Real Cowboys – Real Rodeoin’
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler – Your Tour Guide to Fun!
You don’t have to be born on a ranch to be born as a cowboy or cowgirl. One of the most accomplished ranches in the nation is in Medina County, Ohio. And it was started by a couple – Denny and Eileen Thorsell – who grew up as city kids in Cleveland. That said, they paid their dues in Texas and other western states before returning to the Buckeye State, and so did their kids.
Today, Creekbend Ranch in Burbank, Ohio is home to some of the best bulls and bull riders in the country. But it was a long and dusty ride before these professional rodeos in Northeast Ohio became a part of the largest sanctioned bull riding association: SEBRA (Southern Extreme Bull Riding Association).
Denny fell in love with horses while working the pony rides at the Cleveland Zoo when he was just 11-years-old. He made 25 cents per hour. But it was the symphony at Cleveland’s Severance Hall that led Denny to Texas to become a cowboy. His grandmother bribed him to go to the symphonies with her by buying him magazines at the newsstand, and he always liked the ones about western horses. Donning one of the shiny covers was a rancher named “Pine Johnson.” The 15-year-old Denny wrote Pine a letter. It was answered with a train ticket to Fort Worth, Texas and an offer to work on Pine’s ranch. It would be 20 years before Denny returned to Cleveland to stay. In that time, he worked hard at his passion and became the youngest person to get his American quarter-horse judges card. During his career, he traveled to more than 30 countries around the world as a judge.
Meanwhile, Eileen had the opportunity to spend a summer on a Montana ranch. She was only 10-years-old.
“I loved ranch life. I got to ride horses. It was just wonderful,” said Eileen. “When I came back to Cleveland, I thought, someday, I want to own my own ranch.”
When Eileen was in her twenties, her friend, playing matchmaker, told her that a real cowboy was in town and he was a Quarter Horse trainer.
“I married that cowboy!” laughed Eileen. “I mean, there was no way I was going to meet a cowboy, not in Cleveland anyway, but I did.”
Together, Eileen and Denny would spend all of their married life living just south of Cleveland in rural Medina County. It’s where they raised their five children: Debbie, Deanna, Shawn, Shannon, and Charis.
When Shawn was in high school, he began participating in high school rodeos. To practice, his parents bought some bulls and built a bucking chute (an enclosure where the rider can mount the bull, safely). They soon realized that the bulls that they purchased weren’t of bucking stock.
“If you buy a bull, put up a buckin’ chute, and put someone on that bull, it doesn’t mean it’s going to buck,” said Shawn.
There are different breeds of cattle. The American bucking bull is now a breed of its own. Holsteins are for milking. Hereford, Angus, and others are for beef. Bucking bulls are a performance Bovine. In the bucking bull business, all of the calves are DNA tested by the end of their first year and registered by American Bucking Bull, Inc. (ABBI).
While Shawn honed his bucking bull (and bucking horse) skills, Denny studied bull genetics. It was a discipline that he knew well from all of his years in the quarter-horse industry. After Shawn competed in the high school finals in Pueblo, Colorado, he earned a scholarship to Murray State College in Oklahoma. Shawn’s college roommate was HD Page, from D & H Cattle in Ardmore, Oklahoma. D & H Cattle are the top of the line in this industry. Today, it’s very difficult to get into their breeding program. But through this friendship of families, Denny began purchasing these bloodlines, along with select bulls, to breed. Later, his effort produced bucking bulls that would be recognized as some of the best in the industry.
The Thorsell’s traveled to Las Vegas and around the U.S. to take their special bucking bulls to compete at Professional Bull Riders (PBR) and SEBRA events. At a time when Shawn was still “rodeoing,” they relied on Charis to get them registered for events by phone when every participant had to call the same number within a two-hour window. It was before cell phones, and Charis was just 14.
“Me and my crew or whoever was in the van with us rodeoing depended heavily on Charis to get through on the phone from back home,” Shawn said.
Charis listened to busy signal after busy signal trying to get them entered into various rodeos. It was one particular event, as the crew traveled to Lakeside, CA, that Charis spent hours, late into the night, trying to get through on the phones. She even wrote a country song about the experience of being stuck on the phone for the guys: Tishomingo Surprise. Today, she has several albums for sale, each song inspired by her life’s experiences in this business. Her music is available on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, and other music streaming outlets.
Before Charis moved to Texas, and while Shawn was still out west, she traveled with Denny to bucking bull sales and bull ridings to watch their stock.
“Dad and I would write songs together as we were going down the road,” said Charis. “Those are really special memories.”
Back at Creekbend Ranch, the locals took note of something you don’t see every day: guys riding bulls. Word-of-mouth quickly spread when the Thorsell’s had a crop of three-year-olds to find out how they were going to buck (bull’s don’t get a rider until they are at least three years old).
“We’d make some calls to get a group of bull riders to come out to see what we had,” said Shawn.
When the dust kicked up at Creekbend, people rolled up to the fences with coolers to watch.
“That’s when Mom said we should start charging for this!” Shawn said.
And that’s how Buckin’ Ohio was born.
“When we hosted our first event, we didn’t really know what we were doing,” said Eileen. “Five hundred turned out. And back then, we used straw bales for seating.”
But Eileen had been to enough bull riding events to know what she wanted and didn’t want at hers. The announcer is key because that is the main interaction with the crowd. The announcer’s energy and personality will make or break a show, so Eileen sought the best she knew for her kind of production. The rodeo clown is another key player, and the one at Buckin’ Ohio is a crowd favorite. The night is a delight with his antics and one-liners. Finally, the unsung heroes are the bullfighters. Their job is to keep the riders, and everyone else, safe.
“The bullfighters are for cowboy protection,” said Shawn. “Just the other night they had a couple of great saves!”
After each performance, the family reviews and improves for the next. Straw bales turned into rented bleachers before the Thorsell’s invested in their own grandstands. When the family noticed folks showing up an hour or two early for the shows, they added food truck vendors.
Still, the first five years were a struggle. No profit was made, and everybody wanted to quit.
“My husband and I had a long talk,” said Eileen. “Denny and I decided to bite the bullet and really get serious, and that’s what we did!”
They decided that obtaining sponsors was the way to go, so they sought targeted sponsorships.
“And it was that year that it started to take off,” said Eileen. “We grew smarter and developed better marketing material and sponsorship packets.”
They learned how to gather information and data, and present it to reveal who was coming to the shows, why, and how it would benefit the sponsor. The sponsors soon learned that the engagement and endorsement through Buckin’ Ohio was a win-win endeavor.
Eileen wanted to raise money to build an old western town adjacent to their outdoor arena.
“I had been to Rawhide in Arizona, and it had the coolest old west town. It was just gorgeous!” said Eileen. “I wanted a western town at our events, but we didn’t have the extra money to build the buildings.”
It took her a few tries, but she eventually convinced Weaver Barns to become a sponsor. She guaranteed them that she would sell a building for them during their first year as a sponsor. She sold two buildings. When they asked Eileen what building she was thinking to build to start her old west town, she said it had to be a church.
“Every community starts with a church,” said Eileen. “And that was our first real building that represented the start of our old western town.”
Still, challenges and obstacles bucked these entrepreneurial riders before they really could take the bull by the horns. One of the biggest things to overcome for an outdoor event of this magnitude was Mother Nature herself.
“If we had a rainy day, it would kill us!” Shawn deadpanned. “Last year, a storm came through so big, it was just a flood. But we can’t say, ah, it’s raining, we’re going to melt, let’s stop.”
Shawn walked out into the downpour and saw families huddled in the stands with garbage bags, blankets, and other makeshift rain gear pulled over the top of them. It wasn’t a sparse crowd either. They numbered into the thousands, already.
“Then the rain just quit. People didn’t leave. They just kept coming,” said Shawn. I was like, wow. I mean, there’s such a loyalty here with our community that I feel blessed. I thank our fans for it because I remember when these events would do nothing but cost us money.”
Buckin’ Ohio now has nearly 20,000 visitors come out each summer for the monthly shows.
“When people come to the States, they think America is about cowboys, so they search for rodeos and find us online,” said Charis. “It’s kind of amazing.”
Buckin’ Ohio has attracted guests from England, Australia, Italy, and many other places.
It was a lot of hard work for a very long time, but this is a family that doesn’t know how to quit.
“I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I bust my butt every day to make sure these bulls perform to the best of their abilities,” said Shawn. “We pour our hearts and souls into all of this.”
Shawn has been voted the Stock Contractor of the Year for SEBRA for several years running. His bulls won numerous awards at the SEBRA Finals in Murfreesboro, TN last year. And the Buckin’ Ohio rodeo at Creekbend Ranch has been voted the SEBRA event of the year numerous times over the past few of years.
Yet everything always comes back to the fans.
“This story makes me tear up,” said Shawn. “There’s a little boy named Brantley. He ran out to see his uncle, who was mowing the grass after a rain several years ago. He slipped and went under the blade of the mower and lost part of his hand and foot. Now he wears a brace. But I didn’t know any of this when he came to one of Mom’s mutton bustin’ clinics (where children ride sheep). When I saw this boy fall off and start limping, I asked, ‘What are you limping for?’ I was just trying to pump him up. When he came up to me, I just wanted to crawl into a hole because I saw the brace and that he only had a few fingers. Several years later, this boy was the mutton bustin’ champion. He won a prized buckle. That’s when his dad told me that I was the first person who treated him normal. Now Brantley feels like there’s nothing he can’t do. Being here can be life-changing.”
Shawn told some more stories about overcoming the odds there at Creekbend Ranch. Eileen and Charis had stories of their own about the visitors they’ve been blessed to meet and know.
“One of the things I tell everyone working for us is to pay attention to the people coming through,” said Eileen.
She wants everyone to recognize if there’s a family that looks like they are struggling, a child with a handicap, etc. She wants everyone to look for things that they may be able to do to make a difference in someone’s life, or at least make their time there that much more special. If they give a tee shirt to a kid with special needs, and that kid has siblings, they give shirts to the siblings, too, because Eileen knows that sometimes the child with a handicap gets everything, and their brothers and sisters don’t.
“I grew up in a blue-collar family and I never really went to an event as a kid,” said Eileen. “One time I went to the circus with my class, but I remember what it’s like to not have the kind of money to go to events like this.”
One time, there was a little girl holding a sparkly stone. Eileen noticed and said it was beautiful and asked what the girl was going to do with it. The girl said she was going to see if she could buy and ice cream cone with it. Eileen said it was the best stone she ever saw and encouraged the girl to try. The ice cream vendor didn’t bat an eye and asked the girl what flavor she’d like.
On event day, this rural backdrop fills quickly with incoming cowboys and cowgirls from all over. They are the performers arriving with campers and other vehicles for the rodeo. Then the crowd starts a steady flow through the gate. They stake out their seats, get dinner at the food trucks, listen to a guitar man, and walk through the old west town. Off in the distance are bulls behind fences.
All of the Thorsell’s are present. Shannon, along with her family, greets and assists fans at the information tent and help with preshow activities. Friends of the family volunteer to give tours behind the scenes and do whatever else is needed to help. Dozens of others take to their jobs for the night, tending to every last detail to put on a memorable experience.
First, out of the chute are spectators turned competitors.
Boys and girls ages 5-9 gear up with a helmet and vest to try and ride sheep for six seconds. When one has a good hold, the growing crowd goes wild. Whether the kids are looking for points to win the official Buckin’ Ohio Mutton Bustin’ Series Buckle, or just chasing a dream, it’s action-packed fun for all. The Mutton Bustin’ is sponsored for Royal Wire.
As folks gather in their box seats, bleachers, and grandstand, a golden glow casts itself across the arena. Then, all of the performing cowboys and cowgirls create a line, all dressed in boots, chaps, and hats. The caps are removed, and the cowboys kneel, many holding each other’s shoulders as a prayer is delivered over the loudspeaker. It’s touching. Then, everyone stands for Charis to sing the National Anthem. When it’s over, those red-blooded American roots come alive in everyone. Shawn talks to the crowd about what it’s all about. Eileen gives thanks. Then…
Things get a whole lot more serious when the chutes fill with bulls who can’t wait to buck their riders. The pro bull riders are there to compete and score points to help them qualify to be one of the top-45 guys to go to the SEBRA Bull Riding finals in Murfreesboro, TN in January. Adrenaline fills the evening air, and an electricity connects the riders to the bulls and crowd alike. The most electrifying seats in the house are in what’s called the shark tank. There, brave spectators are inside a reinforced shell in the middle of the arena, in the thick of the action, with everyone thinking, ‘they may be in for more than they bargained.’ Cowboys on horses, bullfighters on foot, and the rodeo clown are all there to separate a thrown bull rider from the buckin’ bull and return that bull to the pen. Now and then, it takes all hands to succeed. And it’s all part of the show.
Between the bull riding rounds, the announcer and rodeo clown continue to engage the audience. There’s no downtime, its pure excitement, and fun from start to finish.
Couples come into the arena for piggyback races only to discover, to the crowd’s delight, that they will be partnering with someone else. Kids enter the arena for stick horse races by age groups. And they come in again for the “boot scramble” where they race from one end to the other and try to find their shoes before they can run back. Meanwhile, the rodeo clown is clowning his best and throws freebies into the crowd between well-timed wise-cracks.
The cowgirls display their mastery of horseback riding in what is called the barrel races. It’s mesmerizing to watch the grace of the riders combined with the agility of the horse, sprinting in a cloverleaf pattern around barrels to try and score the fastest time in the best form. No matter where people are in the stands, they will see amazing horses and riders, both leaning low to complete a 360 degree turn around the barrels. When the course is completed, they ride with the same gusto, into the sunset.
When the dust settles, it’s back to the edge of the seats.
The professional bull riders must ride for at least eight seconds with one hand that is not allowed to touch the bull. Bulls and riders are both scored. Riders are awarded points for constant control, rhythm, balance, timing, and his counter moves and ability to match the bull’s moves. The bulls are awarded points for their buck, kick, spin, speed, and athletic ability. Only the highest marked score of the cowboy gives him a shot to compete in the short-go of the event.
The sun has now set. Under a moonlit sky and dramatic illumination from the overhead lights, the final bull riding of the night is spectacular. The entire place roars, gaining momentum, non-stop.
The announcer captures the climax, screaming into the microphone, “This is what it’s all about!”
When the dust settles, and wild-eyed and grinning crowd funnels out, there is an exuberance weaving everyone together. Echoes from kids age five to grandmas’ age ninety-five (and everyone in between) are saying things to the effect of, “Wow! What a ride!”
But the night isn’t over. The barn doors are open, and Charis and her bandmates are playing the After Party.
The vintage barn is branded with the Creekbend Ranch insignia on its side. It has been beautifully renovated and is available to rent. Gatherings for corporate team building, reunions, graduations, and weddings are booked regularly. These private party groups enjoy the rustic western atmosphere, which may include horse and wagon rides.
Also, the Thorsell’s have added other events throughout the years. Growing in popularity are the bull riding and mutton bustin’ schools, managed at the ranch. School and other group tours may be booked anytime. Two newer events include the Fall Family Fest and Christmas at the Ranch. The Fall Family Fest features live music, old-fashioned hayrides, a chance to meet Bucky the Bull, and more. Christmas at the Ranch is a chance to partake in an old-fashioned Christmas celebration. It includes a live Nativity, carols, wagon rides, and a stroll through the Christmas Village to a bonfire, complete with hot cocoa and marshmallows.
It’s been a long and dusty ride, but the Thorsell family persevered to achieve their American dream.
Not a bad legacy for a couple of city kids who dreamed of being ranchers.
“We lost Denny in 2017, but we know he is riding in the lushest, greenest pastures on best Quarter Horse available in Heaven, smiling down on his family and Buckin’ Ohio,” said Eileen. “We are grateful for the legacy he left for his family.”
For more information about the special events held year-round at Buckin’ Ohio, visit their website at https://buckinohio.com/.
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler – Your Tour Guide to Fun!
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