[Above: Phil Lyne, Preston Fox, Alan Cassidy, Larry Mahan]
BLURT: I wanted to ask you how has the rodeo that you took part in back in 1972 changed? I ask this because Jack Hart in the film mentions that he found the rodeo back in 1972 unrecognizable from when he was in it, so do you feel the same way about rodeo today?
PHIL LYNE: It has changed a bunch you know. Of course everything changes with the times. They probably rope smaller calves. They bulldog I’d say smaller steers. Things change and the biggest thing that kind of, they went to Vegas and there was nothing wrong with going to Vegas. I just thought that the facilities they had at Vegas were too small. I thought that they should’ve got a long with Vegas and said look you know if you’ll just build an arena. What they did besides having a stadium to play football in they had arena football. It was just too small to me.
What’s the adrenaline like when you’re sitting on top of a bucking bull or bronco?
I just liked it. It was what I liked to do. That’s what I want to do, ever since I was little I liked to ride and I roped. I was raised on a ranch. You know some of them have high school rodeos or college rodeos, and they gave points like for all around and stuff and they do in the PRCA and RCA it is money. I had someone ask me did you just do it for the points and I said no I like to do it. I like to ride bareback horse, like to ride broncs, like to ride bulls, like to bulldog and I like to rope. I just liked everything to do in rodeo.
I was talking to Larry Mahan and he was saying that he became a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
Well it’s a thrill. You know when you ride a good bull a ranked bull, and you ride him, you know there’s probably not that many people that can ride that bull. You don’t get thrown off very much, you kinda get sometimes a rush of adrenaline in your body when you get off when you just, kinda like Larry said you become a junkie to it maybe in a way. I just enjoyed it. I liked it. In the calf roping its rhythm and timing and when you can put everything together time and time again and not make mistakes it kind of gives you a rush too.
Are you still working your family ranch?
Yeah. I live in Cotulla now and my wife and I bought a place over here a ranch and we ranch in George West. We’ve been in Cotulla since 74’.
What was it like for you to walk away on top and did you ever consider staging a comeback?
Well see, I’ve heard people say you know well it was my goal to do this or it was my goal to do that or that was the goal that I set for myself and so forth. This is the honest truth, I never thought about winning the world and all around in the RCA. I did it because I wanted to. I rodeod because I wanted to rodeo. I liked to be around the guys. I liked to do it. I liked to get on, I liked to ride. I liked to rope. I didn’t win and say look I want to be a world champion. I didn’t say that when I was in high school, or that I wanted to beat so and so. I didn’t care about even though some of the guys you know you’ve always got a guy that you don’t always care a lot for but I never looked at it like well I want to beat him because I’m upset with him or pissed off at him. I just rodeod because I liked to rodeo. I woke up there one day and there I was, I was in the lead for the world you know in the calf roping and the all-around, which was fine with me. I just went ahead and competed and did the best I could do each and every time. That’s the way I always looked at it. If you set a goal for yourself and you reach the goal, well maybe you should’ve set a little higher goal. I never did set goals. I just did the best I could do.
In the film it leaves the impression that you did it because you enjoyed it but your real goal was to go return to ranching.
I like to hunt. I wasn’t getting to do [that]. I had rodeod hard for probably 10 years even though I wasn’t but 24 years old. I amateured a lot, and I’d go to 3 or 4 rodeos a week when I was amateur even in [high school] and stuff. When I got off and stayed on the road for two years and I wasn’t getting to do. I wasn’t getting to hunt. I like to use dogs and stuff, to work cattle with dogs. I like to use little dogs to run hogs with and stuff like that. I like to hunt and so you know I just kind of did what I always wanted to do. I took care of things first at home and then did what I need[ed] to do later. You know you kinda gotta take care of business first. A lot of times if I wasn’t practicing enough then I felt that even after I got married that if I didn’t practice twice a day or something like that. Well I wasn’t really putting out enough. I might be cheating my family. Boy, you get to doing that and then you try and keep things going at the ranch at the same time and there’s not enough hours in the day. This was after I quit rodeoing, I quit the riding events. Later on I ended up winning the steer roping title in 1990 because in the 80’s the steer ropers were really good and they had a lot of big jackpots. It was really good. I won it in 90’and I quit in 90 after that. It wasn’t [that I] quit because I won it, I quit because the money deal went the other way. So why do it? Plus, I had to drive 300 miles to get started where I am down here. In the 1980’s I probably won just in the steer roping $125,000 , $150,000 tripping steers and that was a lot of damn money back then. We bought a place and it helped us to get by. Then in about ’88 it turned and started [going] the other way.
So you’re saying the money decreased?
Oh yeah, I’ll give you an example, I went to a jackpot in 88’ [in] Denton Texas. The Smith brothers put it on. They had I think 46 ropers or 48 ropers and the entry fee was $500, it might’ve been $750. I won third in one round, then I come back in a short drove. I think third in the average and I won the short drove, won the average. I won 11,000 a little over $11,000. Then the next year they started an AB association. In the A association, which I had to rope there [were] 26 or 27 entries. I think we roped for $400 and they took out a $100 for stock charge. Then I placed identical the same way and won $3480. And then the next year they called and invited me to come and I said how many ropers you got in the open? They said 16. I said I’m not coming. Because why go you know? It [has] always been kind of a business deal to me after I quit. When I was young and riding bulls and rough stock in rodeo in the RCA, I did it because I wanted to. I just liked to compete in rodeo. It probably wouldn’t’ve made any difference if were just riding for marbles. I just liked to do it. When it got to the point that I felt that I was missing. I grew up on a ranch, the nearest kid was 6 or 7 miles and hell I hunted all the time with what we called, excuse me, because it wasn’t a sling shot. A sling shot is what you swing around your head with two leather straps like David killed Goliath with. What we used was what we called [Ni**er] shooters, you can’t say that anymore now. I think they call it wrist rockets. That’s what we used. By the time I was 6 or 7 years old I had a .22 and I was by myself with a .22. I just hunted and I still to this day I love to hunt. Missing out on that, I was missing out on it then I got married. I went a little bit this and that. It’s just priorities what you want to do in your life. Everybody’s different.
What was it like working with Director Kieth Merrill?
They were there sometimes on the chutes you know or around a roping box, or the bucking shoots. They came out to the ranch one time. We hunted some birds. They were all really great to work with. They never like pestered me or got in the way, they were good, really good!
What was it like when you saw the final cut of the film and where did you see the film for the first time?
Where was it Oklahoma City? I’m not sure. I don’t even remember.
Do you remember what your reaction was to seeing the film the first time?
You see and it didn’t make any difference to me it was no big deal, but the RCA called me and told me they were going to do a 10-minute or 15-minute documentary on rodeo and wanted to know if I would help them? I said sure no big deal. I thought it was gonna be a 10 to 15-minute documentary. They told me [it was] gonna play at these theatres, [during a] double feature, between the two movies. So when I saw it, it kind of surprised me.
What was it like to see yourself up on the screen?
Some of the deals they kind of showed me not doing so good. Then they’d show Larry doing better and maybe you know in the end well Larry got hurt. In the end I went on ahead and won. Maybe that was the way they had it to make it work right. I don’t know.
Was it not like that in reality?
I think maybe if they’d have checked. I don’t know but I think at the time Larry got hurt I was $12,000 ahead of him. You know we were competing and I’m just like Larry, if you gave him the option of me getting hurt or not getting hurt, he would take it not getting hurt. I’m the same way I didn’t want to see him get hurt. You know we’re just not that way. I’m sure Larry feels the same way. He’ll bust his ass to beat you every time, but he’s not going to cheat you in any way. He’s just not that kind of guy. We’ve got a few in rodeo. You’ll see guys that’ll do anything if they can win. There’s a bunch of them there that won’t.
I was talking with Director Merrill a couple of weeks ago and he was saying that today’s rodeo men are more athletes than cowboys. He said he takes nothing away from their athleticism but that they aren’t true cowboys. What’s your feeling on this subject?
There’s probably more boys that when I was rodeoing that [were] actually cowboys. They could go out on a ranch and [actually] do something. I think that I came up amateur, high school, college and professionals in the best time of rodeo. Like now you see guys that they’re in big rigs and they’re by themselves or they got a driver. You know back when we rodeoed, there might three or four of us in a rig. You took turns driving. Hell we had a good time too. I think we had more fun. Like Larry who had a plane I had a Cessna 210 and guys rode with me and guys rode with Larry and we made a lot of rodeos. I may make 125 rodeos one year and 135 the next but if you’re rodeoing you got a line of rodeos set up to go to. If you’re in South Dakota what are you gonna do, you gonna go home or fly home and then wait to go to another rodeo in a week or ten days? We had [them] lined up where our expenses were the same other than the entry fee. Some guys would pull some stunts like Chris LeDoux he was one time in Vancouver and he entered Jasper Texas and he had to fly to Houston and he was up in Saskatchewan the next day. I think he had to win first in the bareback riding to make any money and he had to win second to break even. You had a few guys that pulled some crazy deals like that but not very many. Most of the guys were trying to make some money. I never pulled any crazy stunts like that.
So you’re a pilot as well?
I had a Cessna 210. I put 330 hours on the thing. I had my pilots license. They (Kieth Merrill) wanted to get in with me and ride with me for a couple of days. I told them it would be fine but that they’d have to let me know ahead of time. I told them two or three weeks ahead of time. That’s because I had guys with me that were riding and they were depending on me to get them to the rodeos that we entered together. They had to let me know so I could let them know. I told some of the boys, I said some time these guys are going to want to get in for a day or two so ya’ll gonna have to make arrangements when it comes up. I told them give me a couple of weeks’ notice. They said that’ll be fine. Well they show up on the Fourth of July in Cody Wyoming and they wanted me to get a couple of guys out and jump in and I told them no way. I don’t know if that upset them, I guess it did. I couldn’t put those two guys out to let the film crew in. If I did kick them out how are they gonna get there [otherwise].
So before you built a name for yourself, how were you getting from rodeo to rodeo? Were you hitching rides, or were you sharing a car with somebody? I ask this because Larry talks about how he had a school and he would teach kids how to share rides and how to live off a hamburger a day. So how did you get around?
There was always two three or four of us get together. It just depends maybe a couple of us roped calves. Or maybe there was a couple three of us that rode rough stock and would get in a car and you know when I got there I’d call ahead and talk to the guys and say hey are you going to [a] certain place and you know could I ride your horse?
I’m gonna be up Saturday night. Oh yeah that’s fine and I paid him 25% of what I won. I don’t know this hamburger a day and all of this stuff. I know that I just tried to get hold of two or three good guys and split everything up. I travelled with bulldoggers. I travelled with calf ropers. I travelled with rough stock. [The] hamburger a day this and that I don’t know. [At] holiday inn there’d be 4 of us in a room [splitting] $14 and we’d split it 4 ways. Sometimes there’d be six [of us] and we[‘d] split the mattress on one bed. I [saw] Larry just get a motel room by himself. I always looked at it [to make] money. I usually ate more than a hamburger a day. I guess I was lucky enough, that I [was able] to. I didn’t have anyone [travelling] with me either that had to miss any meals. Hell if I knew I’d have helped them!
Are you still in touch with Larry, and do you still make appearances from time to time at events?
I team rope. I’ve got a grandson that’s 17. He ropes good, bulldogs good, and team ropes good. In fact, he just left today to go to Stevensville to a jackpot roping up there. I have a granddaughter she’s eight. She does good in the barrels and poles. I just cut two fingers off September the 26th in Amarillo. My little finger and my ring finger. I heeled a steer and the steer was strong and the rope was running over the horn and the rope come around my little finger and my ring finger and got them.
Is your hand healing?
Oh yeah its good. I’ve already placed. I roped two weeks ago. I roped at San Antonio and placed there. Its good. I’ve still got the same wife. I’ve been married for 42 years. I just about got her straightened out too!
Do you sometimes call Larry or see him?
Yeah I sometimes call him and BS a bit.
Larry was saying something that I thought was really interesting he said that the bulls and the broncs today are even bigger than they were back then.
The horses I think they feed them better. They take better care of them. The bulls the same way. I think that if you can ride the ranker the stock the better it is for you. You got to draw some buckers. I feel like when Larry and I was going that sometimes you didn’t draw anything that you could win anything on. But I think what’s so great now these guys are being able to go and get on and everything or most of them that they get on they win on. The only problem is they’ve got to ride them. The horses are probably in better condition and they grain them probably better. The bulls definitely they take better care of a lot of the bulls. My guys have got really good bulls, they’re not making any money out of it, but they’re in it because they want to ride bucking bulls. They take a lot of pride in having that quality of bucking stock. Some of these guys like the Kesler brothers in Montana they probably have 700 or 900 horses and no telling how many Calgary’s got. Problem now is they’re running out of [bronc and bareback riders].
So you’re saying that it’s hard to find these kind of people to ride these animals these days?
What’s funny was when I was in high school, we’d go to these high school rodeos, we’d have from 60 to 80 bull riders. Now when we go to these high school rodeos you’re lucky to get 4 or 5 or 6. And then in the bareback riding we’d always have 40-60 bareback riders. Now you’re lucky to have 4 or 5 or 6 bareback riders. We just don’t have them like we used to. I don’t know why.
What do you think these days of people wearing helmets and pads? How does that settle with you someone who came up without safety equipment?
I don’t know if they call it stupidity or what. I got hit in the head one time in Utah that knocked me out for two and half hours but other than that. That’s the only time I think that I’d have needed a helmet. It only takes once you know. As far as I always thought that the worst thing about riding bulls was getting stepped on. Cause really you take [2000 pounds and put it in an 80-inch it that can mess the hell out of you]. As far as getting hooked or getting a horn run into you, I never thought about it. Probably the worst thing is getting stepped on. Maybe the vest could prevent people from getting killed. The helmets, they still get their teeth knocked out. I think a lot of that is the way you ride too. I hate to say whether I’d use a helmet. I would think if they had to ask me yes or no, [I’d say no]. But now a vest is mandatory. [So] you have to [wear it] or else you wouldn’t be able to get on.
Did you ever ride Oscar?
I tell ya what. I think Bob Cooke told me one time he threw me off at one of their rodeos. I ran in there and there [were] two bulls left in the chute and one of them was mine we jumped on right quick. I got on and he threw me before the whistles. He got me, which was now Cooke said that was Oscar. If it was that was the only time that I ever got on him.
A lot of cowboys back then unlike you and Larry they were living from rodeo to rodeo. They had to try and make ends meet. So it must’ve been a pretty desperate situation for a lot of them?
Yeah, you know I know some guys that they would rope and they would just, or they would ride and they wouldn’t have the funds and they’d just have to go home. There were other guys that would work the stock or do stuff around the rodeo to pick up a little extra money. In that sense a lot of them didn’t [just depend on somebody else to send them money]. They had to make it on their own. I’m sure some of the guy’s moms and dads would send them some money to help them but they were a whole lot more conservative than a lot of the guys that compete today. Of course it’s hard for me to say that because I really don’t compete today and I don’t know really how conservative some of them are. But when I look around the rodeos and see how they do and what they do, it doesn’t look like to me that they’re being very conservative.
What do you mean by conservative?
Like a friend of mine was at Stevensville and there were four guys there that were going to San Antonio to compete. They were all in four different rigs and there were team ropers and bulldoggers and stuff like that. They all took four rigs to San Antonio and came back. I can’t see that, I don’t know why they would do that, when they could’ve thrown their horses in together and [travelled] in one rig. Look just how much more it costs you to drive from Stevensville to San Antonio [in] four rigs then to drive one and come back.
When I had the Cessna 210 I charged the boys a nickel a mile to ride with me, which in that 210 cost me $18 an hour to fly. That [included] insurance, fuel, depreciation the whole nine yards. [It] flew over a 180 miles an hour. If I had two guys in there with me I was travelling for nothing. It was a good deal for them. If I had three, then I was making a nickel a mile. I got home with probably half of what I won. I thought that’s pretty good.
So when did you get your pilots license and who had a plane first you or Larry?
I got a pilot’s license in 1972. Larry had a plane first. Larry probably had a plane back in the mid-sixties, I would imagine. I wanted a 210, I wanted more umpf! So TJ Walker and I bought a 210 at Black Aviation in Albuquerque at the [beginning] of 72’ and then I bought him out later on and then I flew it that year and then after year or so I sold it.
You buy the plane new or used?
Oh no it was used. It had about 2300 hours on the airframe and 18 hours on a new major overhaul on the engine. I gave $12,900 for it. I put 330 hours on it and sold it for $13,000. I did 1800 of upkeep on it.
In the film there are some kids as well as cowboys who talk about the numerous hits they’ve taken. It seems for some of these younger riders getting hurt was sort of a badge of honor. What are your thoughts on this? Did people really talk that way?
I don’t know where Kieth came up with those guys. Kinda like wanting a little sympathy and then saying here’s how tough I am. I did this and I did that. All the guys that don’t even say a word about it and you don’t but they’re participating with some pain but you don’t know about it. You know that’s a real cowboy. Better than a guy that comes out [and] wants a little sympathy or something you know?
So you’re saying that the guys you hung out with never talked about the pain they were in?
That’s a pretty good way to put it. Sometimes you just gotta take a little of it. I mean shit if it’s where you can’t win, then you need to go home and get well. But hell everybody’s gonna have a little pain here and a little pain there. Some people can just take more pain than others.
Do you think you’re one of them?
I just like to rodeo like I said. I yell ya what I think is really good is the sports medicine, that the guys can help the guys and tell’em hey you know you need to go home and get well. Or they can say he if you can stand the pain, it’s not gonna hurt ya. It’ll take a little longer to get well. If you can stand the pain, that’s up to you. This is one of the deals that we missed out on that I think is really great for those guys now. Because like hell you’re not a doctor you just go by [how] you feel. Sometimes you can try to be too tough. You can do more damage. You’re better off to go get well.
Larry mentions now they have sports medicine and breeding programs for livestock, that back when you two were competing it was basically the dawn of this new era in rodeo.
To me everybody does or participates because they think that it’s the right way to do it. But sometimes those guys, the people that get them to doing stuff don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and they get them to doing certain things, that’s really not consistent and not the [way]you should do them. Let’s put it that way. Like calf roping and riding bulls I’ve got ways, what you should do that is to be consistent and make the best runs in calf roping. A lot of people you watch a run, watch a complete run of a guy rope a calf and tie it and you say what did he do wrong? He says I don’t know. Well did he do this or did he do that? Well he says how did you see that? Hell [weren’t] you watching? You see stuff in a run I think that and other people can’t. I was so picky at myself and I figured out stuff and I was lucky maybe that I figured out what I thought was right, or the best way to do things. I know that it works for other people because I showed them it worked. They can do what I show them and they can make better runs but they can’t mentally consistently practice those habits and get them to work where they are muscle memory. You can’t do the bad habits. It’ll eat you up. If you’ve got, ten things that you’ve got to do in a calf roping run to make a smooth solid run and you can only do each thing fifty percent of the time successfully how the hell are you going to get to the end of that run? You see what I mean if you do it this way you can only make it work fifty percent of the time because you’re [going to] mess up. If you can do it the other way and [do it 99%] of the time and make it work, then you can make consistent runs one after another. You get to where you’re solid. It’s just [like being a] receiver. I don’t care how fast or how good a route he runs, if he can’t catch that damn ball he ain’t doing you any good. That’s the same way with roping and it’s the same way with riding bulls. People talk about the Brazilians being so hungry. The Brazilians are taking hold and they’re taking hold of riding the bull and they’re not getting out over the front end too far which I think is what a lot of the American riders do.
Larry says that when he was on a bull he was able to compartmentalize it down to fractions of a second. I assume you have to get into a similar mindset when you’re dealing with calf roping as well?
With Calf roping [it’s] the muscle memory, the smoothness and everything and [you] put it all together [along with] rhythm the timing. I wasn’t that big but I flanked a lot of big calves. I could handle a big calf pretty [well]. A lot of guys couldn’t understand how I could do it but it was rhythm and timing and being in the right spot [at the right time]. In roping position [is everything].
How did you develop you’re roping style? Who taught you?
Well nobody I just sat down and figured it out. Now the kids they have more schools to go to and people to go to but sometimes you gotta watch if you go to those schools or you watch the guys who put on the schools. You’ve gotta pick that chicken shit out of the salt and pepper. Some of them are so full of bull. All they do there is just take your money. I was lucky that I just happened to hit on some things that I thought was right and I practiced right. You know what I had to do to win. I tell ya what like riding bulls. I really liked to ride those bulls and I was at Cheyenne and Cowtown hadn’t been rode in 5 years. The only bull to throw George Paul off at the saddle. I went and I had him in the short go and I went over and I asked Dicky and of course I wasn’t a rookie it was my second year. He said, what hand you riding him with? I said right. He says you can’t ride him. I thought shit. So I went over and asked Doug Brown what about Cowtown and he says what hand you riding him with? I said right and he says you can’t ride him. So I went over and asked Paul Mayo, what about Cowtown? He said what hand you riding him with? I said right. He said you ain’t got a chance. So I walked to George Paul and asked what about Cowtown? He said, “Fuck that son of a bitch!” He said you put your hand over and you move your hand over almost in the middle of his back and every time he makes a round you look in there. I’ve always put my little finger right next to the backbone. I never put my hand over the middle. I did like George said I moved over where my ring finger was right in the middle of his back and boy I snapped him off. It was just so easy. From that day on you know where that ring finger went right in the middle of that backbone. I think that helped my bull riding 100%. I always thought that and I still think today that when you put that hand over in the middle that it takes some of that power away from them bulls where your dead center. If you put your little finger next to the backbone well then you’ve got to ride a little catawampus to allow when they jerk, you. They jerk you into your hand. If you watch 9 out of 10 guys will get bucked off or bucked off into their hand. That [was the] one deal right there in Cheyenne, that helped my bull riding 100% .
So unlike the kids you mentioned that went back to their habitual ways once out of your school, you seemed to be able to take advice from other riders and incorporate it into your own style?
When I rode Cowtown and I rode him so easy. I said holy shit. So I kept doing it and it just kept working.
I was curious; there’s a scene in the Great American Cowboy where one of the steer wrestler’s kind of gets ahead of the animal and the steer is pushing the man. Director Merrill then stops the frame right there and you see the cowboy looking back at the animal and the steer is looking forward. How hard is it to take down one of those steer and have you been in a situation like that?
That steer wasn’t trying to push him. It was at Cheyenne and the guy kind of missed the steer and then he ended up in front of him the steer and the steer is looking at him and they get kind of balled up there. I’ve never seen a bulldog push somebody. As far as taking one of them down. I liked to bulldog I really did but I just wasn’t big enough. I weighed a 153 pounds when I was rodeoing. Some of the guys I rodeod with they weighed 210, 220, 260. The bulldoggers some of them had a 100 pounds on me. I didn’t have much of a chance of winning but I did place. The guys who win in the bulldogging comes back to if their fundamentals are really good. They’ve got the better horses. Its doing the right thing just like the calf roping.
How old are you now if I may ask?
How old is Larry?
He has to be 85 or 90 [right]?
Naw, I’m kidding (chuckling).
I imagine Larry is probably 73. 72,73 maybe.
Did you ever wear a pair of Larry Mahan boots?
No I never did.
What did you think when the film won an Oscar?
Well I think it was good. I think it helped rodeo. I think they did a good job. They had to get a world of footage. Just like that guy you mentioned looking eyeball to eyeball with that steer. They did a good job. I think I thought it was kind of corny with those guys. Like the deal you brought out about those guys talking about how they’d done this or got hurt. I don’t know where they found those guys. I think out there in California or somewhere. I thought that was awful corny. What sells the movies, sometimes the guys in them think this might be corny. While some people might think hell that’s just great!
Thanks to Kieth, Larry and Phil! – Ed