SD Bullfighter Joins National Rodeo Hall of Fame
The holiday season is upon us. It’s a time when families will sit down for a gathering of generations to share traditional meals, perhaps offer prayers and regale each other with tales of what they’ve experienced since the last time they met. From stories about a toddler’s “firsts” to a teen’s “you won’t believe this” tales of adventure, the goal often becomes a friendly contest of “who can top this?”
SDPB’s Jim Kent recently sat down with a South Dakota legend of the rodeo circuit and found that few can match those stories passed on by a cowboy.
Growing up in a ranching family, young Jerry LaRue Olson would be riding a horse to school when he was 6, enter his first rodeo at 12 to compete in bareback riding and calf roping and eventually join the Olson family rodeo act.
As an adult, Jerry became known for his Roman Riding Act where he would stand on horses as they moved around the arena… finishing his performance by riding the team into a truck. Jerry also trained buffalo to perform in the rodeo…no, really…and expanded his arena work to include bullfighting and entertaining as a rodeo clown.
I caught up with Jerry at the High Plains Western Heritage Center shortly after he was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City to get the answers to a number of questions…including “Just how stubborn IS a buffalo?”
JO: “In the ranching business during my time…or during my young time…when you got to be 6 years old and started school you had to start riding.”
JK: “Did you ride through those snow storms? All those blizzards. Every rancher I talk to tells me a story about having to go through miles and miles of snow to get to school. Did you ever have to do that?
JO: “You know, I don’t ever remember having to go through too many bad storms. Because at that time…people didn’t realize what a storm really was.”
JK: “So it was just a routine way of life.”
JO: “Yeah…just life. If you had to go…you went out. If you had chores to do…you had to go out.”
JK: “You miss those days?”
JO: “Why sure. I’m…I’m older now. I look back and really enjoyed it.”
JK: “Tell me about the Roman Riding. How difficult was that?”
JO: “Well…it’s like everything. It isn’t difficult if you put your mind to it. My dad used to Roman Ride when he was a young man. That’s where he came up with the idea. He used to ride in Roman races and things like that…and I just took it up. The way I got started…he used to feed with a team during the winter time. When we’d get done feeding he’d say ‘Well…jump up there and stand up and ride on that team.’ And he’d drive it (them) and I’d stand up and that’s how I got started.”
JK: “Now…I saw another photo of you riding two horses…standing up…and you’re going over someone on their horse. And he’s bent down in front. How tricky was that to do?”
JO: “It was just part of the act. Things you…you decide to do…you know you don’t realize what you’re…when you make up your mind you just…go do it and you practice til it works. And then it becomes part of the act. You can’t worry about things. You know…if you’re gonna have an accident. I don’t care what you do…whether it’s riding bucking horses or riding Roman Riding…riding bulls. You don’t…you can’t worry about the bad parts. You’ve gotta’ worry about the good parts…to make it that you wanna’ win.”
JK: “Understood…understood. At some point then you got into being a rodeo clown. Tell me about that.”
JO: “Well…my dad took on the contract business at the National High School Rodeo in Rapid City. And the rodeo clown…when he took the job he didn’t think he was gonna’ have to fight bulls…I guess. So he says you gotta’ get me out of a bind. And…so…I went in and got by and…there was some guys that were rodeo clowns there with their kids…had been fighting bulls. And they…they watched me and they gave me some advice and it worked for me. And I…worked for Bob Barnes. He’s a rodeo producer back East. Bullfighter didn’t show up for one rodeo. Bob was wondering who he was gonna’ get. And they said ‘We got Jerry here!’ So he said ‘What do you think?’ ‘Well...I’ll try it…again.’ And I was in the business.”
JK: “What did you find more dangerous…riding 2 horses or standing up against a bull?”
JO: “Again…you don’t worry about that when you start something you…you can’t be a good football player if you’re afraid you’re gonna’ get hit. (laughs) I got banged up a little…but not nothing serious. Nothing…nothing that I didn’t overcome. Today they’ve taken the comedy out of rodeo. The bullfighters…they’re just hired to fight bulls. And I think in my mind…I’m an old timer…I think it’s hurting rodeo.”
JK: “Buffalo. Tell me about that.”
JO: “The way we got into the buffalo training was…my Dad never took a drink of liquor at a bar in his life. But he like to go to the bar and visit with all his friends. He was in there one day and the head of the park down at Custer…they got to talking about buffalo. And dad said ‘I wanna’ get one of them buffalo and train him like a horse.’ And this guy told him ‘It can’t be done.’ Well…you didn’t tell my dad nothing couldn’t be done. He’d show you it could. So he went along…and we had to.”
JO: “I was just a junior in high school when that happened so…I got in on the training…and that’s how we got started in the buffalo business. And my dad went on with the buffalo after I got married. Then when he passed away…I took the buffalo and went on…then trained on my own.”
JK: “What did the buffalo do in the act? What did you have them…”
JO: “Well…they’d lay down…walk on their knees…and ride them and…and then they’d go to the top of the trailer that we hauled them in. And they’d go up there and you’d put them on a pedestal…and jump them into the back of it when you was done. It was just kind of a unique act.”
JK: “How…how difficult was it training a buffalo?”
JO: “Well…I’m always asked that question…I guess you’d say. The answer I always give them…it’s about 3 times harder…but like I say…it’s just like every kid is different and you raise him different. Every buffalo…every animal is different. And you train them differently.”
JK: “Right. Were they hard-headed or did they get it…or what?”
JO: “…like I say…they’re about as bull-headed as you could be.” (laughs)
Jerry Olson may not be bullheaded but at 80 years old this rodeo legend is still going strong. And according to High Plains Western Heritage Center Director Peggy Ables, Jerry’s as much an inspiration for rodeo riders today as he was to his own children half a century ago.