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My Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

Harry Brennan – Father of Modern Day Bronc Riding

The great Earl Thode is often credited with creating the spurring style which is now the standard in Saddle Bronc riding. The spurring motion, fore and aft, from the point of the shoulder to the flanks of the horse was his trademark style. However, if we look back a little further in history (Earl was five-time World Champion in late 1920s and early ‘30s) we find a man using this style around the turn of the last century. Harry Brennan was known as “The Father of Modern Bronc Riding” back when most bronc ridings were still a part of the old Wild West Shows.

Harry Henry Brennan was born in Sheridan, Wyoming March 8, 1881 to Robert Charles Brennan and Annie Davis Brennan. The elder Mr. Brennan had come west from Missouri in 1865 after serving in the War Between the States. He is credited with helping to build Forts Leavenworth and Laramie. He is also said to have spent time hunting and trapping with Buffalo Bill, a connection his sons would later take advantage of.

Harry grew up a cowboy on the Wyoming range. He and his brother, Grover, gained a reputation as being pretty good “bronco busters.”

The Salt Lake City Tribune reported in Harry’s obituary years later, “Prior to 1900 he (Harry) rode the range and took particular pride in being able to ride horses which other men could not handle. It was his favorite pastime to attempt roping feats which proved stumbling blocks for his associates.

“In 1900 Mr. Brennan joined the Colonel William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) wild west show, and with that great western character toured the United States and foreign countries. His trips around the United States were numerous, and he made three journeys across the Atlantic ocean to perform before audiences in Paris, Rome, London and Berlin.”

Harry always insisted his brother Grover was the better bronc rider, however, Grover died young while touring with Buffalo Bill in New York city (a gas leak in his hotel room). It was Harry who eventually became the most recognized bronc rider of the early 1900s.

We should remember these early-day bronc riders had to be tough. Back then, bronc riding sometimes lasted for half a minute or more—until the horse was ridden to a stop.

In those days, men such as Harry and Grover Brennan “worked” for the various Wild West shows as employees. However, it was around the turn of the last century when the idea of having “contest” and giving out prizes and titles such as “World Champion” began to emerge. These were the seedlings that later became Rodeo.

One such contest was the 1902 Cheyenne Frontier Celebration. The Associated Press, Cheyenne, Wyoming reported on September 2, “BRENNAN is CHAMPION. Wyoming Cowboy Gets Belt for Being Good Bronco Rider. Harry Brennan of Sheridan, Wyo., was today declared winner of the bronco riding contest for the world’s championship at the Cheyenne frontier celebration.”

Also in 1902, Harry was crowned “Champion Rough Rider of the World” at the Denver Stock Show. The Denver Republican Newspaper wrote, “In the last ride Brennan was pitted against the wiles of an ugly bay bronco that possessed every movement in the complex repertoire of the bronco. Although the horse bucked him continually in every way, Brennan held his seat as if he were sitting in a parlor chair. Every muscle in his body seemed to be loose and his arms were not extended rigid over the horse, as in the case of the majority of the riders, who strained every nerve to attract the attention of the judges. Then again he manipulated his spurs in a way that rendered it practically impossible for his horse to pitch him off. At one time the horse fell over on him and crushed his foot. The injury failed to make him wince, and he continued to master the brute.”

From 1902 through 1909, Harry is credited with being the World Champion Bronc rider at one show or another each and every year—usually Cheyenne, Denver or New York). (Back then, several shows claimed their winners were “Champion of the World.” Harry is generally accepted as the best, and probably true, World Champion of those years, had they had a scoring system in place like today which recognizes one champion each year.

Another feat he is known for is he was one of only a handful of men to stay aboard the legendary bronc, Steamboat. Some great cowboys who rode Steamboat to a finish besides Brennan were Clayton Danks, Guy Holt, Tom Minor, and Thad Sowder.

When Thad Sowder drew the bronc the first time, Harry reportedly went to him and said, “Sowder, I hear you drew Steamboat, I saw him back at Cheyenne, and he can sure buck. But I tell you this, he bucks high and he lands hard, but he goes mostly ahead. When he turns, he turns mostly to the left. Anyhow, I never saw him turn no other way.” Like most cowboys, Harry wanted to help his fellow competitors be the best they could.

According to rodeo historian, Willard Porter, “Harry was a kind man and a popular champion. It is said that once, after winning $200 in cash and a championship belt made of sterling silver, he cut the belt in two and halved the money with his friend, Tim Minor, who had finished a close second.”

Harry was also instrumental in writing the first set of rules for Saddle Bronc riding used in competitions. They were known as “Cheyenne Rules” and became the blue print for today’s Saddle Bronc rules.

Like many other early-day cowboys, Harry even made movie appearances. Directors generally used Rodeo Cowboys and Wild West performers for cowboy scenes back then. Brennan has these credits on his film resume: Bronco Busting Scene, Championship of the World, a movie where he played himself in 1902 and; Bucking Bronco Contest (Sheridan Contest) a movie where he played himself in 1903.

Harry retired from bronc riding in 1909 and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah where he worked for Coal and Coke Company. Among the most precious of his Wild West and Rodeo days collections were tokens given to him by Colonel William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill).

Harry was married to Eleanor Elizabeth (Edna) Boyer on November 1,1909. The couple had a daughter, Gladys Edna Brennan.

Harry Brennan changed the course of bronc riding forever and will always be remembered as a legend and “The Father of Modern Bronc Riding.” He passed away on November 28, 1922. He was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1979 where a championship belt he won in 1902 is proudly displayed.