RITZVILLE – Chad Hutsell has won so many rodeo buckles – including 11 world championships – he could open a belt boutique on Rodeo Drive.
And Hutsell doesn’t even ride the bucking broncs and bulls that give professional cowboys conniptions.
Instead, he breeds them – animals such as Dippin Tahonta, a 1,900-pound bull that went unridden more than 50 times in 2003 and 2004, and Spring Planting, which currently is tied for Saddle Bronc of the Year honors.
Hutsell and his partner, Sonny Riley, of Central Ferry, Wash., own Big Bend/Flying 5 Rodeo Co. They keep 200 bucking horses and 100 bulls on rangeland 50 miles west of Spokane, and ship them to rodeos across the United States and Canada.
Top professional riders chose nine of their horses to compete in the 2013 National Finals Rodeo, which begins Thursday in Las Vegas.
Hutsell traces his ranching roots back to great-grandpa Lew Hutsell, who supplied bucking horses for Spokane’s July 4th Rodeo in the late 1920s.
Grandfather Bill Hutsell started Big Bend Rodeo Co. in 1961 and built stockyards in Davenport and Moses Lake.
Hutsell’s father, Don, was part owner of the Spokane Stockland Livestock Exchange. He and Sonny Riley were stock-contracting partners, and that partnership continued after Chad Hutsell joined the business in the late 1980s.
Chad took over the reins from his father in 2008.
He discussed his trade during a recent interview.
S-R: What’s your earliest recollection of ranching?
Hutsell: Probably when I was 2 or 3 years old. I remember Sonny asking me about my favorite cartoons when he needed to name bulls. One ended up named Casper.
S-R: At what age did you start pitching in?
Hutsell: As soon as I could drag a hay bale or lift a grain cup.
S-R: Did you always assume you’d be involved with rodeo stock?
Hutsell: Oh, no. I got my own place when I was about 20, and I didn’t think I’d ever rodeo again in my life. I was going to raise cattle. Then one day my dad called up and said, “I need a pickup man” for a rodeo about 15 miles from my home. (Editor’s note: A “pickup man” manages rodeo horses and bulls and rescues riders from their bucking horses after they make a ride.) So I loaded up a bunch of my ranch horses and was back in the rodeo biz again.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Hutsell: Sonny, my dad, and my grandfather when he was alive. My dad and Sonny started the Flying 5 before I was born. Eventually my dad gave me his share and now Sonny and I are partners.
S-R: How many rodeos did you provide stock for this year?
Hutsell: About 40.
S-R: How many other companies do this?
Hutsell: At last count, 72 in the U.S. and Canada.
S-R: Is it lucrative?
Hutsell: There’s a lot of cash flow, but when you get right down to it, all your value is in the stock.
S-R: How has the bucking-horse business evolved?
Hutsell: In my grandfather’s day, every ranch raised its own horses, and everyone always had a bad one, so you could buy a horse that way. Nowadays, it’s all about bloodlines. You have to raise them yourself.
S-R: What characteristics distinguish good bucking horses?
Hutsell: They have to have some bone on them, and be athletic. And they can’t be too wild, so you can handle them and they don’t hurt themselves.
S-R: What makes them buck?
Hutsell: Anymore it’s pretty much bred into them.
S-R: Have you ridden bucking horses?
Hutsell: Not intentionally. (laugh)
S-R: What do you imagine is going through their minds?
Hutsell: The majority that are bred to do it enjoy it. The ones that don’t like it don’t do it. Everybody thinks the flank strap we put on them makes them buck, but you can’t make them do something they don’t want to do.
S-R: Are bucking horses safe to be around?
Hutsell: Young horses can be unpredictable, so we don’t buck them until they’re 5. The older horses we travel with have been to more places and seen more things than most people have, and nothing really bothers them.
S-R: How long can a horse compete?
Hutsell: We had a horse named Snake Eyes that was still bucking at 42. Bulls don’t live as long. Tahonta passed away in September at 15, which is old for a bull. We buried him out front.
S-R: How much is a top bucking horse worth?
Hutsell: Anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000. But I wouldn’t take $500,000 for Spring Planting.
S-R: How are horses chosen that compete at the national finals in Las Vegas?
Hutsell: We nominate stock in September, and then the top 20 cowboys in each event pick from those.
S-R: Do cowboys sometimes exclude a horse because it’s too hard to ride?
Hutsell: Yes. In fact, I’m getting a horse reinstated right now because of that. If the rider can’t stay on, he doesn’t score points and won’t make any money.
S-R: Are you taking any bulls to Vegas this year?
Hutsell: No, none were chosen. It’s real political, and I’m not good at that.
S-R: You live in a former one-room schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere. Do you look forward to visiting Vegas each year, or to coming home?
Hutsell: I look forward to coming home. I’m down there for two weeks, doing a lot of PR work and signing contracts for next year’s rodeos. People are calling me for tickets, and then there are meetings, because it’s a convention in addition to the rodeo finals. So it’s no vacation.
S-R: What are some challenges in this business?
Hutsell: In summertime it’s logistics – making sure you get all the animals and the right personnel to the right rodeos, because sometimes we’re doubled or tripled up for a weekend. And we swap out horses and bulls so they don’t have to be on the road every week.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Hutsell: The livestock.
S-R: What do you like least?
Hutsell: I really hate cold winter days, chopping ice and trying to get out to feed animals when nothing will start.
S-R: Will another generation of Hutsells eventually take over the business?
Hutsell: I don’t know. I have two older daughters and a 9-year-old son, Bronc. They’ve all grown up around it, and like it.
S-R: How about the future of rodeos?
Hutsell: I’m optimistic. The people I talk to say it’s affordable entertainment and a good place to bring the family.
S-R: What makes rodeos special?
Hutsell: They’re part of our national tradition. They started out as a fun way to see who was best at riding a bucking horse or roping, and evolved from there.
S-R: You don’t ride bucking horses, so what do you do for fun?
Hutsell: Nothing, really. There’s no time. From May to September, I’m on the road constantly. And through the winter months, it’s getting animals home and wormed and worked. There’s really no time that’s not busy.
S-R: Have you ever considered selling all the animals and buying a condo in New York?
Hutsell: No, but sometimes in the middle of winter the idea of buying a sailboat and disappearing sounds appealing.
S-R: Or you could open that belt-buckle boutique.