A man in a cowboy hat, desperately clinging to a bucking steed as it kicks up red Oklahoma dirt, is the most iconic image of the Sooner State’s history and culture. History books and museums are full of Western tales with cowboy heroes, but the reality is that new Western tales are still being lived every day.
Saddle bronc riding is a celebrated rodeo event where a cowboy tries to stay on the saddle of a bucking horse for eight seconds while the horse tries to send the rider flying. Edmond resident Billy Etbauer is one of the best saddle bronc riders who ever lived. Any question as to his status will be quieted by a simple glance at his accomplishments.
Etbauer, the five-time World Champion of the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), known as the “Super Bowl” of rodeo, took the coveted title in 1992, 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2004. Etbauer has won the 10th round of the NFR 10 times, and holds the record for making it to the NFR the most times for saddle bronc riding, with 20 competitions.
At the 2004 finals, Etbauer randomly drew the horse of the year, Cool Alley, in the tenth round of finals, and it was on that horse that he rode to victory. Whether Etbauer will be able to take home a sixth NFR win will be decided when the 2008 championship convenes in Las Vegas in December.
“I spend the whole year training and building up to the NFR. That’s where the money is better and the horses are better, and that’s just where you want to be,” he said. “If everything goes good, you can make everything that you made all year in that ten days, or you can also go home broke, too.”
On the road to the World Finals, Etbauer spends basically the whole year on tour. The 2008 tour ended Sept. 30 and the new tour started Oct. 1, the very next day. Etbauer said he rides about 30 rodeos each year, all over the United States and Canada. A big November rodeo in Dallas is one he’s been working toward for awhile.
“There’s basically rodeos every day, but I don’t go to that many,” Etbauer said. “I’ve been blessed all year. This has just been an awesome year, and I just thank God that we’ve got Express Ranch as our sponsor, and that helps us stay going, and we’ll just try to stay healthy and we’ll see what happens.”
Express Ranch has been Etbauer’s sponsor since 1996. “It’s because of those guys that I’m able to still rodeo,” he said.
In the grueling, high-stakes rodeo circuit, injuries in high-danger saddle bronc riding are common, but rarely has Etbauer been hurt so bad that he’s been out of commission for more than three or four months.
“We’ve had some things happen, but we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to heal up quickly and get some things done,” he said. The most career-threatening injury Etbauer has sustained was a ruptured disc in his spine in 1993, but he was able to come back and win the World Championship just three years later.
At 45, Etbauer has been riding professionally for 21 years, but horses have been a part of his life since the beginning. He grew up in South Dakota on about 4,000 acres of land. “My brothers and I basically grew up on horseback. We’ve been on horseback since we were in diapers,” he said. “We grew up cowboy, basically, and thank God that everything worked out. That’s what we always wanted to do. That’s the love of being a cowboy.”
He said their parents did a lot to help the brothers achieve their rodeo dreams, and that he’s thankful for their support.
Etbauer started competing in pee wee, 4H and amateur circuits at a young age, before he began participating in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos when he was 24. His older brother, Robert, preceded Etbauer in rodeo fame, claiming the world title in 1991. Robert, other brother, Dan, and friend Craig Latham travelled the circuit and competed with Etbauer during the first 10-15 years of his rodeo career. For the last 5–10 years, he’s mostly been by himself, but recently, Robert’s 23-year-old son, Trell, has joined Etbauer on the circuit.
Etbauer lives with his wife, Hollie, and their children northwest of Edmond He owns about 440 acres and leases another 360, where they board recipient mares for Embryo Transfer Services. “That’s my job, doing [rodeo], but I’ve got a full-time job at the house. I’m more than busy,” he said.
Etbauer and his wife met at a circuit finals rodeo at the Lazy E Arena 15 years ago. Now, Hollie participates in barrel racing and helps him raise quarter horses, and their kids are starting to get involved as well. Already, Kord, age 12; Jacie, age 9; and Treg, age 7 are getting a head start in the family business, running barrels in pee wee rodeos. “They like it. They do good,” Etbauer said, although he admits they need to spend some more time roping. If the kids take after their dad at all, the Etbauer name could remain synonymous with rodeo for another generation.
As for Etbauer, it seems like he’s nowhere near the end yet, either. “We’ll just keep doing it, horse by horse, day by day and jump by jump, and see what happens,” he said.