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Back When They Bucked with Don Huddleston
Written by: Courtesy< Back to Articles
story by Shiley Blackwell
Don Huddleston’s name rings across the steer wrestling world as one of the greats. The Talihina, Oklahoma cowboy was an eight time NFR qualifier and has spent his days contributing to his community and the rodeo realm. “I’ve had some good guys beat me at bull dogging, and I’ve beat some good ones,” Don says of his 37-year career. “It was a lot of fun either way.”
The 84-year-old Oklahoma native began his rodeo career during his teenage years in what was then-known as “FFA Rodeo.” “We didn’t have high school rodeo. The agriculture departments in different schools around here put on the rodeo,” Don says. “There was one in Clayton and one in Tuskahoma, and I’d make them every year and I got to where I could win.”
During this time, a few boys from Kansas moved to Tuskahoma where Don went to school. A friendship formed and the group began rodeoing together. “We started branching out and going to stronger rodeos. I got to winning bulldoggings and bull ridings. That’s kind of what got me started.”
Enthralled with his new-found love of rodeo, Don took every opportunity to improve his steer wrestling. “When I was going to school in Tuskahoma, we had one movie house and that was in Clayton. I went up there and I met Tater Decker and his wife, Jo, and they had bought a place down there in Clayton. We got to talking that night and he said he was going to build a practice arena. I said, ‘Well, if you want to, I’ll come help you then we can both practice down there.’ He said, ‘That’s a deal.’”
That was the start of a building the arena that took four years and a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Tater and Don built an arena, then talked a stock contractor into letting them use a set of steers one winter in exchange for feeding and caring for them. “The bad steers we made better, and the good steers we didn’t use too much. He (the stock contractor) came out with a good set of cattle that year, so we started getting a set from a contractor nearly every year to straighten up.”
After a few years of straightening steers out and practicing at Tater’s place, Don went to a rodeo in Ada in 1955 where he took third in the average and third in the go-round. “That showed me that I could rodeo with the rest of them since most of the professionals were there,” Don says. “I just went from there and got my RCA card.”
This eventually led to him buying his Pro Rodeo card in 1958, leading to NFR qualifications in 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1969-71. At Don’s first NFR, he set the record in the Dallas, Texas arena with a time of 4.0. Then, at the 1963 NFR he set the arena record in the Los Angeles, California arena with a 3.9. He also set the arena record in Oklahoma City with a 4.1.
“In those days, they had the beefy, buffalo-type cattle, and at the first of the National Finals they let Lynn Butler have the steer contract. He’d buy a set of cattle in the spring, turn them out on the blue-stem grass in western Oklahoma in the summer, and then feed them 90 days before the rodeo… That made it a hustle to just be able to throw one down. When we started the National Finals, we had to bulldog steers weighing from 800 to 1000 pounds. You can imagine the hustle that that was,” Don comments.
Between 1968 and 1982, he would fly his private plane to rodeos where a fellow cowboy would meet him with a steer wrestling horse. Don, who served as Latimer’s County Commissioner, was talked into running for office in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, which he won and he was a state representative for District 17 for two terms – 1971-74. Fellow politicians would join him on these “rodeo flights.” His other passengers included cowboys that were up at the same rodeos.
“Most times, there in the house, there would be enough country boys there that would want to go to a rodeo with me. I had a six seat airplane so I’d load five up in there. One year, I loaded all of us up and we went to Helldorado Days in Las Vegas, and I won it. I couldn’t have had a better fan club there,” Don chuckles, “That’s the way it worked. There would always be people who wanted to come, so they’d jump in and come with me. I made sure that everyone who wanted to go could go.”
During these years of flying to rodeos, Don had horses scattered throughout North America that he bulldogged off of. “I had several horses that went to California, a few in Canada, one in Idaho, another in Colorado. I sold them like that – all scattered out – then I rode them when I flew to rodeos.”
Don’s arena on his ranch in Talihina became a gathering place for steer wrestlers looking to improve their skill and find the right horse. When Don retired from rodeoing full-time in the 80s, the arena they built in the 1970s continued to be a place for all the bulldoggers to gather. He and his twin brother, Dale, made many horses and competitors in this arena.
Over the years, his “matchmaking” skills have helped dozens of cowboys find horses that have carried them to big wins. “I bought one horse from a guy over here in the county seat. He roped on him but he was just too charge-y. He told me he was going to sell him so I bought him and made a bulldogging horse out of him. I sold him to a kid in Arkansas and the first few months he had him he won $6,400 on him.”
Don’s repertoire, as well as his ability to help cowboys find the right horse, brought in steer wrestlers from all over the country. “I had many bulldoggers here nearly every day,” he comments. “I trained a lot of bulldoggers, and many went to the finals.” Along with Don, there were many unmentioned cowboys that helped with the practices – opening a gate and pushing cattle.
In his years of coaching steer wrestlers to success, Don emphasized the importance of attitude. “To win any rodeo contest, you need to have a good attitude. You can’t get mad at yourself, the steer, or your horse, then go to the next one and win anything… If someone has a good attitude, they’re worth working with and if they don’t have a good attitude, you might as well forget them.”
He also served as the second vice president for the PRCA, from 1975-1980. Dale Smith was president, and Jack Roddy was 1st Vice President. After that he assisted Frank Shepperson as the steer wrestling director. His name was on the building at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs as being on the board when it was decided to build the building.
In addition to steer wrestling schools, the Huddlestons’ arena also quickly became a place for rodeo competitors of all ages. “We filled that arena with bulldoggings and rodeos for junior cowboys and cowgirls. I had the first cancer society rodeo right here. We donated all the proceeds to the American Cancer Society in 1981.”
They also started the now-famous Huddleston Ranch Bulldogging, which hit 46 consecutive years in May. The event, held over Memorial Day each year, brings top talent to Oklahoma for two days of competition. “Last year, we had several guys at the bull dogging who went to finals this year,” Don says. “There’s lots of gold buckles at this event.”
And during these decades of bull dogging schools, ropings, and rodoes on the ranch, family has been at the center of it. “Our kids were raised right up here on the ranch, and they all rode horses,” Don says. “Lacee started hazing down here.”
Don and Joye married in 1960 and traveled 17,000 miles on their honeymoon. They each had a child (Joni Grammar and Greg Vanderwagen) before they married and then they had two of their own (Gala Dawn Huddleston and Kevan Don Huddleston). They bought a ranch from Joye’s family in 1960, and still call it their home 58 years later. “We’ve been married a long time,” Don says. “And we’ve had a good life-the best life.”
The ranch is now being run by Gala and her family and the tradition is being carried on under the careful direction of Don.
Don has done a lot for rural Oklahoma, continuing the tradition of letting any child that had an interest in a horse to help them find their passion.