Pull the gate: ‘Feek’s Vision’ premieres in Ekalaka, Montana
The documentary “Feek’s Vision” premiered last week in Ekalaka, Mont., back where it all began; where the legendary Tooke bucking horses still run today. It’s been a project seven years in the making. Some say that was a long time. But what is seven years to tell a story that has been taking shape for almost a century?
Toby Tooke, great-grandson of Chandler “Feek” Tooke, partnered with director Ken Howie and his wife, Tess Howie, to bring the project to fruition. The film documents the history of the family bucking horse breeding program as told through interviews with rodeo legends such as Larry Mahan, Harry Vold, Deb Copenhaver and Mel Potter, as well as Ernest Tooke, Toby Tooke’s grandfather and the son of Feek Tooke, and narrated by Butch Knowles.
Toby said he’s always been drawn to his family stories. “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” he said, and credits a close relationship with his grandparents, Ernest and Peggy, to his interest in promoting their legacy.
He grew up on the family place near Ekalaka, where Feek and Thelma, then Ernest and Peggy, and today his parents, Tim and Sandy, ranch and raise horses. He did all the ranch work, played sports for the Bulldogs, and rodeoed – once. “I entered one rodeo. It was a youth rodeo and I got on a steer and came out of the gate and ate dirt and realized there are a lot better ways to make a living.”
The tattoos and earrings that came later didn’t keep him from maintaining an extraordinarily close relationship with his grandparents. “But when it came time to start work on this film, I told Grandpa we were going to have to do some stuff like filming that he might not want to do. He grabbed my earrings and said, ‘You take these out and we’ll be fine.'”
Toby pulled the earrings and they never went back in. And his grandpa worked tirelessly with him on the film until he died in 2018.
At Toby’s day jobs in Billings, where he lives, he works for a cable company, is an on-air radio personality and owns a DJ business. He serves on the Montana Pro Rodeo Hall and Wall of Fame board and manages the social media for Tooke Bucking Horses. But his natural curiosity and respect for history was what led Toby to document stories and collect photos to support his great-grandfather’s recognition. As a result, Feek Tooke was inducted into both the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Rodeo Hall in Oklahoma City, Okla., and the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2008. Tooke Bucking Horses was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2020.
When filmmaker Ken Howie started research for a short video on the Tooke horses in 2016 he connected with Toby and quickly realized the bones were there for more than just a video.
Toby’s title on the film team is “historical researcher” but his knowledge and passion for the story were just the groundwork. Of the 53 interviews they conducted for the film, Toby was present and involved in almost all of them. He has invested years’ worth of time connecting with sources, fundraising and doing behind the scenes work – and packing equipment.
“I’m basically just a ‘roadie’ for Ken Howie,” he said. “I can white balance with the best of them and I know exactly how he likes his equipment cords rolled up.”
Toby shared that as he and Howie geared up for the first on-camera interview with Ernest Tooke, Howie told him he didn’t get much sleep the night before, thinking of questions to ask in the interview. As soon as the cameras rolled, Ernest sat down and started talking – and didn’t stop for an hour and a half.
“Our camera finally ran out of juice and as I went to grab another battery, Grandpa stood up and simply said: ‘Nope. I’m done for today.'”
No questions were needed.
The friendships and relationships formed through the project are what Tooke values most. “There are a bunch of legends to me, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I never imagined I would be friends with, people I call and text and who know about Tooke horses.
“And just having people know, this many years later, who (great) grandpa was and what he did. He quit school in eight grade and just wanted to raise bucking horses.” Today the Bucking Horse Breeders Association, which registers DNA to trace bucking horse genetics, estimates that over 90 percent of all their horses registered trace back to Tooke genetics.
Toby was told “Feek’s Vision” may be the greatest rodeo documentary of all time – it will not likely be topped due to the many legends captured on film who are now gone. “Harry Vold, we got his last interview, he died two days later; Deb Copenhaver, Winston Bruce, Jack Brainard, Neal Gay, my Grandpa Ernest, now Larry Mahan … we’ve lost so many. It kind of hits you.”
He also laughed and said as word got around in the rodeo circles about the documentary, people would respond to his requests for an interview: “Oh, you’re the kid people talk to and they die.”
When the production team showcased clips of the film at the 2018 National Finals Rodeo, Toby said the emotions hit hard. “I had just lost Grandpa that year, I’m not sure I was able to get two words in up on stage.”
Toby is proud of the legacies of his family and the horses which, to most, are one and the same. “They’re the best bucking horses in the world,” he said. “I don’t consider it bragging because the story speaks for itself.”
Lori Franzen of Riverton, Wyo., who, with her husband Hank, owns Powder River Rodeo and are 11 time PRCA Stock Contractor of the Year nominees and owners of 2016 Bareback Horse of the Year, Craig at Midnight, featured in the film, said, “Without Feek, none of us would be here. Our bucking horse program and that of most of the premier contractors throughout the nation all go back to Tooke horses.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of foundation breeding that all spirals back to what they did that many years ago.”
And she has nothing but praise for Toby. “What a grandson to take that upon himself and make sure his grandpa has been given the polish that was due – to make people aware where that program started. Not many people take the time and do what he has done.
“There’s no question it was a vision and it was a vision that has come true.”
Feek’s life ended at the 1968 National Finals Rodeo. After accepting a plaque horseback for saddle bronc of the year “Sheep Mountain” he rode out of the arena and died of a heart attack.
Toby’s dedication to the story has resulted in a beautiful film, along with irreplaceable hours of footage from rodeo greats. He has put together the items his great-grandfather had on him when he died, including his chaps, the plaque, and hopefully soon to be, his hat, which is currently at the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
After the premiere, Toby asked his dad what he thought Ernest would say about it. He said, “Dad was proud of the horses and buckles and stuff. But he would have said, the film will live on forever.”
At the premiere last Friday in Ekalaka, where around 400 people (approximately the same population as in the town itself) would show up to celebrate the local story, Toby found himself viewing the finished product for the first time with Ken Howie as they did a sound check. He said the emotions were strong; the culmination of seven years of work rolled on the screen and he watched his family legacy condensed from hours of footage into an hour and a half reel. But then the guests started arriving, and he had to wait to see the end of the film along with everyone else.
To Toby, it’s not about him. It’s about the legacy of the people who came before him, and the people brought together by horses that buck. It’s about his grandparents and the roles they had in making – and then preserving history by following Feek’s vision. And he’ll keep telling the stories.
“If anyone wants to talk bucking horses, I’m willing to talk if you’re willing to listen,” said Tooke.
It must run in the family.