Casey Tibbs met me at his front door with his mischievous blue eyes and his Huckleberry grin. His red hair and mustache were touched with grey, and, as always, he was dressed Western — boots and buckle, a style all his own.
He was thinner though, his voice softer than ever, his legendary strength sapped from the cancer in his bones. Not even the Sioux Indian medicine could slow its steady course. As I sat with him in the warmth of that California afternoon, I listened to him talk of horses, and his spirit filled the room. I knew then that my childhood hero was bucking out his last rainbow ride.
Casey was born on the Tibbs homestead in the shadow of the Cheyenne River near Fort Pierre, South Dakota, on March 5, 1929. The last of 10 children, Casey learned to ride before he could walk, as horses were his father’s livelihood. The Great Depression was hard on the Tibbs family, and Casey’s father John had to sell half the ranch just to pay the taxes.
Despite the hard times, every Fourth of July, Casey’s father took the family to the annual rodeo in Fort Pierre. He warned his children about rodeo life, but he could see the thrill of the ride and life in the chutes in the eyes of his youngest. He warned Casey, if he had his bucking spurs on when they went to Fort Pierre, that his son would have to find his own way home. Casey was just 14 the day he brought his spurs with him to Fort Pierre. His father went one way, and Casey the other, bucking the rainbow all the way into rodeo history.
From 1947 to 1959, Casey transformed rodeo like Babe Ruth changed baseball. He won his first world championship in saddle bronc riding at the age of 19 in 1949; he was on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1951; and by the time he retired at the age of 30 in 1959, he had won nine world championships, two all-arounds, one bareback and six saddle broncs, including a record four in a row. His last world record might have been especially precious to him, as he earned it at the first National Finals Rodeo, which he championed into formation. Retiring from professional ranks, Casey became a world ambassador for rodeo. He left the bright lights of New York for Hollywood, with a calling card stating simply: “Casey Tibbs—Possibly America’s Most Beloved Cowboy.”
I was eight years old the first time I saw Casey ride. He served as the grand marshal of the Prescott Frontier Day’s Rodeo and Parade that Fourth of July in 1971, a role that went uncredited in the yet-to-be-released Sam Peckinpah film Junior Bonner. Mainly, he acted as the technical advisor on that movie, which was written by my father Jeb Rosebrook.
After the release of Peckinpah’s film in 1972, Casey became a regular at our home in North Hollywood, California, a quiet retreat from the Hollywood nights and lights that he’d been chasing for more than a decade. Sometimes we’d visit him and his French girlfriend Renee in their high-rise apartment, or we’d go to Bob’s Big Boy for some of its famous hamburgers and milkshakes.
One afternoon he zoomed up in his French open top jeep, top down and ready to go. My sister Katherine and I always asked where we were going, and Casey always answered, “I’ll tell you when we get there.” That day, Casey gave my sister and I a lesson in bareback riding. Needless to say, we ate some dirt, and at the ages of 10 and seven, respectively, we learned the two most important lessons Casey knew: “Get back up, and get back on. And don’t be afraid to get bucked off again.”
Up through 1989, Casey was an ever-present part of our family life, although his visits became fewer and fewer as he settled into raising horses on his ranch in Ramona. In that final summer of his life, we went to see Casey honored for his career in movie Westerns at the Golden Boot Awards in Studio City. Casey was fighting for his life, waging a war against the cancer in his bones, all the bones he had broken bucking out broncs, chasing the rainbow. His grip was still strong, but I could see in his eyes that the end was near. I promised to visit him at his ranch in Ramona.
Casey watched me as we sat quietly that autumn afternoon. He asked if I’d like to meet his horses. He told me to walk into the pasture where his horses were running free, and he’d catch up with me. The horses started coming in, from all corners, one at a time. Casey appeared at my side. Soon we were surrounded, each horse quietly seeking a flash of blue eyes from the rainbow rider, my cowboy hero, Casey Tibbs.
Author’s Note: Casey Tibbs died just a few months later, on January 28, 1990, at his home in Ramona, California.
Copyright True West Magazine – Preserving the American West 2011. All Rights Reserved.