Kenny Clabaugh has gotten many a rodeo cowboy out of a jam a time or two. Just doing my job, he'd likely say, if the stoic rancher from Arvada were to say anything at all.
In a sport where the job of the pickup man is done best when it is largely unnoticed - like a good baseball umpire behind the plate - Clabaugh's work was the kind most appreciated by his peers, mostly invisible to fans.
Incidentally, pickup men in a rodeo are the ones who assist roughstock riders from their bucking horses after an eight-second ride.
The ultimate recognition came March 27 when Clabaugh was announced into as part of the 2023 class of inductees to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, along with 11 other athletes. It was a fitting way to cap off a three-decade career that was highlighted by seven trips to the National Finals Rodeo in 1983, 1986-88, 1990-91, and 1994.
Well-wishes and congratulations poured in from multiple sources last week including U.S. Senator from Wyoming Cynthia Lummis who posted on her socials: "Congratulations to Arvada native Kenny Clabaugh on being named a Class of 2023 ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee! Rodeo has long been a tradition of Wyoming and throughout the west, and Kenny is rightfully being recognized as one of the best to ever do it."
What is a pickup man?
Okay, a quick Rodeo 101 for those who don't know a barrel racer from a clown in a barrel. A pickup man is one of two mounted cowboys who swoop in after a roughstock ride involving horses-bareback and saddle bronc-and do two things.
If the rider is still aboard, they help him off by riding in close and allowing the contestant to grab on, climb aboard, whatever they have to do to get off the 1,200 pounds of bucking bronco and get safely to the ground.
Pickup men are also tasked with getting the flank strap off the equine athlete and making sure that horse gets out of the arena via the proper exit.
Pickup men need to have excellent riding skills. They are also usually expert ropers as well. Their mounts have to be calm enough in chaos but aggressive enough to show no fear getting alongside a horse that is bucking furiously.
A pickup man could also be a woman thanks to cowgirls like Jess Cardon, who are breaking the gender barrier.
Finally, unlike contestants, pickup men are considered admin or staff of sorts. Similar to announcers, clowns, timers, judges, and the rest, pickup men draw a regular paycheck for their work where rodeo contestants pay an entry fee in hopes of winning big paydays.
One of the best
The unteachable skills a pickup man needs most are timing and intuition. They come with experience. For hands like Clabaugh, they seemed to come naturally. As he often said, Clabaugh could see the wreck coming before it got there.
"I like what I'm doing. It's a constant challenge to make the worst scenario in the world become a smooth transition,"
Clabaugh said in a mid-90's interview with well-known South Dakota rodeo sports writer Gordon Hanson. "You learn to see the wrecks coming, and getting to the right place at the right time is what makes the difference."
Like most rodeors, Clabaugh put plenty of miles on his pickup truck while traveling to various events. But most of his work during the season took place at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota for the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo where he picked up with longtime partner Steve Sutton for nearly 30 years.
Clabaugh also worked the Cody Nite Rodeo and many others in the region.
Clabaugh credits Montana cowboy Charlie Hahnkamp for teaching him the ropes and helping him break into the tight knit fraternity of pickup men. Clabaugh, in turn, gave a leg up to longtime rodeo pickup man and fellow Arvada resident Don Malli in the late '80s.
Clabaugh retired from rodeo work in his early 50s, and lives and works on his ranch in Arvada.