John Wayne was famously quoted saying, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office deputy Boot Hill feels similarly about his job in law enforcement and felt similarly every time he hopped on the back of a bull in his rodeo days.
“Getting on a 2,000-pound bull and being confident in yourself and your abilities to do that versus going to some of the situations that we respond to are very similar,” Hill said. “You have to be sure of yourself and confident.”
First responders need to be tough to endure the traumatic incidents covered on the job. Working to control a thousand-pound animal also takes a certain element of toughness and quick responses.
Sheridan’s culture of rodeo blends nicely with the work of first responders, and several locals found close ties to their past lives as rodeo stars and their current jobs helping others.
Former Sheridan Fire Rescue Department Chief Terry Lenhart came to Sheridan from Calgary, Alberta, for the sole purpose of continuing his already-lengthy career in the arena. A Sheridan College rodeo scholarship pushed him through a college career and back into the Calgary rodeo world, where he rodeoed professionally in the Canadian circuit. Starting a family halted his dreams of eventually competing at the National Finals Rodeo — every cowboy’s dream — but thrust him into a career in firefighting.
After 27 years with the department, Lenhart learned that team camaraderie and quick responses paralleled his experiences riding bulls and horses.
Lenhart would travel from one rodeo to another with a set group of rodeo buddies.
“Firefighting is the same way,” Lenhart said. “You’re assigned a shift and you do 24-hour shifts together, so you have to rely on each other.”
Fighting fires also presents fast-action decisions, just like riding a bull.
“It’s the same thing,” Lenhart said. “When fighting a fire there’s a lot of activity and danger, but if you’re trained and know what you’re doing, it minimizes (the risk).”
The close-knit crews help with the ups and downs of both rodeo and law enforcement.
“Those (rodeo) guys are there for you and help you out of those tough spots, much like law enforcement,” Hill said.
Shift work often forces people into situations of team collaboration whether they like each other or not. SCSO deputy Jim Stevens, a former team roper, said rodeo gives athletes the “gift of gab,” and the relationships with teammates on horses and in patrol vehicles keeps him moving daily.
“The camaraderie is the best thing,” Stevens said. “I have a blast in law enforcement, and it was similar (back in rodeo). You get to trust people.”
The human-animal connection furthers the abilities of first responders to adequately serve those in traumatic situations. EMT Kelly Blea, who works for Rocky Mountain Ambulance, was the 1987 rodeo queen in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her close connection with horses translates into the soft touch needed for emergency medical services.
“Being involved in horses makes you more attentive to people,” Blea said. “You’re in tune to an animal, so you seem to handle people better, especially in trauma situations. You read them; you read your horses.”
Sheridan Police Department’s Sgt. Shuan Gerleman wrestled steers for the University of Montana and continued into the summer months. It was there he learned the art of bringing order to chaos, which perfectly translates to life on patrol.
“In steer wrestling, when you nod your head and the horse explodes under you, you had better be ready for chaos,” Gerleman said. “Law enforcement is the greatest show on earth with raw emotions and unedited content. When you show up on scene for a chaotic situation, your job is to bring order to the chaos.”
The mental and physical strength it takes to ride a bull, sit atop a horse running at full speed and subsequently jump off that horse run similarly to what first responders experience.
First responders protect and defend the community, and in Sheridan’s case, some of the bravery and courage in doing their jobs can be credited to the sport of rodeo.
For more rodeo insider stories, pick up a complimentary copy of the official Sheridan WYO Rodeo magazine by The Sheridan Press, available at 144 E. Grinnell Plaza.