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To buck or not to buck: Powder River Rodeo finds the right job for the horse

Before putting the saddle on, John Franzen familiarizes himself with the horse’s personality
John Franzen with Kemosabe, a bucking stock horse turned ranching, hunting and pickup horse. (Sophia McCrackin/Durango Herald)

Powder River Rodeo, LLC has been raising great bucking stock for almost four decades, sending their athletic animals to the National Finals Rodeo every year since 1988.

But every once in a while, John Franzen, son of owners Hank and Lori Franzen and the General Manager of Powder River, gets a horse who just won’t buck.

That’s what happened almost 20 years ago with Kemosabe, who is now a hunting, ranching and pickup horse for Franzen, and it happened again just recently with Tonto.

Franzen started the process of ‘breaking’ 4-year-old Tonto just a few days before the first night of the Ute Mountain Roundup.

Most saddle horses are broken long before this age. Most horses take much longer to get comfortable with the saddle. But Tonto stood serenely, fully tacked under the heavy summer sun as Franzen explained his philosophy.

Bucking horses are the bread and butter of Powder River, and Franzen prefers his horses turn out as great competitors. However, a key piece of horsemanship is respect.

“A big deal about being a horseman is that they’ll tell you everything you need to know if you’re willing to listen,” Franzen said. “You just have to take out what you want them to do and realize what they want to do, and then you can kind of get about anything our of a horse you want, as long as you’re willing to work with them rather than against them.”

Kemosabe and Tonto are cousins.

“They’ve got some relatives that are really good bucking horses that have been to the NFR,” Franzen said. “But they’ve got a really calm disposition and a really good demeanor, a kind eye.”

Bucking stock horses are bred to be tall, stocky, independent and unperturbed in the face of the roaring crowd.

All these qualities make Kemosabe and Tonto great saddle horses, too.

“Bucking horses, as pickup horses or anything like that, work really well. They are never lame, they’re very sure-footed, they hardly ever stumble,” Franzen said. “They’re not blessed with speed, but they can do anything. They’d pull a tree out of the ground for you.”

Kemosabe as a rodeo judges horse for the Ute Mountian Roundup. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)

One fundamental part of Franzen’s process in breaking a horse is groundwork. Before he ever puts the saddle on, he familiarizes himself with the horse’s personality and introduces the horse to new cues.

“Riding them is one thing and that will all come, but getting them to where they’re really good to be around people and seeing everything around here (is key),” Franzen said, gesturing at the bustle of people and livestock preparing for the rodeo.

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