“An amateur competes against everyone, but a true professional competes against himself.
“You need to approach each ride with the idea you are going to spur one inch higher every jump.”
World champion saddle bronc rider John McBeth quoted the advice given to him many years ago by a “great rodeo cowboy.”
“I’ve never forgotten that. I always figured if I could follow those ideals and maintain an extreme sense of competition, I would do all right,” McBeth surmised.
Certainly, McBeth has done “all right,” qualifying for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s National Finals Rodeo 11 times, with 1974 being his title year.
It’s been a long time since McBeth has mounted a rodeo bucking horse, and he’s retired from a world renowned custom-saddle making business, but the Andover cowboy remains busy.
Still closely tied to rodeo, McBeth’s attention these days is toward “Rodeo China,” for which he’s coordinating eight rodeo performances in Bejing, China, during October.
Breaking colts as a youngster on the family ranch at Kingman, McBeth even rode big Holstein cows with a roping saddle; halter and 18-inch rein, indicating his attraction to cowboy life.
One might think breaking colts and riding broncs require similar skills, but McBeth emphasized, “You can’t do justice to either one, if you do both. They’re entirely different, and I wanted to rodeo.”
Now only thought of as a saddle bronc rider, McBeth is quick to point out that he started out as an all-around competitor in both timed and rough stock events.
McBeth has fond memories of competing in the Kansas High School Rodeo Association Finals in 1957 and ’58.
“The beginning and end of high school rodeo was the finals at Topeka. They didn’t have saddle bronc riding in those days, so I rode barebacks and bulls, roped and even was in the steer wrestling.
“I never won a high school championship or qualified for the national finals, but I went to college on a rodeo scholarship at McNeese College in Lake Charles, Louisiana,” McBeth remembered. “In college and my amateur career, I probably won more money riding barebacks than the other events combined.”
It was not without effort. “I got on lots of bucking horses when I was young,” he verified. “I’d go over to Strong City on Sunday where Emmett and Ken Roberts would have a buck-out, pay $5 a head mount money, and I got on 27 broncs one afternoon.”
One payoff was when McBeth won the bareback riding at an amateur rodeo on a bronc just a few months after the first National Finals Rodeo in 1959, where the horse went unridden. “That’s still a memorable ride,” McBeth admitted.
Competing in bareback and saddle bronc riding during the late ’50s and early ’60s, McBeth “often earned checks in both events.”
About 1963, McBeth “became a saddle bronc rider per say. I was getting on bigger, heavier horses in the bronc riding, and they fit me better,” the five-foot-six cowboy related.
However, McBeth emphasized, “I really had a good teacher in my dad, Harold. He was a professional rodeo cowboy, got on some bulls, but mostly competed in roping and bull dogging.
“He rode lots of horses, and I only saw him fall off one time, when he was riding bareback cutting a cow, and the horse jumped out from under him,” McBeth credited.
Harold McBeth was a prominent rodeo judge, an aspect of rodeo John also followed.
To qualify for 11 National Finals Rodeos (1965-’74, 1978) and collect the 1974 world championship, McBeth obviously had to get on lots of broncs.
“I don’t have any idea how many thousand that would be,” he admitted.
However, records show he won a season record $36,730 in 128 rodeos during his championship year when he took the standings lead in March.
Assured of the championship even before the finals, McBeth finished second there, to beat the event earnings record by more than $10,000, and became the first Kansan to win a world title since the ’40s.
Additionally, McBeth was champion bronc rider in the Prairie Circuit six times (1975-78, 1984-85).
Mounting that many broncs logically made McBeth a “scientist of the sport,” and when he talks about bronc riding, most people can’t comprehend the technicalities.
“It’s essential to be ahead of the horse, lift on the rein, not pull his head up,” McBeth abbreviated. “Most broncs are left handed, and if the horse comes out of the chute the wrong direction, the rider should make it change leads to get a better ride.
“You know when a hose has all feet off the ground; you can push him over if you want to. That’s why I like to boot a horse on one side after the first jump, so he will pick up a lead,” McBeth qualified.
“I went three years without getting bucked off,” recalled McBeth, quickly adding, “But there is a payback; I got bucked off of the first three horses one year at the finals.”
When asked “if he ever got hurt,” McBeth instantly questioned.
“How much?” insinuating as with all athletes, there is always pain that goes with the sport, then he responded.
“I stepped off a bronc in 1968 and landed on my right leg, fracturing it,” McBeth said. “I cut my cast off, built a brace and was back competing in 28 days.”
Travel is a wearisome part of rodeoing, but McBeth reduced the pressure by flying his own airplane.
“It helped, but instead of just going to a rodeo 300 miles down the road, I’d soon be trying to get to one that was 900 miles away,”
McBeth commented. “Nobody does it now, and there never were more than a handful of cowboys who flew themselves.” He frequently traveled by commercial airlines, too.
As successful as his arena career was, McBeth claimed, “The hardest thing I ever did was stop rodeoing.”
At age 40 in 1988, McBeth was entered in his final competition at Yukon, Oklahoma. “I wanted to win that one. I marked an 81, and still just split a second and third.
“Rodeo was very good to me,” McBeth emphasized.
But, there was always life besides rodeo, and after the competition years, still all related to the sport.
Married to his wife, Francie, in 1962, McBeth has two sons and five grandchildren.
Bart McBeth followed his dad into the sport of rodeo, while son Blake was more interested in baseball as a youth, and now has a career in the energy industry based in Houston.
“Bart was a top saddle bronc rider,” McBeth credited. “He just never competed hard enough to become a champion.”
However, Bart qualified 16 times to compete in the PRCA Prairie Circuit Finals and went to the Dodge National Circuit Finals in Pocatello, Idaho.
“Rodeo was my business, but I also developed a trade of making saddles,” McBeth said. “I was fortunate to have some very good teachers.”
Demand was high for McBeth’s custom-made saddles merchandized through his store, The Cowboy Shop, at Burden.
He had nine employees help build the saddles, which many cowboys are still using. Reins braided by McBeth, likewise, found broad appeal.
Chaps were an important part of the business. “I had a contract with Dodge to make chaps for all of the pickup men at PRCA rodeos,” said McBeth, who has now retired from the western store business, too.
Again following in his dad’s boot steps, Bart McBeth, also retired from rodeo competition, makes custom saddles, and has continued the chap contract with Dodge Ram through his Cross 4 Enterprises at Douglass.
“Bart’s business name comes from the Cross 4 brand which was my dad’s. It went straight to Bart, when Dad passed away,” McBeth noted.
Appreciating the long road and hard knocks required to get to wear a champion’s buckle, McBeth has done his part for those young cowboys who set sights on being bronc riders by conducting rodeo schools.
“I’ve lost track of how rodeo schools I’ve had, but cowboys attending my schools have won nine world championships,” McBeth said.
“You can’t make champions, but you can teach the basics and build confidence,” McBeth continued. “There were simple rules for my students. I won’t allow anyone to intimidate someone else, act like a hotshot, and I won’t put a student on an untried horse.
Considering his schools “reasonably successful,” McBeth pointed out he was the “first to have instant replay of rides, offer college credit and have insurance available for students.”
His schools were at Oneida, S.D., where Sutton Rodeo Company supplied the livestock. “With 400 head of horses, I could better match the broncs to the level of the rider,” McBeth commented.
A bronze of McBeth riding Sutton Rodeo’s bronc, Half Velvet, is awarded annually to the top saddle bronc rider at the Black Hills Rodeo, in memory of James Sutton, Sr.
McBeth has judged the National Finals Rodeo, the Intercollegiate Rodeo National Finals and the National High School Rodeo Finals.
Still in demand to judge several rodeos each year, McBeth said, “I don’t pursue it, but if a rodeo calls, I usually try to help out.”
A number of stock contractors and rodeo committees regularly contact for McBeth’s assistance. He has been the chute boss for a number of Midwest rodeos and served as manager of the Prairie Circuit Finals for a decade from 1975-85.
A 2008 inductee into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame at Dodge City in the Rodeo Cowboy category, McBeth considers his 2010 induction into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs as the highlight of his career.
“Getting the call was a surprise and very humbling,” McBeth said. “There are some people who know me in this business, and they’re shocked that I can be humble.
“This is the ultimate honor: to be recognized with selection into the Hall of Fame. I am tickled to death that I lived long enough to see it,” McBeth said at the induction ceremony.
Many changes have been seen in the sport of rodeo in his lifetime involvement, but one thing stands out from the rest. “I’ve got a lot of old friends around here,” McBeth summarized.
Retired but far from forgotten is verified by McBeth being called to organize Rodeo China.
“It’s a big project, and I’m really excited about it,” McBeth evaluated.
“My emphasis is going to have to be on that more than any thing else this summer.”
Additional information in a future story.