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The ornerier the bronc, the better

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Sitting on a bale of hay late the other night after yet another rodeo, pulling on a bottle of lemonade, Bill Crittenden could have been wondering why he's in the rodeo business. He hadn't slept in 36 hours and one of his horses had refused to go to work. It was nearly midnight and he still had to oversee the care of dozens of broncs and bulls. Every weekend gets to be the same: Working with ornery horses and cattle. Late nights. Sleeping at Best Westerns in tiny towns up and down the state.

So what does he like about the rodeo life? "I like to watch 'em buck," he said. "They're athletes."

Bill has never gotten over the simple pleasure of watching animal athletes perform.

"The rodeo gets in your blood," he said, thumbing back his dusty black Stetson, relaxing after working the Draper Rodeo.

Ever wonder where a rodeo gets all those broncs and bulls who got up on the wrong side of the stall? From Bill and others like him. He supplies the animals the cowboys ride or try to ride. He finds them wherever he can — from ranchers with a horse they can't break, or from auctions.

"If they don't break, if they'll buck, we want 'em," he says. "They're just outlaws. They just don't want people to ride 'em."

The ornerier the animal, the better. "You like the bad actors," he says. "They're the ones who buck the best. You like the horses to jump and kick, and the bulls to spin."

At tonight's rodeo, they had to give a cowboy a re-ride when his horse — Bill's horse — wouldn't buck. "He just had a bad night," says Bill. The horse, not the cowboy. "You could just tell."

Bill, 44, grew up in Kamas, where he still owns a ranch. A bronc and bull rider in his youth, he founded a business that let him stay close to the rodeo without collecting broken bones: Slash C rodeo stock contractors. He stocks 45 to 50 rodeos a year, which puts him on the road 150 to 175 nights a year. He's always looking for new talent.

"You've got to go through a lot of horses to find the right ones," he says. Like a coach looking for tailbacks, Bill has developed an eye for broncs. "You can tell if they have ability," he says. "If they can spin and leap. You look for an athletic build, see if they got some legs to 'em."

Sometimes Bill just has to take the word of ranchers, who act as talent scouts. "You can't always tell what you're getting," says Bill. "I bought three head of horses the other day and they don't buck. It happens. You just send 'em to the packers."

As in meat packers. "A lot of people overseas eat horses," he says. "I could never eat a horse."

The problem, Bill complains, is that there aren't many cowboys left in the world. "The dudes (cowboy wannabes) try to break horses," he says. "They spoil 'em." The horses, Bill explains, are ruined — won't buck, won't be ridden. So they become dinner.

During the rodeo, Bill works close to the action. He stands on the back of the bucking chute and puts the flank strap on the broncs. Just before the chute opens, he pulls the strap snug. That's what makes the animal buck. Bill used to hire out the job, but they couldn't get the horse to buck. Aficionados will tell you it takes a certain knack to do that. Bill's got it.

"Very few people can do it," Bill says.

Bill stands and heads to his truck as the rodeo is being packed up for the next show. He's got Tooele this weekend, then Laketown, Nephi, Heber . . .

"For some reason I haven't made my million yet," he says. "But you're not in it for the money."

Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. E-mail drob@desnews.com.