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Todd Pierce tames wild horses. That’s not so unusual for a cowboy from rural Idaho. But Pierce is a preacher, and he does it while delivering a sermon. Here he is in Burr Oak, Neb., a few years ago.
“He’s a wild spirit. Why am I driving him? I don’t want him to settle for a life apart from me. Because, see, what we do in life is we keep runnin', we keep movin', we keep turning away from God. See him turn away from me?”
Pierce has broken horses for audiences in a dozen countries, from Burma to Bolivia. But when I met him last month at the PBR’s season opener in Madison Square Garden, he was there to tame bull riders.
Why do bull riders need taming? Because they’re the rock stars of the rodeo world. For the young men who risk their lives, there’s glory, adoring fans, and big bucks.
It’s obviously dangerous to get on an angry bull 10 times your size. But Pierce says the lifestyle that comes with it is even riskier.
“Most of these men come from very rural areas. And so a kid is 18-, 19-years-old, and he gets on tour. Their first time away from mom and dad is going to Madison Square Gardens in New York or, you know, down to [Los Angeles]. So then you hand the guy a pocketful of money. He could come here and win $50,000. And then you’ve got the women who surround the sport. The, I guess, groupies.”
That’s where Pierce comes in. He partied hard before he became a man of God, and he knows the rodeo life firsthand because he used to be a pro bareback rider. Now he helps the bull riders keep their self-destruction in the arena. Australian Ben Jones is one of his works in progress.
“I’m probably one of Todd’s main examples,” Jones said.
Jones has a reputation as a wild child, and the missing front teeth to match. Last year a bull stepped on him and almost killed him. But the Dancing Aussie is back on tour. After a good ride, he throws off his hat and does a crazy hoedown in the arena, elbows flying to the music as the crowd goes wild.
“Bull riding, I’m not saying it’s easy for me,” Jones said. “It’s more the other side of living bull riding that’s been the hardest thing for me.”
Jones said he’s getting better at dealing with the other side of bull riding. And he said he’s had help putting the hard living behind him.
“Everyone knows I haven’t walked a straight line my whole career, but the last few years since I’ve met Todd I’ve turned it around. And this year I think I’ve finally got it turned around.”
Pierce said he’s there to help riders like Jones. He never liked it when people pushed their religion on him, and he tries not to push his on anyone else.
“When I was rodeoing myself, there were guys out on the road doing what I do, and I found myself, whenever I saw those guys coming, trying to figure out a way to duck off. I think that people can sense an agenda. And I don’t need to fix anybody. I don’t need to convert anybody.”
But the horse-taming demos have given Pierce a way to nudge people in what he considers the right direction. Each one takes about an hour, and every horse is different, so the sermons are unscripted. It all started years ago, before Pierce was a pastor. He was training horses at the time.
“There was one horse in particular," he said. "I’ve got a round pen I’m training him in. He can’t really go anywhere but in a circle around me. It’s about a 40-foot-diameter pen. The horse was running one day and he wouldn’t stop running, trying to get away from me. And I said these words out loud: 'Why are you running from me? I just want to help you.' And when I said those words to the horse, I felt as though it was exactly what God was speaking to me.”
Pierce does his work through a missionary organization called Riding High Ministries. The horse-breaking sermons have made him famous in Christian cowboy circles. But even when he’s standing behind an altar, Pierce is big on animal metaphors. Here he is in a church in Omaha, about six years ago:
“The first time I was here, I spoke about a chicken that thought it was a dog and then we had a horse before that actually thought it was a cow. And I was just sitting there realizing I’ve got nothing to use that way this year, other than a jackass attempting to be a pastor. So that’s gonna be the end of the animal illustrations as far as I know.”
Pierce doesn’t really see himself as a jackass, but he says he often wonders if he should give up his life on the road with the bull riders.
“Maybe even twice a year, I’m reevaluating,” Pierce said. “Because it is very difficult. There’s a ton of financial challenges. I’m away from my own family. It’s a difficult lifestyle. I’m 43 now. You know, I don’t go without sleep as well as I used to.”
But Todd Pierce believes God has chosen this unusual work for him. So for the foreseeable future, you’ll find him near the bucking chutes.
This story aired on January 25, 2014.
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