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The indestructible cowboy

Bareback riding is a passion and a love for Oregon wrangler Steven Peebles, broken bones and a brush with death be damned

Steven Peebles rides Ultimately Wolf in the bareback event during the rodeo at the Calgary Stampede.

There is no injured list for cowboys. That is because they all play hurt. The one-tonne bulls, bucking broncos and beefy steers they scrimmage against invariably leave scars.

Steven Peebles has more than most. He is one of the world’s best bareback riders, and a walking miracle. Even in a sport full of rugged athletes, the Oregon wrangler’s recuperative powers are supernatural.

In the past two-plus years, he has twice suffered a broken back. One of those times, after his spine was fractured when his horse reared up in the chute, Peebles still completed an eight-second ride.

“I got a 68.5,” he says with disdain. From where he sits for an interview at the Calgary Stampede, you could flip a cow patty into the Elbow River. On Tuesday, a few hours earlier, he won the day’s bareback competition with a score of 90.5 points.

Peebles tapes his arm before the bareback event at the Calgary Stampede.

In bareback riding, where the wrangler has to stay on top of a horse without a saddle and hold on one-handed without being bucked off for eight seconds, points are awarded based on the rider’s control and technique, and for the horse’s power, speed and agility.

On a scale of 1 to 100, 68.5 is usually not enough to cash a prize cheque. But it is remarkable for a guy who has been thrashed around while he has a broken back. Think about it the next time your hamstrings are yipping a tiny bit from climbing stairs.

In between those two calamities, Peebles barely escaped death. On July 2, 2015, he landed badly after being launched off a horse at the Livingston Roundup in Montana.

He won with an 86-point ride, but lost his grip at the last second.

“I landed so hard I broke ribs in four spots and it shoved one of them right through a main artery,” he says. “I was bleeding out and didn’t know it.

“I tried to tough it out, but it felt like I had a knife in my gut. It was way worse than anything I had ever experienced.”




Peebles was dizzy and nauseous, but told his travelling companion, fellow bareback rider Brian Bain, that he was well enough to accompany him 100 kilometres to an airport in Billings.

Bain saw Peebles sweating and looking pasty white and insisted on taking him to a clinic in Livingston. There, it was discovered that Peebles’s lungs were collapsing and blood was pouring into his chest cavity.

“I thought I was toast,” Peebles says.

He was rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Bozeman, 45 minutes away, where doctors saved his life.

“They broke open my left rib cage and shoved a hose inside and started sucking the blood out,” he says. “I passed out.”

“I have to stretch and warm up and cool down differently. I can’t sleep on too soft of a bed,” Peebles says.

The next morning, he learned he had come within 15 minutes of dying. His blood pressure plummeted. His lungs were 80-per-cent full of blood. He lost six litres before the artery was repaired.

“When I woke up, my first thought was ‘Thank God, I made it,’” Peebles says. “Then two doctors came in and told me they had made a bet the night before.

“One expected me to drown in my own blood, the other thought I would bleed out. They told me, ‘Somebody is looking out for you.’”

He is 28, clean-cut and unfailingly polite in that cowboy sort of way. Unlike the rest of us, he looks like he was born wearing a Stetson. His girlfriend, Marie, whom he met at an event four years ago, radiates the same country charm.

“He gets cranky when he can’t rodeo,” she says.

Peebles grew up in California and learned the basics of bareback riding and roping from his uncle, former rodeo cowboy Bob Sailors. When he was 14, his family moved to Redmond, Ore. There, Peebles worked as a ranch hand for Bobby Mote, a world-champion bareback rider who helped sharpen his skills.

Despite his many injuries, Peebles has become one of his sport’s elite athletes since turning professional in 2009. Along with spinal fractures and cracked ribs and a severed artery, he has broken his right leg in seven places, torn ligaments in his right ankle, torn cartilage in his right hip, dislocated one foot and suffered a torn rotator cuff.

After a 2015 incident in Montana, Peebles came within 15 minutes of dying.

At one point last year, he was wearing a back brace and had a splint on one arm at the same time.

“I have ridden with pain my entire career,” he says. “I have learned to block it out.”

In 2015, he won a world championship. In 2014 and again in 2016, he collected the $100,000 winner’s cheque at the Calgary Stampede as the top bareback rider. He has finished first, fifth and seventh in pool competition this week and remains in the running to take the top prize for bareback riders on Sunday at one of the world’s most famous rodeo.

He might have won in 2015, too, but was recovering in the hospital after his near brush with death.

“I have the same goals I have always had and still strive to have the same result,” Peebles says. “It is just a little harder now for me to get there.

“I have to stretch and warm up and cool down differently. I can’t sleep on too soft of a bed.”

More than 727,000 people turned out during the Stampede’s first five days, and the grandstand at the rodeo arena has been packed. Attendance is up by nearly 20,000 a day over last year, despite heat and storm warnings. A twister touched down just outside Calgary on Wednesday night.

Fans especially appreciate the toughness and danger of the broncos and bulls and the fury that ensues when a bareback rider and horse burst out of the chute. It is like a riding a tornado with one hand. Peebles and fellow competitors are left horizontal as they try to hang on.

Peebles reacts to his score at the Calgary Stampede rodeo.

“It is a passion and a love,” Peebles says. “It is what I do and what I love.”

He was in the running for a world championship in 2014 when he broke his back for the time. His mount bucked and nearly flipped over in the gate. A compression fracture occurred as his face was pushed down into his stomach.

“I was mad,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to the hospital.”

The next morning, his girlfriend says, Peebles chatted up medical staff at the event hoping they would allow him to ride again.

“I wanted to see how high-risk it was,” he says.

Peebles incurred a spinal fracture for the second time in February of last year. He and his brother were taking a spin in a Polaris Ranger when the $20,000 all-terrain vehicle flipped over on a friend’s ranch in Oregon. He had received the Ranger as part of the prize package when he won the world championship in 2015.

“The Ranger was totalled and I snapped my back in half,” Peebles says. “It was a bad day.”

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