No More Empty Saddles: Western Culture Takes a Stand Against Suicide

A horse bucks out of the chutes at Tom Horn Days, scattering the ashes of John Beer, who was aboard this horse a year before. Photo by Sheryl Foland.
No More Empty Saddles

At the 2022 Tom Horn Days, a bucking horse left the chute with an empty saddle. A year before, John Beer had his feet in the stirrups on that horse. In between, Beer died of fentanyl poisoning. A week later, a horse bucked out with an empty saddle at Ride a Horse Feed a Cowboy, for Wace Snook, who died by suicide. Kelten Talbott is another name on the list of cowboys whose premature passing left a hole in the lives of friends and family.

Wyoming and Montana have two of the three highest suicide rates per capita in the United States.

Among those involved in agriculture, this rate is even higher.

The agriculture community and the small communities less likely to have resources to reach people at risk of self-harm and addiction are acknowledging that, and working to improve awareness and provide resources to fight a battle that is often isolating and lonely, until it’s over.

In July, 988 was launched as a nation-wide suicide hotline number. Shortly after, cowboys and cowgirls at Cheyenne Frontier Days wore yellow feathers to increase suicide awareness and prevention.

Tom Horn Days is always a good time in Bosler, Wyoming, where steer ropers and bronc riders and anyone looking for a late summer diversion gather to catch up and watch some arena athletics. This year, the empty saddle for John Beer added a somber note that stuck with Rand Selle, the organizer of Tom Horn Days.

That’s where he got the idea for a support organization by those in the western way of life, for those in the western way of life: No More Empty Saddles.

Beer died of fentanyl poisoning, but his mother says, “addiction is slow suicide.” Talbott’s and Snook’s suicides were directly linked to alcohol abuse.

Selle acknowledged that, and is focusing the network he’s building on both addiction and suicide prevention. Members of the network understand the western lifestyle and its challenges, and will be equipped to help those who struggle within that.

Sheryl Foland is a masters level social worker and licensed clinical social worker who joined the team. During Tom Horn Days, the unofficial launch of the network, Foland counseled at least one person in need, and is now heading up efforts to bolster the No More Empty Saddles support group. The group will be made up of ordinary men and women who come from a western background, who are trained to recognize and respond to signs of suicide crisis.

oming and Montana have two of the three highest suicide rates per capita in the United States. Among those involved in agriculture, this rate is even higher. Fortunately, suicide awareness is on the rise, especially in communities less apt to reach out for help.

In July, a new suicide hotline number was launched for the nation (988). Shortly after, Cheyenne Frontier Days promoted the wearing of yellow feathers for suicide awareness and prevention throughout the week of their rodeo.

Tom Horn Days was Aug. 11-13, a cowboy rendezvous featuring bronc riding and steer roping in Bosler, Wyoming. There, a bronc was bucked with the empty saddle of John Beer, who had ridden the horse the previous year and died in November.

It was from this traditional sendoff that Tom Horn Days producer, Rand Selle, came up with the name of the new organization, No More Empty Saddles. Though the empty saddle will always be a way to honor those who have passed, Selle hopes to lessen the number of saddles made empty by addiction and suicide. Selle has been touched closely by the devastation of suicide, with several of his friends struggling with suicidal thoughts and knowing two other young cowboys that took their own lives in Wyoming in the past year: Kelten Talbott and Wace Snook (whose empty saddle was bucked Aug. 20 at Ride a Horse Feed a Cowboy).

Though Beer lost his life by fentanyl poisoning, his mother states that “addiction is slow suicide.” Talbott’s and Snook’s suicides were directly linked to alcohol abuse. This correlation between substance abuse and suicidal thoughts did not go unnoticed by Selle. He decided to do something about it.

No More Empty Saddles, which unofficially launched during Tom Horn Days, is moving toward becoming a network of support for addiction and suicide prevention, with members steeped in the western industries. The four-person team currently has one Masters Level Social Worker/Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Sheryl Foland.

Not only was she able to counsel at least one person in need during the Tom Horn Days event, she is also heading up efforts to bolster the No More Empty Saddles peer support group, which will consist of regular men and women that are trained to recognize the signs of suicide crisis. “We don’t expect you to be a mental health provider. We want you to sit with that person in that moment with where they’re at. That’s what these trainings provide [..] Those that want to be part of peer support have to be involved in the rodeo and ag industry,” Foland says. One of the first to receive this training will be Selle himself, as well as the other members of the current team. Workshops are hosted by Grace for 2 Brothers, based in Cheyenne. The main premise of NMES will be suicide prevention with a special emphasis on addiction and mental health counseling.

Selle feels that ranchers, farmers, cowboys, and cowgirls will be more apt to reach out to someone who understands the way of life. It is well known that the western culture breeds the mentality of fierce independence and toughness. And while these are valuable attributes, they may leave people without options when it comes to a problem they cannot solve on their own.

Cowboys have a tough time reaching out, but Dougie Hall did when he needed to most. The viral TikTok personality from Browning, Montana shares his blend of wisdom from his native and cowboy lifestyle online, and is loved by many. Yet, he was in a dark place in 2021. The ending of his relationship, financial worries, disagreements with family members, Covid quarantines, and subzero temperatures combined to make the perfect storm of depression for Hall. He phoned a friend who said they were worried he was going to hurt himself. Hall replied, “I feel like I want to.” She then told him to hang up and call the suicide hotline straightaway. “I did, and that therapist stayed on the phone with me for an hour and a half and talked me through the whole situation until I eventually calmed down and went to sleep. That same therapist called me the next morning,” Hall says.

Hall recognizes that the pride of those in the western lifestyle can be an obstacle to getting help. He says, “I know at least a couple of my friends that are cowboys that grew up in the same world as I did and they didn’t reach out for help, and they’re not here anymore.” Making the call to get through a tough time is the choice that saved his life. “It’s okay to not be okay. Feelings are like kids: you don’t want them driving the car, but you don’t want to shove them in the trunk, either.”

Hall has some closing thoughts for those struggling to reach out: “You can’t control people, places, or things. God woke you up this morning because he’s not done with you yet. And it ain’t selfish to be a little selfish. You have to take care of that person in the mirror.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, there are ready sources available:

National Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 988

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

Wyoming AgriStress helpline at 833-897-AGRI

Beyond the Weather (Montana free telecounseling for ag):

No More Empty Saddles:

Dancin’ Dougie Hall is a well known personality online and at professional rodeos. If it weren’t for a concerned friend and the courage to call the suicide hotline, he wouldn’t be here. Jackie Jensen Photo.
“God woke you up this morning because he’s not done with you yet,” says Dougie Hall. Though they are tough, he encourages his fellow cowboys to reach out for help when it is needed. Fallon Wentz Photo

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