The Montana Mardi Gras – Or, the Place Where Bucking Horses Are Sent
By Donnie Sexton
What happens in Miles City, stays in Miles City, at least during the world famous >Miles City Bucking Horse Sale.
This annual May shindig (held on the 3rd full weekend in May) attracts cowboys from all over the West looking for a good payout.
It’s a gathering of local farmers and ranchers, ready to celebrate the end of winter and all the gnarly chores that come with caring for cattle during cold weather.
It has become a favorite destination for visitors from around the world who are there to take part in the mother of all Western celebrations.
It’s the Montana version of Mardi Gras!
If you’ve ever wondered what happens to the horses who buck unsuspecting novice riders at Montana’s dude ranches, the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale is the answer.
Back to the General
>Miles City (often referred to as MC) owes its start to General George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which took place a little over 100 miles to the southwest of MC.
As a result of that June battle in 1876 came an influx of soldiers and the founding of a US Army post, Fort Keogh, by Colonel Nelson A. Miles.
Watering holes, boarding houses, dance halls, bordellos and general stores sprung up as the area grew into a hub not only for the soldiers but cowboys, Indians, buffalo hunters, bullwhackers and ladies of the night.
That hub would grow into a town and named after the Colonel.
In 1881, the Northern Pacific Railroad came to MC and became the mechanism for shipping cattle to packing plants in the east. Fort Keogh would take on the role of a remount station and would process more horses for World War I than any other post, shipping them all over the world.
With a history focused on horses and cattle raised in eastern Montana, it was only fitting that Miles City would initiate the sale of bucking horses.
The Bucking Horse Sale got its start in 1951, with the sale of 350 “bucking horses” to rodeo stock contractors. The organizers paid “mount money” to anyone willing to ride so the buyers could judge just how spirited these horses could be.
$10 for a Saddle Bronc
The pay was $5 for barebacks and $10 for saddle broncs. The second-year drew a crowd of 2,500, ten buyers, 90 riders and 350 horses up on the auction block.
Sixty-eight years later, the bucking horse sale event has grown in size and stature to earn the distinction of being “world famous”.
Today, anyone can sign up to ride either bareback or saddle bronc at the Saturday sale, although it rarely happens.
A mere $35 entry fee and a whole lot of courage will get you on the back of a feisty horse for what will no doubt be the ride of a lifetime.
This job is best left to seasoned cowboys.
Due in part to the success of breeding programs that produce sturdy bucking stock, the number of horses put up for sale has dwindled over the years.
Approximately 40 horses are scheduled to be bucked out for sale in 2018. On the flip side, the weekend activities keep growing.
Lots of Activities
A Thursday night concert featuring big-name Western entertainment kicks off the weekend. Friday action includes a trade show exposition, the bucking bull sale, mutton bustin’ and wild horse racing.
When the sun goes down, the party starts along MC’s Main Street, which is closed off to traffic but filled with toe-tappers of all ages dancing to live music and munching on street food.
Beer drinking gets into full swing, and it becomes a challenge to squeeze into the watering holes, such as the Montana or Bison Bar for a cold one.
Saturday sees an impressive western parade that makes it way through MC’s Main Street.
You won’t see beads tossed to spectators in Mardi Gras fashion, but you will see candy thrown out in record numbers to the delight of kids scrambling to catch the goodies.
It’s a repeat of rodeo action in the afternoon, this time focused on horses. Interspersed with the bucking horse action is pari-mutuel horse racing.
The second night of street dancing rounds out the day.
A crowd favorite has to be the mutton-bustin’, whereby young cowboys and cowgirls (ages 4-6) can opt to ride a sheep out of the pen, hanging on for dear life. The winner is the kid who hangs on the longest, with the prize being a buckle.
It’s the event that brings plenty of laughs, as young’uns end up sliding off or under the sheep’s belly, occasionally somersaulting, and sometimes getting a mouth full of dirt.
There are always a few tears from these brave little souls trying to make sense of what just happened to them as they are picked up from the ground and dusted off.
Wild Horse Racing
Then there is wild horse racing. This craziness involves a team of three cowboys, one rambunctious horse, a saddle, and halter.
Once the horse bolts out of the chute, the team scrambles to get a saddle and rider on the beast, who must then make a complete lap around the race track at the fairgrounds.
Considering you have several teams at one time trying to accomplish the same goal, you have a spectacle of complete and utter chaos.
You have to love the horse that outsmarts those cowboys and runs off, leaving the boys in the dirt!
Sunday starts with cowboy church at the fairgrounds, followed by some competitive rodeo action. Sunday’s event, matched bronc riding, is by invitation only to some of the top saddle bronc riders in the world who show up to compete for the big bucks.
Fighting Over Girls
The beer flows freely during this four-day celebration and may contribute to inhibitions flying out the door.
Having been to the Bucking Horse Sale many times, I’ve seen a few fisticuffs (usually over a girl), a few hookups, and plenty of folks stumbling around (or falling) due to over-consumption.
But it isn’t just about the Mardi Gras vibe during the Bucking Horse Sale. Miles City calls itself “The friendliest town in the West” and I concur.
The strength of families dependent on the land for their livelihood and the reliance on neighbors and friends to thrive in this rural landscape is impressive.
When these folks set aside their daily chores and head into Miles City to celebrate, their goodwill and kindness radiate to everyone around them.
Visitors can easily mingle with the locals and catch a glimpse of how life unfolds in rural Montana.
It’s one “bucking” good time.
Donnie Sexton has moved on from a very long stint as staff photographer and media relations manager for the Montana Office of Tourism. Her path is now focused on feeding her addiction to travel and sharing her journeys in both words and photography. www.donniesexton.com