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Harry Vold, seen in 1986.
Harry Vold, seen in 1986.

Harry Vold, a rodeo legend who raised broncos and bulls Add to ...

For more than a half-century, Harry Vold supplied bucking broncos and fearsome bulls whose rip-snorting dispositions intimidated cowboys while entertaining rodeo audiences.

The Canadian-born stock contractor, who has died in Colorado at 93, became a legend on both sides of the border for his John Wayne demeanour and, especially, for the orneriness of his animals.

Mr. Vold brought two bucking broncos and seven bulls to the inaugural National Finals Rodeo in 1959 at Dallas. The Vold family has had animals at the rodeo, regarded as the cowboy Super Bowl, every year since.

He was known as the Duke of the Chutes, rodeo royalty in a sport he saw grow over the decades from dusty outdoor contests with $6 paydays to grand arena competitions in which a top rider can win more than $40,000 (U.S.).

The rancher received a dizzying array of honours, including induction into the Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Ponoka, Alta. (1992), the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo. (1994) and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Okla. (2009). He was also a member of the halls of fame for such rodeos as Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming, Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon, Dodge City Roundup in Kansas, Ellensburg Rodeo in Washington, Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs and Old Fort Days in Fort Smith, Ark. His family joked he was in every hall of fame except for hockey’s.

Mr. Vold’s saddle broncs won the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association’s bucking stock of the year title a dozen times from 1962 until 1984 with such horses as Bar 7X, Bugle Boy, Whiz Bang, American Express, Charming Billy and Sarcee Sorrel. He also had champion bulls in B6 and B13. Asked why he identified his bulls by numbers, he replied: “Why name them? When the cowboys get bucked off, they have their own names for them.” By the 1980s, he was naming his bulls and had further champions in Hagar, Rambo, Revelation and Sugar Ray Skoal.

Mr. Vold maintained connections to his native Alberta even after moving to Colorado in 1968 on the advice of Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. The Sarcee band (today, the Tsuut’ina nation) earlier presented Mr. Vold with a headdress when granting him the honorary title Chief Many Horses.

Harry Alexander Vold was born on Jan. 29, 1924, to Kirsten and Nansen Vold, a farmer, auctioneer and horse trader. The family had left North Dakota to homestead in Alberta in 1896. The patriarch, Andrew Vold, died seven years later when struck by a branch while felling a tree. He was the first person buried in what became the Asker Cemetery.

Harry was raised with three brothers on a 3,000-acre spread about 24 kilometres east of Ponoka. Older brothers Clifford and Norman both grew up to be ranchers, while younger brother Ralph, a burly 6-foot-2, 190-pounds, played senior amateur hockey as a defenceman and pursued a professional baseball career as a right-handed pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. He returned to Alberta and became a prominent figure in rodeo and ranching circles.

At the age of 15, Harry handled his first livestock auction. He was self-taught, as had been his father. In the depths of the Depression, the youth called on a genial personality, as well as training in etiquette that he received at high school, to charm bidders into spending hard-earned dollars. He handled auctions at the Edmonton Stockyards for a year before moving to Calgary, where his fast-talking patter sold cattle for seven years.

During the war, Mr. Vold and his brothers built a stampede grounds in Asker, holding a modest rodeo. In 1947, he joined the fledgling Cliff Claggett Stampedes, a barnstorming Wild West show featuring some of the prairie’s finest cowboys. Mr. Vold rode broncos, but quickly decided he preferred buying and selling horses to being thrown off them.

A business supplying broncos to rodeos in the United States came to a halt in 1952 when an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease led to a closing of the border to livestock. Mr. Vold offered his horses to the local Ponoka Stampede, but organizers turned him down since they already had a stock contractor. When those animals proved insufficiently feisty, Mr. Vold convinced organizers to give his broncos a showcase. Though he was not paid, the performance convinced a rodeo in the town of Stettler to hire Mr. Vold’s animals. He trailed them himself on horseback for three days to cover the 90-kilometre distance. The journey was typical of a peripatetic career.

“I’ve been a vagabond all my life,” he told American Cowboy magazine in 2010. “Ever since I was a kid, I was on the go. I was told I was like my grandfather on my mother’s side, who was a sailor in Norway – I never could stay in one place. When the phone rings, you’ve got to go, because if you don’t, you’re going to lose the job.”

The Vold name soon became a byword for excitement, as newspaper advertisements promoting rodeos heralded the presence of his animals.

Mr. Vold purchased a ranch southeast of Pueblo, Colo., in 1968. The ranch became home to about 500 horses and 160 bulls, producing about three dozen colts and a dozen bulls every year in a program he called Born to Buck. Over the years, animals from the Harry Vold Rodeo Co. appeared in every major rodeo in the United States and Western Canada, including the Calgary Stampede and the Canadian Finals in Edmonton. In 1990, he travelled as far afield as Finland to take part in a Wild West show held in Helsinki.

The Vold name is synonymous with rodeo, as his children became involved in riding, breeding and stock contracting. Some shared with their father induction into halls of fame. Earlier this decade, the reins of the family company were handed to Kirsten Vold, his youngest child.

On the western boundary of his 32,000-acre ranch, on a spot overlooking the Huerfano River, Mr. Vold established a cemetery for his championship animals and other favourites. Grave markers provided the animal’s name and years, as well as a brief tribute, such as “the truest, best ranch horse Harry ever rode” for Badger, a 16-year-old who died in 2002.

Mr. Vold died on March 13 at home on his ranch near Avondale, Colo. He leaves his second wife, the former Karen Womack, a trick rider whom he married in 1972, and their daughter, Kirsten. He also leaves sons Wayne Vold, of High River, Alta., and Doug Vold, of De Winton, Alta., as well as daughters Dona Larsen, of Casper, Wyo., and Darce Vold, of Greeley, Colo., all from his first marriage to the former Eileen Fessler. As well, he leaves a brother, Ralph Vold, of Ponoka, Alta., as well as 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by daughter Nancy Vold, who died in 2008 of complications from diabetes, as well as by brothers Clifford and Norman Vold.

In 2011, Mr. Vold and his family returned to Alberta to attend the stampede on its 75th anniversary. A reporter from the Ponoka News asked the 87-year-old rancher if he took part in the stampede’s traditional horseback procession to the grounds.

“Heck, yes, I rode a horse in the parade,” he replied. “What did you expect me to do, walk?”

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