Fans watching the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo might notice a pair of cowboys on horseback in the arena during the roughstock events.
They swoop in after rides are finished or a contestant is bucked off, sidling up next to bareback and saddle bronc horses and helping herd ornery bulls out of the arena. Known as pickup men, the cowboys are crucial to keeping athletes – both two- and four-legged kinds – safe in the tight Thomas & Mack Center arena on a nightly basis.
Their job can be maddeningly difficult, and their efforts often go unnoticed or underappreciated, but that’s the least of their concerns. This year, veteran Gary Rempel was voted to work his eighth Finals and is teaming with first-time Wrangler NFR pickup man Matt Twitchell to handle the pickup duties, with Tyler Robertson serving as the alternate.
Being selected to work the Wrangler NFR is an honor for any pickup man, and Twitchell is loving every minute of his first taste of it.
“It’s pretty dang awesome,” said Twitchell, a PRCA member for roughly seven years. “The first time I rode out in the arena, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people here.’ It’s been more than I’ve expected.
“I’m having a blast. It’s great.”
Even though Rempel has worked numerous Wrangler NFRs, the proud feeling of riding into the Thomas & Mack Center arena never fades.
“It certainly doesn’t get old, no,” said Rempel, a PRCA member since 1990. “Sitting there waiting, especially at the first performance, there are nerves and anticipation. Vegas is a place that your goal is to make it here in the first place, and once you’ve been here, you really don’t want to miss it.”
The pickup men work in tandem to help bareback riders dismount safely after a neck-jarring ride, saddle bronc riders hop off cleanly after spurring for eight seconds and also guide bulls who might be looking to hook a rider or bullfighter out of the arena as quickly as possible.
Chemistry and nonverbal communication are key for the two-man team, and they need to react to each other, the animals and the riders in a split second to help keep disaster at bay. Rempel and Twitchell, who work together at a handful of rodeos each year, have that chemistry and enjoy teaming up with one another.
“There’s good pickup men around who don’t work together real well,” Rempel said. “Then you’ve got a guy like Matt, who’s a good pickup man and is also a good partner. We work together during the year and know each other, so that helps a lot.”
For Twitchell, the chance to work with Rempel makes the experience even that much more special.
“I couldn’t pick a better guy to work with,” said Twitchell, who was an alternate pickup man for the Finals last year. “He’s as good at it gets.”
Horsemanship skills are crucial to being a good pickup man, as one mistake could result in injury to horse, bull or cowboy (or all of the above). There is a science to the art of picking up, especially in the tight confines of the Wrangler NFR, where the pickup men can’t ever let their guards down.
“You’ve got to keep your eyes open,” Rempel said. “Picking up in a little tight arena, you’re always coming to a corner, so you’ve always got to be aware. There’s not many straight stretches where you can get things done, so you’ve got to be paying attention.
“You’ve got to be thinking a lot more.”
The pickup men utilize a five-horse rotation in order to keep their mounts fresh and fast, which is absolutely necessary at the world’s top rodeo. Helping contestants and bucking stock stay healthy is a fulfilling job for the duo.
“That’s one thing that always weighs on your mind,” Rempel said. “You want to make sure when you pick someone up that you turn out as best you can so they don’t get kicked and slow down so they can get off. Later on, when guys get sore and have some injuries, that’s when you’ve got to pay attention and look after them more.
“I like it when you pick up a horse and the guy gets off safely, but I hate looking back and seeing a guy laying on the ground. I like it when you’re able to set them down and they’re standing there.”
They may go unnoticed by some, but the contestants who vote the pickup men to their Wrangler NFR appointments know how important they are.
“They’re two of the greatest pickup men there are,” saddle bronc rider Sterling Crawley, who is competing in his second consecutive Finals, said of Rempel and Twitchell. “They’re there when they need to be, and they’re not when they don’t. They do their job every single time, and they’re Johnny on the spot.
“My personal preference for get-offs is jumping off on my own, but here, you don’t want to take the chance of something going wrong. You don’t want to find yourself all sorts of banged up when you’ve got another eight rounds.”
That’s the situation we’re in right now as Round 3 awaits tonight. It’ll be interesting to see just how many times Rempel and Twitchell are able to make big saves when they’re needed most.
So, next time you watch a roughstock event, keep your eyes peeled for the talented horsemen.