Big Dreams, Big Accomplishments: Deb Greenough and the NFR
for Tri-State Livestock News
Deb Greenough’s earliest memories are of his family’s ranch in the mountains above Red Lodge, Montana. The son of Billy and Alice Greenough, Deb’s recollections are vivid with color, sounds, smells and the feelings that lit the fire to chase a dream all the way to Vegas.
“I was maybe three or four one spring when we were branding,” Deb said. “It was pretty cool and chilly and I remember sitting there with my mom, just watching and taking it all in. One of the cowboys came up and offered me a tender morsel. I ate it; it was good! So good I wanted more. It was a calf fry!
“They were letting the calves up as they worked them and one of they guys asked me, ‘Do you want to ride him when he gets up?’ I said I did, so they put me on one, told me to hang on tight, asked if I was ready and let him go. I can still feel it and remember how all the muscles in his body were hard and feel how he jumped up. Of course I fell off and was embarrassed, and I put on a crying act. My dad didn’t have much sympathy. ‘You’re all right,’ he said. ‘If you’re going to cry you can’t do this,’ and he turned and walked away.
“This caught my attention, and I dried up and went over to him and told him I wanted to ride one again. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You’re just going to fall off and cry about it again.’
Even at my young age those words lit a fire in me and I resolved I would ride one again. That desire never left me.”
The spark that was kindled that day— amid the smells of frosty sagebrush and branding smoke, the sounds of bawling calves, the taste of a ‘Rocky Mountain Oyster’ and the feeling of a lively calf bucking under him— lit a determination to chase a dream.
That dream took time to mature, and Deb found plenty of setbacks and struggles along the way. The summer between his fifth and sixth grade years, he planned to enter a steer riding competition in a Little Britches Rodeo. His dad helped him prepare, braiding him a hand rope to use and coaching him on how the ride would go on the living room floor.
“’Do you understand how to do it?’ He asked me. ‘Sure I do,’ I said, ‘But if I have any more questions when the time comes you’ll be there, right?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’ll be in the stands.’
“We got there and I was standing around holding my makeshift gear bag waiting for Dad and Mom to sign me up and for Dad to get his judging paperwork in order. I saw them coming back toward me, saw Dad say something to Mom and she got a real sad look on her face. He kind of shrugged, like he couldn’t do anything about it.”
Deb was to learn that the rodeo staff wouldn’t let him enter because his dad was judging and they didn’t think it would be fair to the other kids competing. There he was all ready to ride again and again he was told, ‘No.’ But instead of discouraging him it only fanned the flames and solidified his determination. He was going to ride again.
The next summer, Billy decided to forego judging so that Deb could compete without anyone questioning the situation. Deb was entered in a youth rodeo in Billings and behind the chutes met a little wiry fellow who would become a lifelong friend and mentor.
“’Do you need help?’ He asked me. It was Clint Branger, a highly respected bull rider who would later be one of the founders of the PBR. Nobody made bull riding look easier than he did. We became lifetime friends.”
Through junior high and high school the family went to a handful of youth rodeos each summer, Deb riding rough stock and his sister running barrels. College wasn’t really on Deb’s radar when he was finishing high school, but he was offered a scholarship and his mother told him he was going to accept it and go to college.
The next four years were spent in Powell, Wyoming, at North West Community College, with rodeo legend Ike Sankey as his coach and mentor.
“I owe a lot to Ike,” Deb said. “He was a great coach and he had a great string of horses and bulls. He had me working all three roughstock events through college. He was not the type to give you a pat on the back but he would lay it all on the line.
After college Deb got his permit and hit the road. Just the sight of the PRCA logo would take him back to those frosty mornings on Sage Creek in his childhood. But it was a long road to glory.
“The PRCA gives out the ‘Rookie of the Year’ award to the rookie in the top money, but if they gave it to the true rookie, I would have won it,” Deb laughed. “I messed up so much that first year.”
That was 1986. Deb had a lot of growing up to do, but by the end of 1987 things were starting to click.
“I finally started kind of making it,” he said. “I was able to go to Regina, Saskatchewan, with Clint Branger who was riding bulls and Collin Murnion who was also riding bareback horses. I was winning it when we left early so they could get on the road to Las Vegas; they were both qualified for the NFR that year.
“It was early in the morning, and still dark when we got back to Laurel, Montana and they dropped me off where I’d left my pickup. I watched their tail lights fade away as they hit the interstate to head south and I made a promise to myself sitting there in that cold pickup with the defrost trying to clear my window; next year I was going all the way to Vegas with them.”
Deb kept that promise to himself, qualifying for the NFR for thirteen consecutive years from 1988 through 2000. He won the average in 1992, the world title in 1993, and the Coors Fans Favorite Cowboy award in 1992, as well as nine consecutive top five finishes in the bareback riding. He was also Montana’s Pro Circuit Bareback Champ seven times (1991, 1993-1999) and three-time Dodge Circuit National Finals Champion (1995, 1996, 1999).
When asked what it took to rise to the top in a sport that involved a lot of the ‘luck of the draw,’ Deb said that passion, focus, humility, good horsemanship and the people around you make a difference.
“If you’re around people who have a good attitude and a good work ethic, who are winners, you can’t help being more like them. Conversely, if you’re always complaining about life you’ll probably end up with a lot of other complainers.
“I took a lot that my dad taught me about horsemanship with me to the chutes; your attitude in the chute makes a difference in what happens when you come out on that horse. I drew a mare of Reg Kessler’s one time, a good mare called Spitfire. I had her ready, but she was squatting in the chute and kept putting her head down. I kept trying to get her to pick it up. Reg hollered at me, ‘Nod your head, Sonny!’ so I did and out we went, and I had a great ride. I learned that horses have different ways of getting in position to be ready when they come out of the chute, just like an athlete preparing for the 100 meter run gets into position to be ready to take off. A lot of times you have to work with the horse, in a sense, to get the best ride, no matter what horse you draw.
“When you have a passion for something you can overcome a lot,” he said. “I rode 170-180 horses a year and I was thinking about it all the time. When I wasn’t rodeoing I was ranching: going to brandings, riding colts with my dad: always learning more about horses. Bucking horses have individual personalities just like saddle horses do. If I wasn’t in the money it generally meant I was too cocky and got to thinking I knew it all and wasn’t giving the horse a chance.
“That sense of gratification you get when you’re so in tune with your horse, and you get that timing down, that’s what gives you that addictive rush, when everything’s so smooth and you’re really a team.”
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