The job of a ring man isn't for sissies. I'm not talking about those guys who wear silk ties, eat free barbecue every day and stand outside the ring taking bids at purebred sales. I'm referring to those brave souls who stand INSIDE the ring at your local auction market. To me there's nothing more entertaining than watching an agile ring man match wits with a killer cow. Although the auctioneer usually gets top billing, we all know the real star is the ring man who risks his life so that the show may go on.
I've never seen the ring man profession listed as one of the most dangerous jobs, but I guarantee it's a widow-makin' profession. I've never been to a bullfight either but I doubt it could be as entertaining as watching a daring ring man take bids while opening a gate as a mad bull tries to gore him. Unlike a bullfight, the ring man stands a greater chance of getting killed than the bull. Attend a commercial cattle auction and you'll often see a ring man put himself in harm's way by acting as a decoy merely to get a raging bull or huffy heifer to vacate the premises. I've seen ring men wade into a herd of pairs to sort off a cow and calf without the aid of armor or mandatory ID. I once saw a ring man in Texas walk across the backs of a bunch of steers and I'll never forget the time in South Dakota when a rancher in the crowd asked if the outlaw horse in the ring was broke to ride and darned if the ring man didn't answer the question by hopping on that stumpsucker and giving the crowd a six second answer. I guess not.
There's more to being a good ring man than being half-crazy. Although that certainly helps. If a buyer wants to “take one off” a good ring man knows which animal to sort off even before the buyer does and he can give a gate cut when the whole herd is heading for the exit. The best I ever saw was a friend of mine by the name of Tommy. Tennis Shoe Tommy I called him because he wore manure stained tennis shoes for extra speed and traction. Tennis Shoe Tommy was a ducker and a dodger of unequaled skill, a man among men, with more guts than Buzzard Bill the tallow man. Tommy was an athlete with the agility of an NBA star, only without the attitude. Okay, so maybe he had just a little attitude but that's what made him well worth watching.
Many an old bull had tried to boost Tennis Shoe Tommy over the fence but he was always just fast enough to escape unscathed. He could outrun a hard chargin' cow and jump behind the pipes just as the cow rung her own bell upon impact. Tommy was a born performer and he executed his feats of daring to a cacophony of catcalls from the cow buyers in the cheap seats. Despite his local notoriety I never once saw Tennis Shoe Tommy get swept off his feet or seriously injured.
Although still bold, Tennis Shoe Tommy got old and no longer had the agility to dodge wild animals and outrun crazed cows. Most great ringmen quit when it finally dawns on them that they are risking life and limb and putting on a show for the customers while getting paid the same as the old geezer on the out-gate whose only activity is pulling on a rope and puffing on a cigarette, all while safely planted behind some cement-filled pipes. The only danger the old pro is in is from the cigarettes.
I realize that things must change and the show must go on but can you imagine my dismay when I attended a sale at a brand new, million-dollar auction barn with gates that were opened and closed when the auctioneer pushed a button? There were no ring men and the only creature stirring the animals was a dog running around outside the ring. The dog wasn't getting day-money or workman's comp and I suppose that's what progress looks like. As for me, I'll always cherish those days when a deadly cow would match race a ringman for pink slips, a pointy-horned slaughter bull would get one last stab at immortality, and Tennis Shoe Tommy would show us all that you don't have to die with your boots on to have real cowboy courage.