article-image“Again the Reaper has visited the corral…” (all photographs by the author unless noted)

“If there is a hoss heaven, please, God, rest his soul.” So concludes one of the rodeo animal epitaphs in the gardens of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. The 18 acres of the museum — formerly known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame — are leafy and calm, with sporadic statues of western scenes, accented by a monumental metal Buffalo Bill riding a rearing horse, his rifle aimed to the sky. Dotting this landscape are tombstones and memorials for great bulls, horses, and even a longhorn. 

The place doesn’t announce itself as a cemetery, and you have to stop to read the monuments for Poker Chip the rope horse, Hells Angels the bucking bronc, and others to find out it’s the final resting place of a small herd of animals. There’s Midnight the “great bucking hoss” remembered with that epitaph above, and 5 Minutes to Midnight, another bucking bronco and “cowboy’s pal.” Quarter Horse Baby Doll Combs — a famed bulldogger, meaning a horse that would ride up to a steer so its cowboy could leap off and wrestle it by the horns — was originally buried at her owner’s ranch in a huge funeral covered by Life magazine, and later reburied at the museum. There’s also Abilene, or “Abi,” a Texas Longhorn given to the museum in 1967 by an Oklahoma businessman. The 2,100-pound steer became the museum’s mascot, lumbering through area parades, attending rodeos and community events, and greeting the public from a pen at the Cowboy Hall of Fame. According to his plaque: ”Abilene’s magnificent size and appearance made him a tremendous public relations ambassador.” After he passed on in 1970, he was interred in the garden. 

article-imageAbilene the steer (via)

article-imagevia Denver Post

Other animals are buried elsewhere and remembered with cenotaphs, some hanging from wooden signs, others embedded in big mounds of stone. They include the “Great Cow Pony” Baldy, buried in 1961 at the Jake McClure Arena in Lovington, New Mexico, and the famed bucking horse Tipperary buried in Buffalo, South Dakota (it seems no matter how many men they hurtled to the ground, cowboys have a soft spot for the untamed spirit of the bucking broncs). 

But the greatest of all, at least in legend, may be Tornado the bull. Weighing in at 1,500 pounds, the red and white bull was believed to be unrideable. He threw 220 competitors until December 1, 1967, at the Oklahoma City National Finals Rodeo, Freckles Brown went for an eight second ride on the cyclone of fur, hoof, and horns. Tornado later retired, dying at 15 years old in 1972, and he’s now buried at the museum. As for Freckles, he’s interred in Hugo, Oklahoma, in Mount Olivet Cemetery, alongside the showmen’s rest there, with Tornado etched on his own grave

article-imageFreckles Brown riding Tornado (via Cowboys & Indians)

article-imageMemorial for Tornado the bull

article-imageGrave of Midnight the bucking bronco

Cenotaph for Steamboat, the bucking bronco & symbol of Wyoming

article-imageDetail of the cenotaph for Steamboat, the bucking bronco & symbol of Wyoming

article-imageMarker for Hells Angels — the “Great Bucking Horse”

article-imageGrave of Baby Doll Combs

article-imageMemorial for Poker Chip the rope horse

article-imageCenotaph for Elijah the Pack Horse

article-imageFrederick Remington’s “Coming Through the Rye” at the entrance to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum gardens

The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is at 1700 NE 63rd Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.