A cowboy turns a childhood dream into an impressive career
The people packed into the stands at the Texas Cowboy Reunion Rodeo fell quiet as the announcer broadcast the next bronc rider’s name and hometown. As the cowboy nodded, the chute gate flew open and the saddle bronc horse reared, lunging forward. The horse’s front hooves slammed the ground hard, his back legs kicking wildly. Sitting tall in the saddle, the cowboy gripped a long, braided rein with one hand and balanced himself with his boots deep in the stirrups. The rank bronc attempted to throw the rider off with a fast rocking motion. Eight seconds later, the buzzer sounded, and the crowd cheered as the smiling cowboy waved his hat.
In the crowd that night, an awestruck eight-year-old cowboy watched with wide eyes. Keith Chapman loved everything about the annual 4th of July Texas Cowboy Reunion Rodeo in Stamford, Texas—the parade, the old ranchers telling cowboy stories, the gospel singing—everything. “Wow,” he thought. “I’m going to do that, someday.”
Keith grew up in Haskell, Texas, playing sports and working on the ranch with his brothers and sister. His love of sports fueled his thirty-year rodeo career and brought him success beyond what he could imagine as a kid watching the cowboys.
Football and Rodeo
Keith wanted to rodeo as a kid, but he never had time. “In high school we played sports—we had to, since there were hardly enough boys in our small town to make a team. I’ve been better at some than others, but whatever the organized sport, I like it,” Keith says with a smile and a slow Texas accent.
In college, as head yell leader at Texas A&M in 1970–1971, Keith practiced with the football team under Coach Gene Stallings during August two-a-days, as was Aggie tradition. “My real dream was to become a professional football player, but I was 5 foot 6 and weighed 145!” Keith says. “But I had some speed and ability. Practicing with the team was the next best thing and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
While Keith was in college, his younger brother, Terry, had started to rodeo. Watching Terry ride broncs sparked the same feelings Keith had watching rodeo as a kid.
In November 1971 Keith attended the four-day Larry Mahan Rodeo School to learn saddle bronc riding from the best. By 1971, Mahan had already won five consecutive all-around rodeo world championships. Mahan explained the basics to the group of new saddle bronc riders and then allowed riders to test their skills on real bucking horses.
“You have to get that timing and pick up the feel of that bronc and your saddle. It’s hard to do,” Keith explains. While at Mahan’s school, Keith got on sixteen broncs but stayed on just two. Remembering Mahan’s advice and building on what he’d learned, Keith joined the Texas A&M Rodeo Team and qualified for the College National Finals in 1972–73 during graduate school.
Professional Rodeo Cowboy
From Keith’s home base in Georgetown, he traveled for work for the Livestock Marketing Association but also found time for the rodeo circuit. “Instead of sitting in a hotel room at night, I’d go ride broncs. I kept my saddle in the trunk of my car,” Keith says with a grin.
Keith soon earned his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) card after winning $1,000 riding saddle broncs at rodeos. He traveled and competed in rodeos, sometimes winning, and sometimes getting bucked off, but mostly enjoying friendships he’d made over the years. “I love the people around rodeo,” Keith says. “You compete against them, but it’s always good to see them.”
The annual Texas Cowboy Reunion Rodeo lingered in the back of Keith’s mind, but the PRCA prohibited their pros from competing in rodeos sponsored by other associations. “Once you were dubbed a professional rodeo cowboy, you wouldn’t dare do anything to lose that,” Keith explains. The reunion rodeo—the rodeo Keith loved as a child—wasn’t PRCA sponsored, so he couldn’t enter until the rule was lifted. In 1994, Keith finally won the saddle bronc riding at the Texas Cowboy Reunion Rodeo in Stamford, Texas.
Longevity Pays Off
Some rodeo cowboys retire when they reach their forties, but that’s when Keith began competing in the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association (NSPRA). He rose to the top, winning two World Championships. “God blessed me with longevity,” he says. “When I won the world championship, I said, ‘Those guys I couldn’t outride? I finally outlasted them!’”
To Keith, bronc riding is a rush. “When you’re up there and the horse is bucking and you’re in perfect rhythm—it’s just euphoric and you don’t want it to end. That’s what keeps you coming back,” he says. But Keith’s rodeo career came to an end in February of 2004 when he broke his femur after being bucked off at a rodeo in Buckeye, Arizona. “I was 55. All the other times, when I got well, I was ready to ride again. This time, I realized I wasn’t craving getting on a bronc,” Keith says.
In 2012, Keith was inducted into the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame in recognition of his successful thirty-year rodeo career. “It was a huge honor,” he says. This cowboy lived out his dreams—and then some.
Special thanks to the Williamson County Sheriff’s Posse for the use of the arena for the photo shoot
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