Gary Rempel – the Pick-Up Man

In the rodeo arena, this pickup man is known as a cowboy’s cowboy. Behind all the glitz of his career, Rempel has an instinctive understanding of livestock, backed by an extreme knack for showmanship. If you can handle the pressure of the rodeo arena, Rempel says the payoff to his job doesn’t necessarily fill his wallet, but most certainly has its other rewards. Here’s his thoughts on life on the road, success in small but sure doses and staying ahead of the game. 

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I was born and raised on the Matador Ranch, which was one of the largest government owned community pastures in Canada. My dad managed that, he also rodeoed, roped caves and picked up. I roped caves and team roped for awhile, but being a pickup man always appealed to me. Right now I just like doing what I am doing, and am trying to do the best that I can all the time.

In the pickup world, Wayne Vold was who I learned from. He was probably the best there was at the time. I worked with Wayne in Calgary for 10 years. I learned a lot from him, he was a master. His style was smooth – really smooth. When he did things he did them very efficiently and professionally. I just wanted to be in that style too.

When a horse bucks, a pickup man can help a rider in a pattern – we call that turning them back. We keep them in a pattern, so they buck better. Winston Bruce at the Calgary Stampede helped me a lot to understanding bucking horses.

For the past 20 some years we have been putting on a bronc riding school, and I put a pickup school in conjunction with it. We started out in Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan and just moved it to Millarville, Alberta, this last year. I turn guys away as a rule. I just keep it to a limited amount (three or four), so I can handle it better.

The biggest thing with being a pickup man is understanding livestock. You can learn it, but a lot of times it’s a instinct – it’s something you have in you. It all falls down to knowing what that animal is going to do and then reacting to it.

As far as picking up goes – I think it has been refined over the past 30 or so years. Years ago people just thought a pickup man was some guy that got on a big horse and rode it around an arena. As years went on, those ideas have changed. Picking up has now become more of a spectacle thing, almost like bull fighting. You make it almost an art and you keep trying to better yourself.

I travel with six horses. I want my horses to be able to handle the stock. In the bronc riding especially you really need a big stout horse that can handle a bucking horse being dallied up to them. I try to ride really nice horses and have them as broke as possible.

I make it very clear to guys who ask me about being a pickup man – this is not a glamorous job. You are expected to do a lot and you get very little praise for doing it. We don’t get paid a whole lot compared to the bull fighters, announcers or clowns. You are sure not going to get rich at it and you have to think about the expenses you have to put out before you even get started. You will need at least three to four horses that are going to work for you. I use five horses a day, per performance.

I put a lot of pressure on myself, because I want to do the very best I can. But no matter how hard you try you are working with animals, things don’t always go as smooth as you like. Pressure comes from everyone watching the rodeo, and they seem to dwell on the screw-ups. You have to try not to think about it. You go to Vegas and the day before it starts you get a nervous stomach. But once they have bucked the first horse you forget about it and you just do your job.

Sometimes you can be a good pickup man individually, but some don’t know how to work with a partner. Working with my brother Wade, that is as good as it gets. We both know where we both are, throughout the performance. You get picking up with someone who is not paying attention and you are going to get in a wreck in a real hurry.

The arena is basically yours all throughout the rodeo. But keep your ego in check. I’ve always said, if you get to thinking that you are pretty special, something will happen in that arena that will set you back and ground you in a big hurry. It’s a humbling thing when things happen in the arena.

There have been times when I have thought that I’ve had enough, but right now I love picking up and going to rodeos. What I don’t like is the traveling as I’m always a long way from home. I started when I was about 25. The only thing I wish I would have started sooner, so I could have done this longer. I am not thinking about quitting, but sooner or later your body can only handle so much.

I think the biggest payoff of this job is having the respect of your contestants and the contractors. Starting out is not easy and it is a hard deal to get into. It is hard for a young guy to start, as you will need someone who is willing to hire you. It’s easy to blow $100,000 in a heartbeat – on your truck, trailer and horses. But it is a good job and you can have fun, once you get established.