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Holten: Behind the scenes with a pickup man

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Do you know what a pickup man is? In rodeo, he is essentially a lifesaver.

Now you wouldn't necessarily notice that during the average bronc ride, but he is. And here's why. He prevents bad things from happening.

Joe Blankenship, who grew up near Glendive, Mont., and then attended Dickinson State University, where he rode bulls for the DSU rodeo team, now lives near Gladstone and is one of the preeminent pickup men in the region.

In many ways, he is simply continuing a family tradition, because his father, Bill Blankenship, was also one of the preeminent pickup men in the region, and Bill set the bar really high.

Officially, a pickup man's job in rodeo is to ride up next to the rider, who is still seated on the bucking horse, and assist him in getting off, once the eight second ride is over.

In other words, it's a lot like riding into a tornado. And who in his right mind would do that? For sure, it takes a special breed and a skilled horseman.

A pickup man's job is also to get the bucking horse out of the arena quickly and safely, after the ride, clearing the way for the next ride. It may sound simple, but having ridden in rodeo, I can assure you it's not. It is fraught with potential complications and that's why, if you're a rodeo cowboy, you like your pickup men to have loads of experience, and Joe Blankenship has that.

For Blankenship, a rodeo starts long before long before the rodeo itself, and in some cases days before.

"I like to have everything set up well in advance," Blankenship said, referring to a checklist that is quite long and includes everything from cleaning and organizing the tack and trailer, polishing bits, examining the health of his seven horses, purchasing leg-wraps, fueling up his truck, mapping out a route to the rodeo, and even picking up sponsor-labelled shirts from the cleaners.

I rode along with Joe and his wife and assistant, Robin, to two rodeos, including a bucking horse futurity in Grassy Butte on Saturday and a rodeo in Amidon on Sunday, in order to get a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a rodeo pickup man. And I can assure you, it is a much more analytical than you might surmise.

On the way, I asked Blankenship what steps one needed to follow after a bareback bronc ride is successfully completed.

He said the first step, before the ride, is to properly position yourself and your horse in the arena, based upon a history of how a particular bucking horse typically performs.

Thus, before a ride takes place, there is research to do—including knowing how many riders there are so that you know how many horses you need to bring in order to keep them fresh. And who the riders are, what their experience level is and which hand they ride with.

After that, you need to determine the safest direction to take the bucking horse, one that keeps everyone off the fence. Then, ride up and position yourself with your leg ahead of the rider's leg, at the horse's shoulder and, if necessary, hold onto the bucking horse's mane to help hold it in place. After that, get the rider off safely, onto the ground and then and only then, undo the flank strap.

Bucking horses have a flank strap wrapped around them that encourages them to buck. It is basically a belt tied tight around their waste, and nothing more.

One time, Blankenship said, the extra slack from a flank strap worked its way around the rider's leg before he got off from his bucking horse onto Joe's horse, and when he grabbed Joe, it yanked them both to the ground. That is just one of many things that can potentially go wrong.

But it's something Blankenship's grandfather told him that stuck with me more than anything.

His grandfather said, "The fastest way to work cattle is slow."

That's very true, and it's something we might be able to apply to most everything.