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Chasing That Gold Buckle Dream

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The sights (cowboys, cowgirls, cattle and clowns commingling), the sounds (whinnies and snorts), and smells (Eau de Equine) gave the 37th annual version of the Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR) at the Las Vegas South Point Arena and Equestrian Center its audience appeal.

“This year we have close to 500 cowboys and almost as many critters,” said INFR General Manager Donna Hoyt, Blackfeet. “Over the past decade, purse money has grown to $25,000 per event with total rodeo payout now of about half a million dollars.”

The first go-round was on November 6. Day One bareback leader Cody Parker of Oklahoma predicted, “People who draw the right horses and fit in the bit will do well.” Another early points leader, Oregon’s Ethan Weiser was philosophical: “I’m a long shot for the finals, but I’ll sure take the go-round money.” From an organizational standpoint, INFR Commissioner and rodeo chute boss Bo Vocu, Oglala Lakota, predicted good crowd turnout with a potential packed house on the final day— and he was right, a near-sellout crowd filled the 4,400-seat arena.

This was a multi-hued rainbow rodeo with gleaming brass buckles, sparkling sequined jeans, and colorful shirts—pink for breast cancer, red for fire prevention, and purple for diabetes awareness. By the time the arena went dark after five days, a handful of successful contestants had been invited into the winner’s circle while others packed their trailers and headed off to the next rodeo. [2012 INFR Finals results can be found on]

Photo by Quickshot, courtesy of INFR

World champion saddle bronc rider Rollie Wilson

The 2012 event—like a work by Shakespeare—brought both comedy and tragedy.

A good portion of the humor was provided by “Dangerous” Dave Whitmoyer, a 6’ 5” rodeo clown from Helena, Montana. The former football and basketball player admitted clowning started out as a temporary insanity and became a permanent affliction. “I grew up working on ranches, but because of my height I’m not really built for bull-riding, so I figured I’d use my athleticism in a different way—by entertaining people.”

Whitmoyer says there is one major difference between what he does and what bullfighters do: “They run toward the bulls while clowns run from them. That’s part of the working conditions of this game. I’ve been in bad spots before and gotten tagged once or twice by bulls and that’s helped make me a faster runner.”

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Trying to stay astride a bucking bull has been called “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports” for a reason: when an average-size bull-riding cowboy squares off against an average-size bull, the bull has about a ten to one weight advantage. Cowboys are also at a disadvantage when it comes to the bucking bronc livestock, which are less massive than the bulls, but equally contentious.

The tragically unspoken happened at this year’s rodeo when saddle bronc rider J.D. Jones of Goodman, Missouri, died of injuries suffered in a final night go-round event. As one of 15 competitors in the timed event, the 25-year-old Jones, competing for the first time in the national finals, drew a bronc named Meathead. “He got bucked off the horse and his foot got stuck in the stirrup,” said INFR spokeswoman Perse Hooper. “The horse continued to buck and came down on the cowboy’s head with his back legs before the animal fell on the rider as a result of the horse’s broken pelvis.”

“I believe the cowboy got knocked out before the horse kicked him and then rolled on him,” added arena doctor Steve Wilkinson, one of three doctors on hand to attend to injured competitors. “The pickup men reacted immediately and got Jones on a backboard and into an ambulance.”

A second medical man, Blair Matheson, Cherokee, himself a lifelong rodeo roper, jumped into the ambulance to help paramedics. “His head injury was unsurvivable and I think he died instantly, but when you have an accident like this… especially in young people… you do everything you know how to do for as long as possible on the off-chance something might change the outcome. Unfortunately nothing done in the ambulance or the hospital was able to change the outcome.”

“This was basically just a tragic accident,” added Dr. Matheson. “Anyone who has watched rodeo events expects something bad could happen in bull or bareback riding, but not so much in saddleback riding.”

Earlier in the week in an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Dr. Wilkinson noted: “We see a lot of orthopedic incidents from abrasions, bumps, and bruises to fractures, but generally nothing too major, like visits to a trauma center. However, in the rodeo business, it’s not so much if you’re going to get hurt, it’s when and how badly.”

No official announcement of Jones’s death was made by the ring announcer, but word of his passing quickly spread. At the Champions Award Ceremony later that night, the usually raucous celebration turned into a somber fund-raiser for the deceased cowboy’s wife, child, and family members. “Everybody kind of rallied together to raise funds for medical and funeral expenses,” said Wilkinson. “We held a blanket dance that raised $18,000 in cash—including some from contestants who donated their winning prize money—and another $5,000 in checks and pledges.” The INFR has established a fund for Jones’s family: his wife and one-year-old son. For information on how to contribute, including a donation form to download, visit

Noting that this was the first fatality in INFR’s 37-year history, the organization issued a statement expressing condolences and noted, “J.D. was a rodeo favorite because of his passion and respect of the sport and he died doing something he loved. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of J.D. at this difficult time. Thanks to the Indian Nations who have rallied behind J.D.'s family with support both financially and personal.”

“As dangerous as our sport is, it’s surprising something like this doesn’t happen more often,” said INFR Commissioner Vocu. “I guess God has a plan that included JD and Meathead to that rodeo in the sky. As cowboys, we just move forward and most of the contestants here will compete in Tour rodeos for the 2013 INFR season. Knowing all the possible risks, we continue to chase that gold buckle dream.”

J.D. Jones