GUYMON, Okla. – Over the years, the Guymon Pioneer Days Rodeo has been the champions’ playground.
The champion-laden Etbauer family has shined as brightly as anyone inside Henry C. Hitch Pioneer Arena, host of the annual festivities that are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 7; and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 8. Over the last 20 years, the Etbauers have won eight world championships and dozens of other honors.
“The Guymon Pioneer Days Rodeo, which is in its 79th year, made a big leap forward when the Etbauers got involved here,” said Ken Stonecipher, the rodeo’s production manager. “You know how it is when you get a couple cool kids to come to your party, then all the other kids want to come? That’s how it was with the Etbauers, and that’s how it still is.”
Originally from Ree Heights, S.D., Robert, Billy and Dan Etbauer were drawn to Oklahoma via rodeo. Robert, the oldest, led the parade to No Man’s Land in the mid-1980s to attend Oklahoma Panhandle State University in neighboring Goodwell. Dan followed suit and competed on the college’s rodeo team. Billy didn’t take traditional classes, opting, instead, for the lessons of the rodeo trail.
Texas County was base camp for the brothers and their longtime traveling partner, Craig Latham. They made names for themselves and, in a sense, put Goodwell on the ProRodeo map. Their popularity developed when the four began qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo in the late 1980s. It grew when Robert won back-to-back saddle bronc riding world titles. It grew again when Billy the first of his five gold buckles.
It continued to blossom through the decade; so did a rivalry with fellow bronc rider Dan Mortensen. In fact, only two last names won saddle bronc riding championships from 1990-2000 – Robert, 1990-91; Billy, 1992, 1996, 1999, 2000 (he added another title in 2004); and Mortensen the other years.
“That era was good for rodeo,” said saddle bronc rider Bobby Griswold of Geary, Okla., a four-time NFR qualifier. “Fans that just somewhat followed rodeo knew who the Etbauers were.”
The Etbauer brothers built on that, and, with Latham, they signed the first “team” sponsorship with Express Ranches of Yukon, Okla. That made them even more identifiable to fans.
“They were the first three brothers to make it to the finals, and they did it for nine years in a row,” Stonecipher said. “What was more unique was how good guys they were, traveling together. The content of their character helped their popularity grow. The defining deal was how they helped each other. Of course, we probably wouldn’t know any of that if they didn’t ride bucking horses so good.”
That eloquent athleticism and fame became a boon for the Pioneer Days Rodeo. Living on ranches near Goodwell, Robert and Dan have been associated with the volunteer committee that produces the annual rodeo. In fact, Robert reached out to sponsors and other contestants to put his hometown rodeo on the map in the early 1990s; it has been growing ever since.
“It was through Robert’s leadership that we went from a little, no-name rodeo to national prominence,” said Melyn Johnson, director of Main Street Guymon and a longtime community supporter. “I don’t mean because of his riding ability but his leadership on the rodeo committee. I don’t think that precedence had been matched for a world champion to be involved with their local rodeo, a standard he set.”
The brothers have been instrumental in training other generations of bronc riders. They help teach up-and-coming cowboys annually at the Deke Latham Memorial Bronc Riding School and have helped numerous contestants get their start in the game.
Robert and Dan retired more than a decade ago, but Billy is still riding strong at 48 years old. In fact, he didn’t qualify for the 2010 NFR, the first time in since 1989 he wasn’t part of ProRodeo’s championship event. Still, most of the elite bronc riders in the sport list Billy Etbauer as their rodeo idol, and they have a difficult time beating him, even though he’s more than twice the age of most.
Of course, they’re not the only champions in the family. Dan’s wife, Kasey, won the 2009 heeling world championship in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. Billy’s wife, Hollie, is a professional barrel racer who finished among the top 50 in 2010.
Robert’s oldest son, Trell, is an all-around champion who competes in bronc riding, tie-down roping and steer wrestling. He won the college steer wrestling title as a freshman at Panhandle State in 2005, then later that year won his first all-around championship in the Prairie Circuit, the ProRodeo region consisting of athletes and events primarily from Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Even bigger is that he is the first cowboy to win the prestigious Linderman Award his first three years in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
“When you look at Trell, you can’t get a better cowboy than that,” Griswold said. “You can see how he rides broncs, but then you see how good he is in the timed events, he is a true all-around cowboy.”
Certainly being a cowboy is important in rodeo, but also it’s an important way of life in the Oklahoma Panhandle. The region calls for it, with sandy, dry terrain and livestock dotting the miles. But being a cowboy means more than riding horses and wrangling cattle. It means passing along the traits and talents to the next generation.
“The great thing about being around those guys is that they’re so good at teaching,” Stonecipher said. “I’ve seen it with my own kids when we’re roping with them, and I’ve seen it with the young guys at the bronc school. The Etbauers have a good touch with teaching, especially with the young kids. It’s a rare gift to have.”