By Stanford Moore
They say when a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has already been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work. They risk their lives for us all while working in some of the worst conditions imaginable. Yes, all men are created equal, but a few of them go on to become firemen. That toughness and bravery comes from deep within, but Mr. Thaddeus Heard has an edge. Heard applied the same courage he faced growing up around horses to a career with the Atlanta Fire and Rescue and a standing career in rodeo as a steer wrestler. Black Reins caught up with him off the road just after a rodeo.
Mr. Heard, tell us about you journey from being a fireman to becoming a well-respected cowboy
I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I retired from the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department where I served for over 30 years and now I’m able to pursue my rodeo dream. I’ve always had a thing for rodeo and horses. I got started a bit late with rodeo due to the fact that I didn’t put myself around positive people.
Back around 1994 I went to this one particular rodeo where we were trying to get back into the arena just after we had ridden in the grand entry. This guy stopped us and wouldn’t let us in. So, the first thing out of my mouth was “Hey man, we are cowboys. We’re trying to get into the rodeo.” He stopped us and said “Look, y’all are not cowboys. Y’all are just a bunch of guys running up and down the street on horses.” It pissed me off that he said it, but then later when I was talking to my buddies I said, “You know, this guy was telling the truth. We run around here and claim this word “cowboy” and we are not doing what cowboys do.” Like he said, we are running up and down the street on horses. We are not doing anything other than just riding in the street. So, I made up my mind that I was going to make a difference. I decided that I would get involved in rodeo and learn what I needed to know. I picked an event and started doing it.
I started out riding bareback horses. After a while it got real demanding on my body and I decided I wanted to change events. I went to steer wrestling where I have excelled way further than I did in bareback riding. It happened to not be as demanding on the body. It might look like it because you’re running at a cow wide-open and sliding off of that horse onto the cow’s back. A lot of guys would take a chance on that bucking horse, but I’m telling you, all of that jerking and putting everything on that one arm, all while that horse is giving you everything it has trying to get you off of its back… After it was over with, I knew it was time to quit because I was sore from my hairline to my toes. I got on one of those horses that was giving its all and I was giving my all to try to stay there and I still got bucked off. On top of that, after it bucked me off I hit the ground real hard. So hard that it ‘bout knocked me senseless. I decided then, that’s it. I can’t do this anymore and changed events. The rest is history.
Tell us about your upbringing and some of your early influences.
I really didn’t have any influences. I would like to say that a lot of my ability was natural. I’ve always had a love for horses. On rainy days I was stuck in the house with all boys. We couldn’t do anything other than play rodeo, which was my idea. We would take turns. I would be the horse one time and my cousin would be the horse another time. We would try to buck each other off. My passion for horses just carried on into my teenage years. I would see a horse and my eyes would follow that horse until I couldn’t see it anymore. I was always fascinated with horses. When I got on with the fire department I finally could afford a horse, so I bought my first one.
I’ve been involved with horses since I was a teenager. I would go by this one particular ranch and I use to pay to go on trail rides. I didn’t always have the money to pay for the ride, so I would hang around and clean stalls. This guy named Jay would come in and see that his horse’s stall had been cleaned. He would ask, “Who cleaned Jay Boy’s stall?” I would just say I did, like it didn’t mean nothing. He eventually realized that I wasn’t out there for a free ride. He then started to take us to the sale with him. We didn’t know that we had become crash dummies. We were just glad to get on some horses. They would tell us to get on different ones to see how they moved. Now I know what moves they were talking about. They wanted to see if the horses would buck. We didn’t care. We were just glad to be able to get out there riding horses. Jay used to rodeo. He was out of Mississippi.
As far as rodeo, John Johnson was the guy that really inspired me. I went to a rodeo one-time and I would always hear Jay talk about rodeo, but I had never seen it. As soon as I walked in the arena I heard the announcer call ‘John Johnson’. Here this guy is that I’ve seen ride bareback before, so I knew he could ride really good. I looked around and seen this guy kicking his heels up so high I could see the backs of his thighs. He was spurring. I said to myself, “Man, that’s Jay.” After watching that I was really inspired about doing something in rodeo, but I still had that fear of an actual horse bucking me like that. It took me a few years before I decided to do it.
There are a lot of young trail riders out there today and young cowboys. How do you feel about the next generation of young cowboys?
Well, you have two different types of people. Some of those guys that trail ride refer to themselves as cowboys. I look at it like the first time the guy told me, “Y’all are not cowboys. Y’all are just guys that ride horses.” I couldn’t accept that at first, but when I really thought about it, he was telling the truth. A lot of guys today claim that word ‘cowboy’, but they’re just horse owners. Some are quick to say, “I’m a horse trainer or I’m a cowboy.” All they do is jump on a horse to get the buck out of him.
As far as training, it goes way further than the word “Trainer”. I find that a lot of these guys are too heavy in the hands. They want to tug and wonder why these horses fight so much. They are not teaching them a good foundation from the start. You can’t do it all in one day. If you lay a good foundation on your horse first, it makes it a whole lot easier to teach them on the backend. Here’s an example of a guy that has earned the right to call himself a cowboy/trainer, and that’s Sheldon Akins. Sheldon will put a good handle on a horse.
Being a well-known farrier in the Metro Atlanta area, what are some of the things to look for in hoof care for today’s horse owner?
You have to really stay on top of hoof care with horses. If I come out and recommend for you to have me back out in six weeks, you shouldn’t wait three months. If I would have to make a living shoeing horses, I would need about 300 customers because some people are not trying to see me that often. I try to keep my prices low enough not to run my customers off. You may find cheaper, but with me you’ll get quality. There’s a lot of guys that can put shoes on, but they lack the farrier skill to recognize problems. It’s not that they are trying to hurt the horse, but sometimes they aren’t properly trained and don’t know. All it takes is for some of them to pick up a book and flip through the pages. Once you get it, no one can take it away from you.
How is the Rodeo Circuit going for you today?
I just got back from Oklahoma City and Phoenix Arizona for the Arizona Black Rodeo. Then I came back to Oklahoma and was out there for a week doing some shoeing and trimming horses for a friend of mine. I don’t rodeo for a living, but I truly love the sport.
What are some of the responses you get as you travel the country as a cowboy?
I actually get a lot of looks, especially from women as I go through airports. As I went through security this one woman saw me take off my boots, buckle, hat and jacket while she was standing at the end of x-ray looking at me. When I got to her she finally asked, “What do you do?” I said, I’m on my way to a rodeo. She said “A rodeo? You mean you ride horses?” I said yes, I compete in a rodeo where horses buck and I steer wrestle. She stood there looking and wanted to know more about it. Basically, she had backed up the line trying to interview me. So, I opened my phone up really quick and showed her a picture of me steer wrestling, catching the steer by the horns. Her response was, “You must be really strong.” She saw me throwing a 500lb steer around, not knowing that it’s all about technique more than strength.
For the young people that would like to get involved in steer wrestling, what preparation advice would you give them?
I was a fire fighter for 30 years. Being a fire fighter you are required to be in shape. I would tell young cowboys to get in shape because the demand on your body is great. You’re going to take a lot of falls. My years as a fire fighter and working out has really helped me.