically demanding,” Newsam said. “One thing you have to do is not get behind the bucking horse or you’re gonna get kicked. Horses are much more fast-paced than the bulls, but things can happen so fast in the bull riding.”
Newsam said he prefers the horses as opposed to the bull pickups.
“I enjoy the horses more because I like to go fast,” Newsam said. “If the horse doesn’t have a good mind, then you’re gonna have a tough time doing your job. I usually start my horses in the arena out when they are about five years old.”
Working in tandem with the other two pickup riders also is critical, Newsam said.
“You’ve got to know what the others are thinking, and we usually work in pairs, so one of us is a little further away and just waiting to see where we are needed the most,” Newsam said. “You’ve got to provide a hole to run through for the broncs so you can get them out of the arena as quickly as possible.”
The trio of pickup riders have been working together at various rodeos for the past seven to eight years, and now are familiar with each other.
“We like to have a good time, but when we’re in the arena, it’s all business,” Newsam said. “You can’t afford to make mistakes because our number one priority is to get the cowboy off a horse or bull and do it safely.”