REDMOND — Steven Peebles wanted to push on across Montana that night to Billings so his traveling partner could catch his flight and make it to the St. Paul Rodeo in Oregon the next afternoon. The problem was, unbeknown to both Central Oregon cowboys, Peebles’ lungs and chest were filling with blood and he would be dead within minutes had Brian Bain not made the quick decision to whip the van around on the freeway and race 10 minutes back to Livingston.
Bain sensed that something was wrong. Peebles, of Redmond, had just scored an 86 to win the bareback competition at the Livingston Roundup Rodeo, but instead of being in a celebratory mood he was “white as a ghost” and kept telling Bain how tired he was.
“We always joke about it, but traveling partners, we know them better than our significant others,” says Bain, of Powell Butte. “We’re stuck in a vehicle with them for six months out of the year. I just had that feeling that it wasn’t the normal Steven, scoring 86 and winning the rodeo and everything, usually there’s some smack talking and stuff like that, and you could just tell he was hurt.”
Bain’s decision not only likely saved Peebles’ life, it gave Peebles the extra motivation he needed to make a surprisingly fast return to rodeo, qualify for his seventh National Finals Rodeo and win the bareback world title last weekend.
He earned $234,054 at the 10-day NFR, and along with the coveted champion’s gold belt buckle came a new Dodge Ram truck for claiming the most winnings of any finals contestant.
But before the 26-year-old Peebles could accomplish any of that, doctors in Bozeman, Montana, would have to save his life on July 2.
After finishing his winning ride at the Livingston Roundup, Peebles’ right hand came out of his rigging and he was bucked off the back of the horse, landing hard, flat on his back. As doctors would later discover, his broken ribs punctured an artery, and blood was pouring into his lungs.
The Peebles file
Name: Steven Peebles
Ht-Wt: 5-11, 178
Joined PRCA: 2008
Career earnings: $1,072,216
World titles: One
NFR qualifications: 7 (2009-15)
Dizzy and lightheaded, Peebles wanted Bain to drop him off at a hospital in Billings — more than 100 miles away — so Bain could continue on to the next rodeo. Peebles thought he had suffered only broken ribs.
“He did save my life,” Peebles says of Bain. “I was pushing him to go. I didn’t want him to miss his flight over me going to the hospital for just broken ribs. He’s definitely a blessing of a friend. The rodeo mentality is to tough it up and go, so who knows who else might have been there?”
Doctors in Livingston began pumping blood back into Peebles, then put him in an ambulance to Bozeman, because the Livingston facilities did not have the technology to repair the damaged artery. His blood pressure was dropping and blood had filled 80 percent of his lungs.
Peebles says he prayed hard in that ambulance, vowing to God that if he was allowed to live he would go after a world title as hard as he could.
Bareback riders endure more abuse, suffer more injuries and carry away more long-term damage than any other rodeo cowboy.
To stay aboard the horse, a bareback rider uses a rigging made of leather and constructed to meet safety specifications. The rigging, which resembles a suitcase handle on a strap, is placed atop the horse’s withers and secured with a cinch.
As the bronc and rider burst from the chute, the rider must have both spurs touching the horse’s shoulders until the horse’s feet hit the ground after the initial move from the chute.
As the bronc bucks, the rider pulls his knees up, rolling his spurs up the horse’s shoulders. As the horse descends, the cowboy straightens his legs, returning his spurs over the point of the horse’s shoulders in anticipation of the next jump.
A bareback rider is judged on his spurring technique, the degree to which his toes remain turned out while he is spurring and his willingness to take whatever might come during his ride.
Source: Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association
By the time he reached the hospital in Bozeman, Peebles was choking on blood and struggling to breathe.
“They had a whole team of doctors and they went to sticking hoses in me and draining blood as they were sticking new blood in me,” recalls Peebles, sitting at a kitchen bar in his house that sits on five acres on the western edge of Redmond. “They said the next morning that I was 10, 15 minutes away from dying. They didn’t think I was gonna live. The one doctor came in and said, ‘Just so you know, that was my record time for putting a camera in somebody and getting an artery clogged off. I did it in less than 15 minutes. I just wanted to come in the room and let you know that. We didn’t think you were gonna make it. Somebody’s watching out for you because you’re a miracle.’”
After spending six days in the hospital, Peebles returned to Redmond to start the recovery process. But after a few days, he was readmitted for a three-day stay at St. Charles Bend, where another 3 liters of blood were drained.
Doctors urged Peebles to take three months off the rodeo trail to recover.
“I couldn’t accept that,” he says with conviction, his eyes unblinking under his black cowboy hat. “I wouldn’t be able to make the finals.”
Peebles returned to action just six weeks later, with Bain by his side. He started out with a grueling five rodeos per week, making up for lost time to climb in the world standings.
“My family was scared, everybody was scared,” Peebles recalls. “They didn’t want me to go. Brian said as long as you feel like you’re ready, let’s go. I said, ‘I’m ready, buddy.’”
Peebles eventually qualified for his seventh straight NFR by reaching the No. 14 world ranking. Only the top 15 qualify for the NFR, the world’s richest and most prestigious rodeo.
“That was a pretty good feeling,” Peebles said. “I squeaked in there. That was the most painful comeback I ever had. Everything was inflamed and going nuts.”
But this was hardly Peebles’ first comeback. He had placed in three rounds of the 2011 NFR before missing the last five rounds with a broken right leg and torn ligaments in his right ankle. At the 2014 NFR, he arrived in Las Vegas second in the world behind Utah’s Kaycee Feild. They battled back and forth, but then Peebles suffered a broken back in the third round. Feild would go on to win his fourth world championship, while Peebles was left wondering what might have been.
“So just being that close … it seemed like the last few years I’ve been right there and it just ain’t hit,” Peebles says. “This year, I couldn’t wait to get back in them shoes and battle it out with Kaycee again.”
Fast-forward to the 2015 NFR earlier this month, and Peebles was ready to go up against Feild once again.
Peebles had dreamed about winning a world championship ever since his uncle Bob Sailors, a former rodeo cowboy, introduced him to Bobby Mote, now a four-time world bareback champion and a former longtime Central Oregon resident.
Peebles, the second of three sons, was 14 when he moved with his family from Salinas, California, to Redmond and met Mote. Sailors had already taught Peebles how to rope and all the ways of the rodeo. But with Mote as a mentor, Peebles would transition with relative ease from amateur high school rodeos to the pro circuit when he turned 18.
Mote offered Peebles a job working on his Culver ranch in exchange for bareback lessons.
“I was pretty fortunate,” Peebles says. “I’d go to school every day in Redmond and then I’d go up to Culver to Bobby’s house and work till dark. We’d then go onto one of his bucking machines. He was always teaching me stuff. I was pretty fortunate to have him from the start. If I started getting bad habits, I had Bobby to keep straightening me out. It didn’t take too long. Four or five years later I was riding at the NFR with him.”
Mote, 39, remembers that Peebles was a quick learner in bareback, but when it came to ranch work, he did not demonstrate quite the same level of commitment.
“I’d tell him to come out at 8 (a.m.),” Mote recalls with a laugh, “and he’d be there at 10 … he was always late. I always told him that you better get good at riding bareback horses because you’re not very good at work. Lucky for him he got good at riding bareback horses.”
Mote says Peebles was “like a machine” when it came to learning how to ride bareback.
“You’d show him what to do and he would do it,” Mote recounts. “He was always tough, a little hardheaded, and determined. Those are all attributes that it takes to be able to do this. He knew what he wanted to do early on and he put in the time and the work.”
Peebles also loved baseball, but as a sophomore on the Redmond High JV team he dislocated his shoulder sliding into third base. He says he wanted to continue playing but his doctor would not clear him.
“I had a rodeo that weekend so I went and won a rodeo,” Peebles remembers with a grin. “It took off from there. Pretty neat when you’re a kid and you come back from a rodeo with a check for $700. I thought, shoot man, I’m rich. I just fell in love with it. I wanted the same thing Bobby did, that gold buckle.”
On Dec. 12 at the NFR in Las Vegas, that gold buckle seemed liked a long shot for Peebles going into the 10th and final round before a sold-out crowd of some 17,000 at the Thomas & Mack Center. He needed a strong performance, and he would need for the top-ranked Feild to stumble.
With the world title on the line, Peebles rode Good Time Charlie to a tie for first place with 83.5 points, while Feild scored just 77 points on Times Up. That gave Peebles the world title and total season earnings of $314,140. Feild finished second with $303,617.
“I just tried to hold it and keep it going,” Peebles reflects.“I knew it would have to be a miracle. … It was a pretty amazing feeling to know I just pulled it off and did it after that battle all year.”
Smothered by decals, the white Dodge Ram truck that Peebles won at the NFR and drove back home to Redmond sits in the gravel driveway near the barn on his property. His gold belt buckle is currently getting engraved, but he happily displays the two new saddles he won in Vegas, one for winning the world championship and one for winning the average at the NFR.
Peebles rented a party bus and a limo to celebrate on the Vegas Strip with friends and family, including his longtime girlfriend, his father, Ken, and his mother, Amy, both also Redmond residents.
Bain, 33, could not be in Las Vegas for the finals because he was nursing a shoulder injury for which he will have surgery next week. But he was overjoyed to watch on television as his longtime friend claimed the world title.
“It was amazing,” Bain says. “I wish I could have been there with him. But circumstances this year … I wasn’t able to make it, but I was so glad, he had done so well early in the year, so after he got hurt he was starting to panic he wouldn’t make the finals.”
When the dust settled after the last round in Las Vegas, Mote, who finished 11th in the world standings despite struggling with a neck injury, shook his protege’s hand and looked into his eyes.
“He said, ‘I just want you to know I’m really, really proud of you,’” Peebles recalls. “It was a lot to hear that from him because I’ve looked up to him my whole life.”
Mote, who had visited Peebles in the Bozeman hospital in July as he recovered, says this year’s NFR was the first time he had ever rooted for somebody else to win the world bareback title.
“I’m super proud of him, and he handled it all really well,” Mote says. “That was a big ride.”
Peebles says he is shooting for four world titles, just like his mentor.
“It’s hard to get one, and it’s even harder to repeat,” Mote says. “He obviously has the ability and determination. I wouldn’t bet against him.”
After he returned from near death to reach the top of the rodeo world, who would?
— Reporter: 541-383-0318, firstname.lastname@example.org