Photos and text by Paula Mayer
Sopris Sun Contributor
It was the summer of 2019 and I was sitting in the grandstand at Gus Darien Arena. The first round of ranch bronc riding was underway. A bronc came flying out of the bucking chute and took that cowboy clear across the arena. A man on horseback rode into the impending wreck at full gallop. Lasting just seconds, it was one of the most breath-taking displays of horsemanship I’d witnessed.
Who rides into danger? A rodeo pickup man. During roughstock events, a pickup man’s job is to make sure both man and animal exit the arena safely. At the Carbondale Wild West Rodeo, these events are bull riding and ranch bronc riding. Whether the cowboy stays on for eight seconds or gets bucked off, the ride ends with a dismount. That’s when the pickup men go to work.
“You have to be willing to go into the crash and trust your horse. When you’re going at a full run and you reach down for a hack rein, you’re dependent on your horse for everything. Not everyone can put that much trust into an animal,” said Brice Berentis, pictured above.
Brice Berentis, Sam Bevan and Matt Nieslanik have been the pickup men at this amateur rodeo for years. Sam’s father-in-law, Rick Arbaney, was one of the original bull shaggers when the Carbondale rodeo first started. Bevan, a local farrier, says about working with roughstock, “It’s all a respect thing for the animal. You don’t want to hurt them. Safety for the rider, safety for the animal.” On picking up, “The most dangerous situation is a hurt cowboy on the ground who can’t move or is unconscious. When that happens, it’s our responsibility to hang on to the bull and contain him until they can take care of the cowboy. Bucking bulls, even angry ones, are just looking for a way home — an open gate.”
Sam Bevan (above) is a local farrier and is the stock contractor for the sheep and calves. When he isn’t picking up, you can catch him roping with one of his three boys.
“Every good cowboy gets bucked off,” says Matt Nieslanik, a local rancher. His oldest son, Nate, competes in ranch bronc riding. “Having my kid out there sure puts a little pressure on a guy.” Nieslanik grew up around livestock and herding animals on his family’s ranch. His dad and uncles had a partnership and ran cattle, which continues today. “We didn’t rodeo when we were kids, we worked.”
“If things get a little western out there and we have a big crash, we already know what the other guy is going to do.” Brice Berentis, of Berentis Rodeo in Fruita, is also a stock contractor for the rodeo. He and Nieslanik pick up at the ranch bronc event. “We can see when the wreck’s coming, anticipate it, and get into position. By the rules of the event, we can’t go in there until the whistle blows. If we interfere too soon, the cowboy gets a re-ride. So we get into position, observe, wait. Ranch bronc riding is a less controlled dismount than, say, bareback riding or bull riding because they’re doing everything they can to hold on with both hands.”
Berentis (above) reaches for the hack rein while maneuvering his horse so that first-time rider Kathryn Sauerwein doesn’t get run over. Sauerwein went on to win the event.
Nieslanik walks through the chain of events when a bronc rider is hung up, meaning he’s coming off but his hand remains in his rigging: “Rope it, catch it by the hack rein, dally it off. One of us secures the horse and slows it down, while the other guy is working on how to get the rider’s hand out. We talk to those guys while it’s happening. We’re asking are you out, is your hand out? And when they say ‘yeah,’ they’re ready to get off. You have to make sure they’re ready.”
Some common threads running through these three men are love for the sport, nerves of steel and a history of family ranching. They all feel fortunate to have grown up in communities where ranching was a key element. Hours spent around livestock gave them the skills needed to anticipate how animals move, where to apply pressure, when to back off. Says Nieslanik, “For us it’s a way of life.”
“First event I ever entered was team roping when I was about 20 years old,” Matt Nieslanik recalled.
Aug. 19 was the season’s final rodeo in Carbondale. As we turn the page, we remember with a smile those few hours each Thursday night under the lights with our rodeo family and look forward to our weekly reunion next year.