“I love my job. I love everything about being a rodeo pickup man.”
Rex Bugbee’s excitement for his most essential profession in the rodeo arena shines through his voice.
Perhaps sadly sometimes considered “behind the scene” part of rodeo, pickup men are truly front and center for the action.
Spectators often take for granted even pay little attention to the cowboys saving champions after making award winning bronc rides.
Yet, those bucking horse riders know and appreciate abilities of pickup men getting them off broncs safe onto the ground. They’ll get the applause, but proficient work of the pickup men mounted on outstanding horses is vital to their success.
“I was forever enthralled by work of the pickup men at every rodeo I attended while growing up,” Bugbee insisted.
“Foremost, I was going to be a cowboy, and I liked everything about rodeo,” the Medicine Lodge cowboy continued. “Of course I was anxious to compete in rodeos, but I studied the work of the pickup men. That’s what I knew I wanted to be.”
Recognized as one of the best in the business, Bugbee has fulfilled his youthful cowboy initiative. He is a heavily demanded fulltime professional rodeo pickup man working the biggest and best rodeos throughout the United States.
“This year’s the exception, but I’m on the road most of the time, up to 100 performances annually nationwide,” Bugbee said. “There’ve been a lot of rodeos canceled or postponed, but it’s opening up again. I’m headed to Cody, Wyoming, for a rodeo this weekend.”
His calendar is booked throughout the remaining summer months coast to coast border to border north and south. From Cody, he’ll head to Utah then back to Dodge City in late July before returning to rodeos in Utah.
“We were at a rodeo in south Florida when the virus shut us down. It’ll be so good to be back on the circuit again,” Bugbee insisted.
Growing up at Emporia, Bugbee said, “The Flint Hills cowboys were my heroes. I wanted to be like them. Then attending the annual Flint Hills Rodeo at Strong City just made me want the cowboy life all the more.”
He became friends with renowned rodeo contractor Emmett Roberts, father of rodeo world champions.
“Mr. Roberts was an outstanding pickup man himself in his earlier years and had great stories to tell,” Bugbee said. “I got to know pickup men Dee Fink and Andy Olson who worked Roberts Rodeos and the Flint Hills Rodeo. They all continued inspiring me to be a pickup man.”
Riding in Lyon County and regional horse activities as a youngster, Bugbee started rodeo bull riding as a teenager.
“I won money at rodeos throughout the Midwest,” he noted. “However, as importantly, I became acquainted and starting working with rodeo contractor Jimmy Crowther at Roxbury.”
Competing in Crowther’s JC Rodeo Company events, Bugbee also began serving as a pickup man at those rodeos. “I owe a lot to Jimmy for helping me get started as a pickup man and working major rodeos,” Bugbee credited.
Following his cowboy profession, Bugbee moved to Medicine Lodge in 1977 working for area ranches more than 30 years. “I’ve assisted in large cow-calf operations as well as yearling and grazing programs,” he said.
Married to his wife Teri, Bugbee has two grown sons, Josh and Jay, and granddaughter Ila and grandson Tripp. “They’ve been supportive in all of my cowboy endeavors and especially when being gone so much to rodeos,” Bugbee recognized.
From picking up for Crowther at JC Rodeos, then New Frontier Rodeo, Bugbee now works mostly for Frontier Rodeo Company.
“Jerry Nelson owns Frontier, headquartered at Freedom, Oklahoma, just an hour south of here,” Bugbee said. “Heath Stewart is the rodeo company manager who I work with quite closely.
“Frontier Rodeo Company has been honored as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Stock Contractor of the Year many times.
“Their broncs and bulls have also annually been voted by rodeo cowboys for prestigious yearend awards,” the pickup man said.
“I have the best seat in the house,” Bugbee contended. “I’m close up for the rodeo action of the livestock and the cowboys. Being a pickup man is the best job in rodeo. How could life be any better?”
Not nearly every cowboy has the desire or abilities to be a rodeo pickup man. “It’s not as easy as others might think,” Bugbee confirmed. “You have to be on the ball all the time.
“Picking up is a two cowboy job. You can’t do it alone. Fortunately, I’ve worked with several top pickup men,” Bugbee credited. “The action is fast, but it’s really important to go slow sometimes especially when getting started as a pickup man.”
Horsepower is an essential ingredient of a top pickup man. “It takes a special horse. Many horses just don’t make it.” Bugbee declared. “I’ve been through a lot of the horses over the years and really have a good set of horses today.”
A pickup horse must be “brave, stout and have gas when needed,” Bugbee described. “They don’t have to be so big really. Just know how to move out, take the jerks, and have a natural instinct to read livestock.”
Admitting today’s horses are “so much better” than half a century ago, Bugbee’s pickup mounts are “pretty much cow bred.”
Bugbee rides pickup horses that he owns personally and ones owned by the rodeo company. “We partner on some horses and also ride horses for a breeder who has a sale in Wyoming,” Bugbee said.
Six pickup horses are typically ridden at every rodeo the pickup man works. “I use two in the bareback riding, two in bronc riding, one for roping bulls, and an extra,” he explained. “It takes a lot of horsepower in today’s big arenas.”
In the hundreds of horses Bugbee has used, two stand out above the others.
“A grade gray mare we called Elvira was the best pickup horse ever. She had a huge heart always wanting to do the job,” Bugbee credited. “Elvira was a grade mare Jimmy Crowther’s dad Ronnie and I bought at the South Hutchinson sale barn. I picked up on her at a team rodeo the next night and then she went to work fulltime”
After Elvira was retired, she produced several foals which also made top using horses. “Elvira was one of a kind,” Bugbee smiled.
A sorrel with socks and bald face called Rosie also stands out among Bugbee’s favorite pickup horses. “Rosie was truly a natural, really tough,” he acknowledged.
“Mares often work as well as geldings for picking up, but I only use geldings nowadays,” Bugbee said. “They don’t necessarily have more ability, but are easier to turn in and get along with other horses.”
Widely recognized for his abilities, Bugbee has been selected to serve as pickup man at a number of major rodeos. These include the Prairie Circuit Finals, multiple times; The Daddy of them All, Cheyenne Frontier Days, Cheyenne, Wyoming, twice: and RFD-TV’s The American, Dallas, Texas.
“Cheyenne is a big arena but one of the easiest rodeos to work because there are six pickup men. I only have to pick up every third bronc,” Bugbee said.
Little time off in his demanded profession, when Bugbee is home he does day work for area ranchers. “I have a leather shop and that keeps me out of trouble too,” he added.
Future for the sport of rodeo is bright, according to Bugbee. “Rodeo has changed a lot since I was a kid,” he said. “The cowboys and the livestock are better than ever, prize money keeps growing and spectator attendance has never been greater. Rodeo will continually get even better.”
Retirement age, Bugbee has no plans to stop serving rodeo as a pickup man. “Why would I ever want to quit doing what I love so much?”