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5-decade bronc rider has quit -- maybe

Tired of the broken bones and scars, Jan Youren's family pushes the five-time world champion to leave the competition.

December 23, 2007|Rebecca Boone | Associated Press

GARDEN VALLEY, IDAHO — If her battered joints are stiffening with the approach of winter, Jan Youren isn't complaining.

It's a deeper ache that pains her.

"I am not a person who sits around twiddling my thumbs," she says. "I'm not good at that."

But like it or not, Youren is getting older -- her 64th birthday has come and gone. She's like legions of others having trouble adjusting to retirement's slower pace. And yet, because of what she's retiring from, the challenge is uniquely her own.

"You know, when I quit rodeoing it's a big hole. This year it's harder . . . ," says the five-time world champion bareback bronc rider, who only climbed out of the competitive saddle two years ago -- and would go back in a minute if not for her kids and grandkids.

"I never thought I'd stay doing it as long as I did. It's just hard to stop because it's very addictive once you start."

A lifetime of rough-stock riding has left her with shattered bones, several fused vertebrae, plenty of scar tissue and shoulders that dislocate whenever she raises her arms above her head. The dislocating shoulders mean that at the end of a bronc ride -- when most riders would grab onto a pickup man, riding close by to whisk them to safety -- Youren must hang on until the bronc bucks her off. A hard landing on the arena's well-churned dirt floor has sometimes left her unconscious for a minute or two.

Five decades of watching this torture is enough, her family has decided.

But Youren fears that once she really stops, the years of prophecies from orthopedic surgeons and emergency room doctors will come true.

" 'You'll be crippled,' they told me over and over again," Youren says. "But I won one world championship with a broken back. I guess if I end up in a wheelchair I can't be bitter and nasty -- I brung it on myself."

Still, the snort of a wild-eyed bronco is her siren song, and Youren relentlessly seeks the rush of fighting a 1,100-pound beast with nothing but leather-clad hands and a pair of spurs.

Rodeo is a hard habit to break.

If that weren't already apparent, you should have seen Youren at this year's Idaho Women's Rodeo -- where folks kept asking if she planned to compete, and her youngest son, Cole, would jump in with an answer before she could reply.

"She better not," said Cole, 23, who turned to his mother and added: "You better not be getting on any broncs."

"Well, I guess I better not then," Youren said. But a little later, away from the family, she confided: "If one of the riders doesn't show up, I just might."

The yearly summertime event in the scenic Idaho mountains has been Youren's rodeo, after all. It's held in her arena, just a few steps from the home her husband grew up in. Her daughter, Kristen David, serves as organizer and announcer. Her grandchildren run the chutes. And the names on the draw often include children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with nieces and nephews thrown in for good measure.

"My dad rodeoed. He rode bareback horses and wild-horse raced and rode a few bulls. I'd been riding calves since I was 4 or 5 years old, mainly at the cattleman's convention," Youren said. "Then, when I was 11, Dad came home from a rodeo and said, 'Babe, I saw something you'd really like.' "

He'd seen girls riding bareback horses and bulls, competing in a rodeo just like the men.

At the time, it was a shocking idea. Women had ridden bucking broncs in rodeos in the late 1800s, but women's participation in the sport fell out of favor after bronc rider Bonnie McCarroll was trampled to death by a horse in the Pendleton Roundup arena in 1929. By the late 1940s, women's participation in rodeo was mainly reduced to beauty pageants. Though many Western ranch women rode with their husbands during cattle drives, when the rodeo came to town they were expected to sit in the stands, not in the saddle.

Youren's father, Sterling Alley, decided to throw his own all-girls rodeo, just so his daughter could ride. It was 1955, and it was one of the first all-girl rodeos ever held in Idaho.

"He entered me in every event. I'd never even seen a barrel race at that time," she said. "I would have done anything for my dad, anything to get a little higher in my daddy's eyes."

Despite her inexperience, Youren won the bareback and cow-riding events.

"I won $54 for 24 seconds work and I thought I was on the road to riches," she said. "I was on that road for a long time: I never got rich, but I had a lot of riches. I probably had about the richest life you can have."

Perhaps Alley was looking for someone to carry on his legacy. Youren's older brother had hip disease that prevented him from riding rough-stock.

"When I first started they used to say, 'Little Jan Alley from Garden Valley, she wouldn't weigh 100 pounds soaking wet.' "

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