Rodeo legend created ‘born to buck’

Tooke horses are still waiting their turn in the rodeo ring.  |  Ken Howie photo

Feek Tooke single-handedly changed the face of the sport eight decades ago by breeding horses specifically for the ring

The loss of the Calgary Stampede this year and the cancellation of most fairs and rodeos due to COVID-19 have strained many pocket books. Rodeo stock contractors and cowboys rely on rodeos to make a living.

However, the cancellations haven’t dulled the tenacity and spirit to produce great bucking horses.

Jim Lawrence of Kennedy, Sask., and his family have bred bucking horses for 34 years. They have owned Prime Time Rodeo, a rodeo-stock contracting business for nearly a quarter century.

“It takes a lot of patience and there have been a lot of learning curves over the years,” said Lawrence. “But there is so much more pride in doing it yourself.”

The granddaddy of bucking horse breeders, Feek Tooke of Ekalaka, Montana, likely possessed similar drive and determination when he single-handedly changed the face of rodeo eight decades ago.

“Feek did something no one else was willing to do,” said great-grandson Toby Tooke and the Tooke family historian.

“You see and hear that born-to-buck (phrase) — he created that.”

Feek Tooke was involved in staging rodeos in the early 1930s, and he realized he needed to breed bucking horses that wanted to buck and possessed the longevity to do so for years. Of course, the horses also needed to possess the size, strength, and athleticism to challenge cowboys and outlast the eight second whistle.

He arranged to buy a Shire stud out of Iowa, which he used to breed with a Shire mare that had a bad attitude and could buck.

Unfortunately, the resulting stud colt was the only one he would produce from that pairing because the cranky mare kicked and ruined the stud for further breeding. But that one colt, Prince, would later be dubbed rodeo’s bronc patriarch.

Tooke paired Prince with mares sired by a fiery 15 hand, 1,100-pound albino Arabian stallion with a terrible attitude named Snowflake. The results were exactly what Tooke hoped to achieve.

The size, strength, power and durability of the Shire, along with the added bonus of white legs and feather, combined with the temperament, stamina and athleticism of the Arabian with a recessive colour gene, gave Tooke the perfect cross to produce great bucking horses with lots of colour.

These two pivotal horses — Prince and Snowflake — play an integral part of the history of rodeo.

“People told him ‘you can’t breed a horse to buck.’ He did it, even though it took a while for people to embrace it,” said Toby Tooke.

Later described as “the Henry Ford of rodeo,” Feek Tooke revolutionized the sport. He sold stock to other rodeo contractors, which served as a foundation for their programs, which in turn resulted in better cowboys. They wanted to draw Tooke-bred horses for a better shot at a pay day.

“It’s hard to find a serious breeding program that wasn’t affected by it,” said Lawrence, referring to Feek Tooke’s vision. “You can’t argue with their success and what that Shire stud did for the Tookes.”

Today, the breeding of bucking horses is as fine-tuned as that of the purebred horse industry — breeding proven bucking horses to proven bucking horses to create a specialized breed.

Lawrence said many people think that great bucking horses need to be wild, which is not true. The flight-or-fight instinct kicks in when the animal is scared and that means their reaction is out of fear, resulting in unpredictability.

Lawrence has found that his best bucking horses are those bred to buck from proven bucking horse lines, and that are handled in a calm manner.

“Genetically, they just want to buck,” he said. “We just let their genetics do what they are supposed to do.”

He added they put their yearlings, two-year-olds, and three-year-olds through a rating process using a dummy that simulates a bronc rider. It helps them read the horse and measure whether they have what it takes to make a bucking horse.

Val Obrigewitch rides Paleface in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1964. | Dever Helfrich photo

“If an animal is exceptional, you usually know by the time they’re five years old,” he said.

They usually market their top-end bucking horses to rodeo-stock contractors that supply the pro rodeos like the Calgary Stampede and include the National Finals Rodeo (NFR).

“It’s not fair for cowboys at the local level to compete on stock that could buck at the NFR,” said Lawrence.

In a comparison to the sport of hockey he added, “We are like the farm club for the pros.”

Lawrence has owned descendants of Tooke-bred horses and recognizes the impact they have made in his own breeding program. In the 1990s, he owned a grandson of Custer (grandson of Prince x Snowflake mare). It has been deemed the greatest bucking horse sire of all time.

The Calgary Stampede bucking horse string is heavily influenced by Tooke genetics. Winston Bruce, former manager of CS ranch, travelled to the Tooke Ranch in the early 1970s and bought a couple of truckloads of horses.

He must have liked what he saw because soon after he arranged to stand Gray Wolf (a Prince grandson inducted into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Hall of Fame in 2016) for a breeding season. This provided a solid foundation for their breeding program, producing well-known bucking horses for them through the years such as Guilty Cat (son), Kloud Gray (granddaughter) and most recently, Grated Coconut (great-grandson).

Feek Tooke’s lasting legacy will be felt for years to come.

“I think Feek never was (fully) able to see what he achieved,” said Toby Tooke. “I don’t think he would ever believe that around 90 percent of bucking stock go back to what he started on the Beaver Flats near Ekalaka, Mont.”

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