Australia’s oldest cowboy, 91-year-old Bob Holder, is back in the saddle after four months out of action due to a mystery lung disorder which kept him on oxygen in Wagga Hospital for five weeks.
When The Times caught up with Bob last month at the Cootamundra Rodeo, he was thankfully well on the mend, able to walk around with ease and only needing oxygen at night.
Since then, he’s been back in the saddle at his farm on Gundagai road several kilometres south of Cootamundra, practising every day to be ready for the Myrtleford Rodeo in Victoria on Boxing Day.
Bob said the explanation for his breathing problems was that in late July he suddenly developed what doctors told him could have been ‘frozen lungs’ brought on by a germ or maybe by the fact that he’s been working in dust all his life.
“It came upon me in five minutes and I was down to 30 per cent of normal air,” he said.
“After five weeks in hospital at Wagga I was OK to come home, but I was still on air, day and night, and couldn’t walk as far as 10 feet.”
Since then, under the care of his daughter Kerry who lives nearby, he’s been going to the physio twice a week and exercising at home, and has recovered so well that he can’t wait to get back to rodeo riding again.
With his 92nd birthday coming up in July he says “I’m too young to give it away“ — and although there’s a hint of humour in there somewhere, you know he means it. In addition to doing the Australian rodeo circuit, Bob has been participating in rodeos in the United States for more than half a century, “going north” for three months to follow the American circuit.
“My first trip to the States was in 1959,” he said.
“I represented Australia and was probably the first Australian ever to win money in an American rodeo.”
He was still going there every year until Covid intervened, and is looking forward to going back again after he completes the Australian circuit next year. From his cattle property in Cootamundra he ventures to Queensland for three months, then comes back to NSW, then does South Australia and Victoria and then back to NSW and Queensland again — “It goes in a circle.”
Bob says he would love to see Cootamundra come back to its former place as the location of the best rodeo in Australia, a status he had a lot to do with.
It started, he says, when he was riding in a rodeo in South Dakota, and a friend there who had a big rodeo explained how it had been helped by having a big hill right next to the arena.
“When I came back I said ‘I know where there’s a bloody hill like that’.”
To cut a long story short, he persuaded the Pastures Protection Board to hand over the land that is now the Cootamundra Rodeo Ground.
“They give it to us like that,” he said. “It was a travelling stock reserve called Brook’s Reserve and they handed it over and we built the yards and fences, though they were all timber in those days.”
He stayed on as organiser of the Cootamundra Rodeo for the next 37 years, at the head of a committee which grew larger and larger because the rodeo became so famous that everybody wanted to be on it. “We had sponsors running out of our ears,” Bob recalls.
“Winfield ran it for years, Rothmans, Ampol, Caltex ran it, they just gave us handfuls of money. “I’ll never forget John Meagher (owner of Meagher’s Store where the Woolworths carpark is now) came to a meeting one night and went right up us
because we didn’t ask him for some money,” Bob recalled.
“He said ‘I’ve got money, there’s two thousand pound if you want it’. “When we started running the national finals we were the only ones to run seven finals and our last gate here was 11,344 people (at $1 a head). “There were 27 buses and the carpark was so full at midday we had to pull out the fence of the next paddock, and that got filled up too.
“There were 17 private planes in for the event, and all three levels of the hill overlooking the arena were packed with cars. At night, if you left to get a feed you wouldn’t get back, there were so many people — they came from everywhere.”
Indeed, the event was so successful everyone wanted to be associated with it. “We ended up with a committee of 47,” Bob said.
“Some would come along half drunk and complain that they didn’t want a professional rodeo, they wanted a more amateur one so their kids could ride,” Bob said. “I said there’s plenty of other rodeos around, don’t upset a good one.
“It turned into a vote, and I got beat. I said goodbye and walked out. “I told them there would be a good rodeo off the back of the Australian Professional Rodeo Association, the second one would start to go down and the third one there would be no-one there, and that’s exactly what happened — for the third one there were only 200 people here.”
Despite his obvious disappointment at Cootamundra losing its place in the rodeo sun, he’s very supportive of the recent efforts to revive our local rodeo ground.
“These blokes are trying a different association (the Australian Bushmen’s Campdraft and Rodeo Association, ABCRA) and I’m not knocking them.
“Gary Luck (president of the Cootamundra Rodeo Association) is a good fella and fair dinkum.
“I like the pro rodeos — pro is the way to go if people want to see the best — but these (bushmen’s) people are doing alright and I can’t knock them.
“They poke along. If they want to go pro we’ll go pro again, if they want to stay with this, well we can’t do anything about it” At least, he says, they listen to suggestions.
One of his recent suggestions is that the arena needs new sand, because it has the wrong sand for barrel racing, sand that gives way instead of holding the hind legs of those big heavy horses.
Asked what he likes most about rodeos, Bob replies simply that he loves bucking horses.
“They give me a thrill.
“Bulls are good but I just love bucking horses — I’d walk a mile, in fact I have walked a mile, to ride one.
“It’s like any professional sport, tennis, football, whatever, you never get tired of it.”
Bob’s favourite of all the horses he’s ridden is Satan, a horse who hadn’t been ridden for about three years before Bob challenged him. “I fixed him up. He used to put his head down and give you everything he had, but outside the arena he was a gentle giant.
“I always wanted to ride him, I think he treated it as a game.
“When he became Australian bucking horse of the year I rang them and said if he comes to Coota I’d like to challenge him, and they said ‘right, you’re on’ and they drew me.”
Eventually Satan was bought by a Broken Hill owner who retired him.
“He was a lovely horse, you knew from the time the gate opened until time was up that he wasn’t there to kick, he was there to buck you off.” In fact Bob believes a lot of the older horses realise they’re playing a game.
“They know exactly what’s going to happen when they kick that gate, they’ll jump and kick and do everything to send you off. Some of them are a bit tough but they’re good.
“Whereas with the younger ones, they need to have a couple of victories before they’re right.”
The rules of the game are that a rider must hold on for eight seconds to be eligible for judging.
There is also a “flank”, a little lambswool-covered strap that tickles, but does not hurt, the animals, but they don’t always work.
“If a horse doesn’t want to buck it won’t buck,” says Bob. “I’ve seen plenty come out that are what they call re-rides. But if they do want to buck, the flank keeps them going.”
Although many older Australians despair that we as a nation are becoming more American, in the rodeo business Bob sees it as a good thing.
“It’s getting more and more Americanised every day,” he believes.
“They’re breeding bucking horses now, they never bred them before, and they’re breeding extra bucking bulls.
“They find a cow that can buck, or a bull that can buck, and join them, just like the horses.
“A lot of mares won’t buck but when you get the odd one that does, you join them to a bucking horse.
“We’re importing bucking stallions from America now. “Back in my day they were just wild horses, half of them had never seen a man
“It might take a week to walk to Cloncurry, Longreach or Townsville, they were all station horses, you might never see the same horse again.”
It’s a good thing in his view that we are now following more along the American lines, because it “takes all the rubbish out of it”.
“They’ve made it fair dinkum. You don’t draw a re-ride. You win money if you can ride the horse you draw.”
Bob counts himself as very lucky to have his daughter Kerry close by.
Even though she won the Australian Barrel Racing Championship last year, she chose not to compete this year because she was looking after her dad.. She has a property about a mile away, and in Bob’s view “she’s a good girl”.