He’s not the star of the rodeo. He’s not the one clinging to the back of a raging bull or deftly tying up a lowing calf. But afterwards, he’s often the man that parents of rodeo contestants seek out.
Sandy Bob Forbes is one of the pickup men waiting by the side of the ring to intervene if a cowboy loses control, and when people find him after the rodeo, it’s generally to thank him for rescuing their kid.
“It’s the kind of job when you do it, you don’t want to be noticed,” Forbes said. “The best pickup men in the world are the guys who can get it done without making a big scene.”
Indeed, a casual observer probably wouldn’t notice Forbes, son of Kaycee-based roughstock provider John Forbes, or his pickup partner Jhett Johnson, head rodeo coach at Casper College. For most of the rodeo, they remain on the edges of the arena, reins slack in their hands as they silently wait for something to go wrong.
“Every time, it’s different,” Johnson said. “You never know what’s going to happen, it’s truly an adrenaline rush. Last weekend, I picked up 23 horses each day, and they’re all different.”
The signs that a rider is about to lose control usually aren’t subtle, but the window between the first slip-up and disaster is small, so the riders must keep a close eye on every competitor as soon as they exit the chute. The crucial component to avoiding injury in both animal and contestant is knowing when things are about to fall apart. It looks different in each event, but it’s never more obvious — or more dangerous — than in bareback riding, where the rider can get inextricably tangled in the ropes that tether him to the bronc.
“It’s kind of a feeling you get, when everything’s coming loose,” Forbes said. “In bareback riding, if it looks like they’re going to get bucked up away from their hand, that rigging will hold them. They’re caught, there’s nothing they can do, so you try to get there as soon as you can.”
The riders have two priorities as they surround the rogue bronc. The first is keeping the rider from getting injured. But the second is also vitally important: If at all possible, don’t hurt the animals.
“Your livestock is how they pay the bills, so you gotta be careful with them,” Forbes said. “You don’t ever want to stop them, and you don’t ever want to jerk on them. If you jerk on them, you see a lot of broken legs and problems that completely can be avoided.”
Because of the delicate nature of situations like a rider getting tangled up in the rigging attached to a panicking horse, you need a pickup man on either side. That’s when knowing your partner well can make a pickup team truly elite.
When a cowboy begins to slip, there’s no time for discussion. The two riders automatically move to flank the horse and its struggling rider. One gets a rope around the animal; the other plants himself in front of the horse to keep it in place.
“I pick up with Jhett Johnson, and I pick up with Cody Cunningham. And the more we pick up, the more we learn about it,” Forbes said. “You can read where your partner’s going to be, it’s a lot of teamwork.”
Having bred and raised their broncs, the Forbes family and their pickup men know exactly what to expect when a competitor enters the arena on a certain horse. That makes it easy to guess when they will need to intervene.
“I didn’t realize that horses had such a set pattern,” Johnson said. “If you get to know the horses, if they buck them 10 times, chances are they’ll do the same thing.”
With that knowledge, the riders are able to spend most of their time on the sidelines and out of the limelight.
“When it goes really smoothly, nobody’s a hero,” Johnson said. “People watch the riders, and if we’re doing our job well, you don’t even notice us.”
That suits the pickup men just fine. When everything goes right, they get to sit back and watch the rodeo unfold around them.
“It’s a different part to the rodeo,” Forbes said. “It’s like you’re there in all the raw action. You get to see everything; best seats in the house. And I feel like I have a purpose.”