The thundering applause has gone quiet, the rodeo stands are empty, the arena is dark until tomorrow. A peaceful Colorado night has drifted into Steamboat Springs.
The Yampa River, bordering the rodeo grounds, flows gently over its rocky bed with the soft sound of rushing water. The day is over, but a cowboy’s work is never done.
A few hours earlier, rodeo fans leapt to their feet and roared their approval as Bobby Kerr and two agile, superbly trained mustangs performed their award winning specialty act, an array of tricks and stunts a world removed from the harsh existence Kerr’s equine partners once endured as wild horses roaming the mountains and plains of the American wilderness.
The show was an inspiring sight for those who watched, but even more inspiring is what the audience did not see, never sees – the long hours of training, the patient determination that gradually builds a bond of love and trust between the trainer and the animals.
Last summer, I had a chance encounter with Bobby Kerr and we discovered we had much in common. I was able to spend several hours with him and his family before and after two performances in Steamboat Springs.
On this night, Kerr was bent over, cleaning the hoof of one of his prized horses, “Trigger.”
Trigger once prowled Nevada wild and free but had to depend on survival instincts, the herd and nature. Now, Trigger depends on human care and kindness.
The mustang palomino performed his routine in Kerr’s show on this night with precision but his gait seemed off and he looked sore.
Kerr quickly tended to his horse after the show, taking all precautions to make sure he was okay. With only a flashlight to pierce the Colorado night, he inspected Trigger’s front legs, felt for heat and tenderness, and trotted him gently on a rope before deciding a nail in the right front shoe was bothering the horse.
Bobby pulled a nail from the shoe and raced to find the rodeo veterinarian before she left for the night. The veterinarian assured Kerr his horse would be fine with a poultice applied to the hoof to fight infection and a few days rest.
Kerr later learned that Trigger’s recuperation would require weeks or even months of care and caution.
Trigger was bandaged and put safely in a small corral. Kerr would check on the horse and worry all through the night. He makes a living with horses but above all he loves horses. They have been his life as long as he can remember, beginning when he was growing up in Canada, wanting to be Roy Rogers. His favorite movie, watched hundreds of times, is Tombstone, a classic Western about the legendary exploits of lawman Wyatt Earp.
Kerr was fascinated by a scene in which a horse jumps through the glass window of a saloon; he spent years learning how horses were trained for the stunt. No animals were injured, by the way.
A rodeo performer rides into the arena and for a period of under 10 minutes thrills the crowd with animal acts that defy the imagination. In one segment of his show, Kerr’s 12-year-old, 1500-pound muscular bay mustang “Poncho,” rescued from the range, hops into a car and sits down on the back seat.
Those 10 minutes represent years of arduous training, devotion and patience – hour after hour, day after day, month after month, as the trainer gains the trust and confidence of once-wild horses whose natural instinct would be to resist the relentless regimentation of training.
It’s a regimen that has been life-affirming for Kerr and the horses. He rescued them from the wild and the threat of extinction; the mustangs rescued him from a long, difficult struggle for success.
So it’s no surprise that 12 hours into a workday that began just after sunrise with morning workouts for his horses and three dogs, Bobby Kerr was not about to rest until Trigger was safe and sound.
Bobby Kerr has no quit in him; neither does his wife, Susan. It’s a trait both are more than happy to have.
They married 38 years ago after meeting, appropriately, in Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards. The Kerrs have always had horses, and horse training, at the center of their lives or at least on the wispy perimeter. But horse training is a hard way to make a living and so the family, which includes daughter Kelsey and son Cody, has done whatever it took to keep going, to make it.
Over the 40 years that have passed since he first ran away from home to work with horses Kerr has pursued an eclectic variety of careers and sidelines: over-the-road trucker, metal art sculptor, furniture maker. During one stretch of about 10 years, he thought of little else besides water-skiing. He went so far as to build his own ski lake on his property.
Once Kerr gets something in his teeth he shakes it hard until it comes loose and another obsession takes hold. The horses, though, the horses never have left him, never wandered from his heart.
The Kerrs sacrificed and lived lean so that Bobby could cling to his dream of equine success. And even when times were tough, giving up was never an option.
“You just do what you have to do,” shrugs the mustachioed Kerr with a quizzical look on his face that suggests he doesn’t know why the question would even be asked.
He chased the dream, no matter where it took him.
“I guess I’ve always had a little gypsy in me,” he says with stoic understatement.