Shawn Davis, Latter-day Saint and World Champion Bronc Rider


History pictures a rodeo cowboy as a hard-riding, hard-drinking, antisocial buckaroo who can lose his day’s earnings in a poker game about as quickly as he can earn them in a ten-second bronc ride. This traditional image has persisted—it has, that is, until the era of Shawn Davis. A Latter-day Saint from Whitehall, Montana, Shawn has almost single-handedly changed the image of rodeo sport during the last few years.

In 1965, his first year out of college and his first year on the professional rodeo circuit, he captured a world championship title, some $25,000, and a lot of respect from the traditional cowboys for his hard riding and clean living. It seems they could hardly imagine a world champion saddle bronc rider who is a college graduate, who doesn’t cuss, smoke, or chew, who drinks nothing stronger than Seven-Up, who invests his winnings, and who works as hard to get to priesthood meeting on Sunday morning as they do trying to make it to the next out-of-state rodeo.

Of course, Shawn’s living style and his quiet manners have made the occasional boisterous tough guy misjudge him. One bronc rider just couldn’t get used to a polite, soda-pop-drinking cowboy who went to church, shaved every day, and wore clean clothes. He insisted on calling Shawn feminine names. When asked politely, he wouldn’t apologize and insisted on settling the matter in an old-fashioned western fist fight. They stepped out behind the chutes and Shawn beat him soundly, gaining the cowboy’s respect and his friendship in the process. Later, when the cowboy learned that Shawn also happened to hold a Montana State Golden Gloves boxing championship and was a Montana Athlete of the Year, he felt better about his defeat.

Shawn has been the subject of more than a hundred newspaper and magazine articles. Most sports writers appreciate him because he is more than a cowboy; they see him as a professional athlete who happens to specialize in saddle bronc riding. As one writer said in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Shawn’s versatility is apparent not only in rodeo but in all sports. He works at keeping physically fit and engages in many sports, including boxing … swimming, surfing, golf, skiing, tennis, handball—you name it, he can do it.”

Life magazine called him a “saddle bronc rider with a Tarzan build and an extraordinary talent for spurring a horse to a good ride while hanging on with apparent ease.”

This kind of publicity stimulates interest from many sources. He gets invitations for screen tests as often as most young Latter-day Saints get a chance to speak in sacrament meeting.

Like many people who pursue unusual careers, Shawn was concerned at one time with the question of whether or not his career would conflict with his feelings about the Church.

“After I had been in college three years, I wanted to rodeo for a while, and I was worried about the apparent contrast of ideals in my two worlds—the Church and the rodeo. I worried and prayed about it and spent time thinking it over. Then I realized the right answer for me was very simple. I knew the Church was true, and as long as I did the right thing and lived my religion, I couldn’t be doing wrong. I was then at peace with myself, and the Church has turned out to be one of my biggest assets on the rodeo circuit. I have been the subject of a lot of publicity because I am different. Writers casually mention that I am a Mormon cowboy and then go on to explain some of our beliefs. There are a lot of good Catholics and Methodists and other religions represented on the circuit, but their religions never seem to be mentioned.”

A convert to the Church during his college days, Shawn first became acquainted with Mormons while visiting his cousins who lived across the street from a Latter-day Saint chapel.

“My folks would let me go to church on Sunday, and since my cousins lived close to the Latter-day Saint chapel, I would visit them and we would all go there together. I had always been impressed with the Latter-day Saint kids in school; it seemed like they could all get up in front of an audience and speak, and they also seemed outstanding in other ways. Then I started going to a lot of church activities. I liked MIA and the social activities. By the time I was junior in high school, I began attending church all the time and really tried to live the gospel. I lived the principles for about four years before I decided to be baptized,” said Shawn.

It is obvious that people who know Shawn are aware of and impressed by his religion. Many writers and most of the cowboys know him not as Shawn but as Bish, short for bishop.

“Rodeoing has really helped me to gain a testimony of many gospel principles. For instance, I’ve always paid my tithing. I’ve been a confirmed tithe payer, and I know it is a true principle because I have been blessed. Even when I’ve been hurt, couldn’t ride, and had a lot of expenses, things have worked out for me,” said Shawn.

“Living the Word of Wisdom has been another real help to me. It seems like I can recuperate from an injury in half the time it would normally take. In 1969 a horse flipped over and fell on me and broke my back. The doctors said at best I might be able to walk with a bad limp, but that I’d never ride again. A year later I won the saddle bronc riding at the first rodeo I entered. I know that living the principles of the gospel pays off, because I sure have a lot of blessings to be thankful for,” he added.

A lot of people are thankful to Shawn for their introduction to the gospel. One of his favorite activities is helping the missionaries. When invited, he sometimes travels across four or five states on an airline or in his own plane to tell an assembly of investigators about rodeoing and the gospel. He explains some of the finer points of bronc riding and then winds up the meeting telling them why the gospel is so important. After a recent trip to an Indian reservation where he explained about the gospel and how to ride broncs, he said, “I guess this approach has helped opened a few more doors for the elders.”

By almost any criteria Shawn is successful. Besides being a three-time world champion, Shawn has business and ranching interests in four states and talks as knowledgeably with his broker about finances as he does with fellow cowboys about the length of rein to give a particular horse. His personal formula for success is applicable to almost anyone making decisions about his future life: “Live the gospel, and do what is right, and you won’t go wrong.”

Following this counsel has made it possible for Shawn Davis to do more than change the image of an entire sport; it brings him the constant inner joy and peace that living the gospel is meant to bring.

Saddle Bronc Riding Tips

A bronc rider doesn’t have a lot of riding equipment, but what he has is mighty important for his performance as a rider and it needs to suit him. Halters are furnished by the rodeo stock contractors; and buck rein, saddle, chaps, and spurs are the cowboys own property.

Buck Rein

Your choice of a buck rein will be determined by the size of your hand and the way you hold and handle your rein. Many top riders ride with a full-hand grip, and they use bigger rein than I do. I ride with the buck rein between my third and fourth fingers, and therefore, a big rein would be too clumsy for me.

I prefer a loosely braided hemp rein because it is easier to hold onto. It gives me a good grip and yet I can feed a little rein if the horse is holding his head lower than I anticipated. This wouldn’t be as easy if I had a tightly braided rein.

If the rein is too short, you may find yourself in trouble with a horse that takes a lot of head. If it is too long, it gets in your way. I ride with a rein about six feet long.

Saddle

All bronc saddles have to meet the Rodeo Cowboys Association specifications; then you can choose the length of seat, stirrups, and stirrup leathers according to your own likes. The length of the seat is important to me. I ride a longer seat than most of the bronc riders because it gives me a better spurring angle. I don’t sit flat in the saddle and this gives me room to get back in during the course of a ride. Though a shorter seat would be more snug, it would also be harder to get back into once I was the least bit dislodged.

The length of the stirrups will depend somewhat on the length of the seat and your riding style. With the saddle on the ground I want my stirrups so that I can sit with my legs extended and toes turned out and have the pressure of my seat on the cantle of the saddle.

Chaps

Your chaps will help protect the outside of your legs from the chute, the fence, and the pickup horse. They help keep the inside of the leg from being rubbed raw on the swells of the saddle. They also help you to be able to grip the swells of the saddle more effectively when the horse is leaving the chute.

Most cowboys today use dry resin on the inside of their chaps and on the swells of their saddle to help them hold their position in the saddle until they can pick up the rhythm of the horse.

Your chaps should fit your legs snugly, but the amount of flare at the bottom is a matter of personal preference.

Spurs

Most bronc riders use a 15-degree, offset spur with a 1 1/2 sloping shank and with small, dull rowels. It is important that they are dull so that they won’t injure the horse’s neck. I like my spurs just snug enough so they feel a little loose while I am spurring him out.

Boots

My bronc riding boots have a flat shank and an arch. I like a low wide top so they will come off easily, but I want them to fit my feet.

The best way to learn about bronc riding besides actually doing it is to learn from a successful rider. There are many good teachers around the country at bronc riding time. Talk to champions and cowboys who are winning. Most of them are more than willing to help you learn, because it wasn’t so long ago that they were beginners too.

Know Your Horse

I always try and find out as much as I can about a horse before I ride him. If I have never ridden him before, I ask other riders who have been on him to tell me some of the things that I should be expecting.

Questions I usually ask include: How does he stand in the chute—does he need to be tied to keep from rearing over backwards? How does he leave the chute—does he rear out or move out fast? Many horses have to be tied until the rider is ready for the gate. I’ve had many horses rear over backwards in the chute with me. In fact, this is where most of the accidents seem to happen. Luckily, I’ve never been hurt seriously in the chute.

Get Saddled

You usually need to get your saddle on the horse during the event preceding bronc riding. This is also the time to measure the rein. Then all you have to do when it nears your turn is to tighten the saddle.

When you position the saddle, pull the stirrups forward, making sure they reach over the point of the shoulders so that you can spur the horse out. The front cinch should be pretty much straight up and down, and the back cinch should be at least behind the last rib.

Measure the Rein

Fasten the buck rein to the halter with the end of the loop facing up. This gives you more room to keep you from spurring over the rein. If the loop faces down, you would be more apt to spur over the rein.

If don’t know a horse, I usually measure the rein three different ways. I pull the rein tight and measure from the halter to the base of the mane. I pull the rein over the horse’s head and across to his opposite eyebrow. Eighty percent of the time this will measure the same as the first method. Then I pull the rein back over the swells and measure a hand or a hand and two fingers past the swells.

Most of the time all three of these methods will check out the same; however, if the mane and eyeline measurements are shorter than the hand measurement, I’ll shorten the hand measurement a little and go with it. If the first two are longer than the hand measurement, I’ll go a little longer on the hand measurement.

On a long-necked horse I’ll give a little more rein than average. Measurement of the rein on different horses can vary eight to ten inches according to a horse’s size and the way he carries his head when he bucks.

The measurement of the rein can make the difference in riding or not riding a horse and is one of the most important things that a bronc rider does.

Mounting

I ease down into the saddle, holding the buck rein in my riding hand and bracing myself with the other hand on the chute. I put one foot in the stirrup that is easiest to get to. Then I try to gently move him over so that I can get my other foot in the stirrup. I ease my feet up to the front of the horse, being careful not to touch him with my spurs. This could easily cause him to rear over backwards. I don’t make any noise or quick jerking motions.

When my feet and riding hands are in position, I lean back and down in the saddle and tuck my chin to my chest. If a horse rears out, this helps keep my balance over a central point. If a rider does not have his chin tucked and his head is thrown back, this will cause him to be thrown off balance, lose his swells, and miss spurring his horse on the way out of the chute.

When I am on the horse, I look right down on his head. A horse has to follow his head; if he rears, his head gives you the clue first. If he ducks you’ll be able to determine it earlier than if you aren’t looking at his head. When you are ready, nod at the man in charge of opening the chute gate. He will be watching, and you won’t need to speak out loud as this could startle your horse in the chute.

The Ride

To qualify, a rider must have spurs over the break of the shoulders and touching the horse when his front feet hit the ground on the first jump out of the chute. Most cowboys agree that it is best to leave your spurs in place for two jumps as added insurance that you qualify. On the way out of the chute I also try to concentrate on squeezing the swells of the saddle with my legs, keeping my toes turned out and lifted on the rein.

Rhythm

By the second jump I usually have picked up the rhythm of the horse. As the bronc comes up, his motion pulls a rider over and his feet come back. Then, before the horse’s front feet hit the ground again, you want your feet up over the neck, with toes turned out so that you’ve got a hold with your heels and spurs. The way the event is judged, the higher you reach on the neck and the better you have your toes turned out the better score you’ll get.

Though the free hand isn’t as important in bronc riding as it is in some of the other events, it is important to your balance. If you need to get back, throw your hand back and it will pull you back. Any time you get in trouble, you can regain your balance with your free hand.

If I throw my arm way back it gives me a better spurring angle with my body. I don’t whip my arm back and forth. My style is more of a stretch than a whipping motion.

It’s possible to earn as much as $25,000 a year riding broncs for a living. I you feel this is your kind of life, learn properly from a qualified teacher, choose your equipment with care to fit your style of riding, be prepared before each ride, and keep telling yourself you can win. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet at the finals.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn