TWIN GROVES — Wefus Tyus, 46, of Twin Groves grew up on a dairy farm with horses, but he said he got bored just trail riding.
“I started looking and seeing what everybody else was doing,” he said. “I figured out everybody else was rodeoing around here.”
First, he tried riding bareback on bucking horses.
“I figured out pretty quick I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “About the third time I tried to do it, I cracked some ribs. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.”
He asked older cowboys for advice on “what would be the easiest thing.”
The answer: “Steer wrestling, because you didn’t have to own your own horse,” Tyus said.
“That just blew me over; that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
He wanted to jump off a horse, grab a steer’s horns and wrestle it to the ground, barehanded.
Steer wrestling is also called bulldogging, and Tyus said he is one of the older wrestlers in the state and probably the only African-American.
“I’m the oldest bulldogger around here,” Tyus said. “All my buddies are younger.”
“I started later in life. I didn’t start steering till I was 32, 31 or something.”
He went to see Steve Williams of Greenbrier to learn.
“He was like, ‘You’re a little bit too old to be starting this, ain’t ya?’”
“I said, ‘I feel like I’m in pretty good shape,’” Tyus said.
“I was pretty athletic — played basketball, baseball [at South Side Bee Branch High School].”
Williams, 51, laughed when he recalled his first interaction with Tyus.
“I said, ‘You’re awful old to be taking those licks,’” Williams said. “He came out, and we started bulldogging, and he’s done real well. He’s been very successful.”
Williams, who teaches welding at Pulaski Technical College, used to steer wrestle and has taught the skill to countless others.
He said Tyus’ personality is perfect for the sport.
“He’s athletic and determined — he’s a very determined person,” Williams said. “When he sets his mind on something, he’s going to make it work.”
Williams said other steer wrestlers were surprised to see a black man when Williams and Tyus started making the rounds together.
“There are black bull riders; he’s the only black steer wrestler,” Williams said. “Guys didn’t know what to think of him at first when I started bringing him around; it was just something different.
“They accepted him; he’s well-respected.”
Williams said Tyus earned a lot of respect and gained self-confidence when he won the 40-and-over steer-wrestling division at the annual Duvall’s Steer-Wrestling Jackpot in Checotah, Okla., dubbed the Steer-Wrestling Capital of the World.
“There are a lot of previous world champions. It was way out of our league for an amateur cowboy from Arkansas. When he won that, that gave him the confidence to do bigger and better things. He won it twice,” Williams said.
“Younger guys, they teased me all the time when I learned how to steer-wrestle. ‘You’re just so athletic,’” Tyus said they’d tell him.
“I was doing things that probably weren’t normal for bulldoggers to do, but I was making it happen,” Tyus said. “When you’re riding your horse up to the steer, you’re supposed to start getting off before you reach the steer’s head.”
Another person on horseback, a hazer, is on the other side to keep the steer straight “so the steer won’t duck out from under you,” he said.
Tyus said he’s been told, “Man, I’m over here hazing for you, and it looks like you’re ready to ride by,” and at the last second, Tyus said, he jumps off onto the steer.
These steers are usually 450 to 600 pounds, he said.
“As soon as they land on their side and all four feet are kicked out to the side, the time stops,” Tyus said.
“This is not a sport for the timid,” Williams said. “It takes something special inside a person — or lack of something — to get off a horse going 30 mph.”
Asked if he’s ever been gored by a steer, Tyus laughed.
“Not that I want to talk about,” he said.
“I haven’t broke any bones; I’ve been pretty blessed. I’ve knocked a couple of teeth loose, got a few cuts and scrapes,” he said.
Tyus has trophies in his living room, but he doesn’t know how many times he’s won at bulldogging.
“I’ve won quite a bit in my life,” he said.
He’s won trophy saddles at the end of the year doing the finals, or a jackpot.
The biggest cash prize he’s won was $4,000, he said.
His most recent competition was about four weeks ago in Benton, but he didn’t place.
“Especially this time of year – winter rodeos — is a good time to train horses,” he said.
“[Winter rodeo is] just something to do to get young horses going. I sold the horses I was training back in September, and I had to start all over,” he said.
A heavy-equipment operator, Tyus steer-wrestled professionally for about five years. He didn’t buy his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card last year, he said, because he sold his horses and is training a new one.
A horse trained for steer wrestling has to be special, Tyus said.
Williams said that’s something else special about Tyus — he has a “special talent” for picking the right bulldogging horse.
“He has really picked some nice horses,” Williams said.
Williams said some kids were coming to his arena in Greenbrier to train, “and they had a little mare that was an absolute idiot — she tore up every bridle they ever brought. … He traded them an old roping horse for this old mare,” Williams said. He told Tyus he thought he was crazy. “He said, ‘No, I think she’ll make a good bulldogging horse,’” Williams said.
“Probably six months later, she turned out to be a nice horse. I don’t know if he’s got a gift or has [just] been very lucky,” Williams said.
“It’s looking at a horse and seeing how he’s built and seeing what his temperament is,” Tyus said. … “It’s hard to explain what you’re looking for in a horse. They have to be kind of crazy; they have to be a little wired up. A good, trained horse that doesn’t have a lot of spirit ain’t gonna work.
“They’re the animal that you ask to give you 100 percent every time you back up in the box. They have to run as hard as they can past the steer.
“If it wasn’t for training these horses, I probably would have eased out of steer wrestling because it’s pretty hard on the body.”
Tyus said steer wrestling isn’t as popular in Arkansas as it was once.
“When I first started, there were a lot more steer wrestlers than there are now,” he said. “They’re getting kind of elite; not as many people steer-wrestle around here as they used to. There are 15 guys around here in the state of Arkansas that do it pretty regular.”
Tyus has started team roping, too.
“You have a header and a heeler in team roping, and I’m a header,” he said. “I rope the steer and turn him to the left, and the heeler comes in behind him, and he’ll rope the back two feet.”
Tyus is not the only one in the family who rodeos. His wife, Denise, barrel-races, and three of their four children rodeo.
He said the one he might turn the reins over to is his stepson Denell Henderson, who is on a basketball scholarship at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa.
“He’s pretty handy at [bulldogging],” Tyus said.
Tyus said he’ll keep his bulldogging horses at least until Henderson gets out of school.
“I’m planning on sticking with it a few more years,” Tyus said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.