Rodeo Cowboy Champion Who Made Movies

When a professional rodeo cowboy is injured in the arena, he'll often 'suck it up' to compete at the next stop on the tour, and if he's lucky, he'll escape critical injury later on. Casey Tibbs was fortunate he had only minor injuries to overcome while capturing the World All-Around Rodeo Championship title twice in the 1950s. After he retired from competition and launched a career in the film industry, however, an incident occurred that made him think he was a goner for sure.
The challenge of making it in Hollywood appealed to Tibbs, and in fact, he was successful in Tinseltown. He appeared as an actor and stunt man in many movies and TV series and directed two films. It was in the most successful film he directed, the documentary Born to Buck (1966), that he almost bit the dust.
Shooting on location in South Dakota, Casey and his cowboys rounded up 400 wild horses on a Sioux reservation with the goal of driving the herd 120 miles overland to Fort Pierre, where some of the horses would be tested by bronc riders in a rodeo. After a skirmish with buffalo near the Missouri River, they waited out heavy rains for two days before attempting to drive the herd across the Big Muddy's cold, churning water.
Casey entered the river first. He was aboard a horse he knew was calm under pressure, a big gray mare with good stamina, and a small part of the herd was driven into the river to follow his lead. Once in deep water, the wild horses refused to swim across, and after repeated efforts to get them to the distant bank, the cowboys relented and brought the exhausted horses back on land.
Meanwhile, there was Tibbs and his mare nearly halfway across as the sky darkened and a tornado funnel appeared. Although Casey slid out of the saddle and held onto the mare's tail to reduce the load on her, the horse struggled to keep her head above water. Suddenly she panicked and thrashed about so severely that Casey lost his grip on her tail for a time.
Although a horse will occasionally bleed from the lungs during a physical activity requiring tremendous exertion, Casey had never known the mare to be a bleeder, and yet, on this occasion she bled considerably. In addition to the crisis she found herself in, there was another problem, and it was a major one for Casey Tibbs: he could not swim.
He managed to grasp her tail again, but now heavy rain and winds lashed the river. The mare began drifting downriver, her head going under a windswept wave and emerging again in a desperate battle for survival. It was something of a miracle that they were carried downstream to a small sand bar island, where they recovered and were rescued once the raging storm subsided.
Unfortunately, very little of this was captured on film. The storm had forced the camera crew on the houseboat to go inside, where they watched the drama unfold helplessly. The following day, with the sun shining brightly, they filmed a contrived scene showing Tibbs hanging onto a saddle strap as the mare dragged him onto the bank of the Missouri River. He took a few weary steps and collapsed in a performance that fell a tad short of an Oscar nomination.
State Highway officials had earlier denied Tibbs's request to use a bridge for the herd's crossing of the Missouri but gave in when they were informed of the disastrous attempt to drive the herd across. The horses were permitted to use a highway bridge and eventually made their way to the Stanley County rodeo arena in Fort Pierre, where a rodeo was staged.
Born to Buck isn't a great film. Although a greenhorn dude will recognize the documentary's truth in portraying the chaotic nature of driving a herd many miles overland, there are dawdling moments of a trail hand's camp life, an aimless game of poker, a repetition of scenes showing wild horses being broken to tack, and too many other flaws to mention. Some of the cowboys' down time on a drive is needed for the sake of accuracy, but generally, the editing of the raw footage strays from the script's focus on Tibbs's mission.
A few wooded scenes seem out of place, but the film succeeds as a travelogue of the prairie, nonetheless, showing the buffalo, prairie dogs, mule deer, wild turkeys, elk, wildflowers, and picturesque vistas of central South Dakota's rolling hills. Moreover, actor Henry Fonda's narration is excellent, and cowboy actor Rex Allen's commentaries as the rodeo announcer in Fort Pierre work very well. Tibbs's documentary succeeds on quite a few levels - as did the man himself.
Casey Duane Tibbs (1929-1990) was born in a cabin in South Dakota and is buried in Fort Pierre. He won the World Saddle Bronc Riding Championship a record six times, earned nine world titles overall, was featured on the October 22, 1951, cover of Life magazine, and is in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, where a bronze statue of him on the good bronc Necktie stands in front of the entrance. He is acknowledged as the rodeo cowboy who brought national attention to a sport that soared in popularity as he rocketed to stardom.

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