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Cowboy to the Bone

 

The Legendary Rick Thaggard

 

Photography by Marianne Todd

 

Tucked away among the quiet hills of Madden, Mississippi, two dozen children and teens on quarter horses line up to ford the waters of Alligator Pond. “Why is it called Alligator Pond?” one boy asks. “Because it’s got a gator in it” says their leader, a mustached, 57-year-old veteran horseman wearing a wide-brimmed, beige cowboy hat and a belt buckle as big as his forehead. The gator is about 6 feet long, the cowboy tells the young riders, “not big enough to eat you, but big enough to bite you.” The kids halt their horses at the water, uncertainly scanning the depths for the gator. The cowboy guides his horse into the pond, and the kids follow. The cowboy is Rick Thaggard. This is his Cowboy Camp.

 

“I think it’s a need,” Thaggard says of his camp, which trains boys and girls to handle horses, tie goats, rope calves, and much more. “There are other camps but no one does it as cowboy as we do.”

 

After they cross Alligator Pond, they loop back and do it again. And again. And again. By the end of the ride, Thaggard has pulled over to the side. He watches the kids, who have parked their horses in the middle. They’re doing cannonballs into the water from the backs of their horses.

 

“That gator isn’t going to bother anybody,” Thaggard says. “But it gets their eyes big. And once they see that I ain’t worried about it, they go, ‘Oh, okay. Heck, if Rick’s not worried, let’s go.’”

 

This brand of cowboy-leadership is key to Thaggard’s approach. So is his decades-long experience of breaking colts. When he was a younger man, he and his little brothers would break 65 or 70 colts a year. “Young horses and kids are so much alike to me,” he says. “I demand respect and they give it. But I respect them. [They’re] like a blank canvas. What you put on that – it’s going to stick.”

Which one is easier to break, horses or kids?

 

 “Horses,” Thaggard says, without hesitation.

 

As many as 40 young people attend Thaggard’s Cowboy Camp each year, as young as eight years old and up through high school. The older kids, longtime students, and family members are deputized as junior executives. They help run the camp.

 

Thaggard’s niece, Olivia Thaggard, is one of these junior executives. A Meridian native, she’s been riding since she was small. “You get on the horse and it’s always different,” she says. When the two are in sync, says Olivia, “it’s the most amazing feeling you’ll ever experience.”

 

The aspiring cowboys and cowgirls split up for sessions. One group ropes the legs of a dummy calf dragged behind a four-wheeler. The other group weaves in and out of poles in an adjacent pen. Over the course of the four-day camp, they’ll practice barrels, too. A flag race. A trail ride. A big round up in one of the cattle pastures. At the end of the day, Thaggard pulls out a big Slip n’ Slide and turns on the water hose. The kids don swimsuits and hurl themselves down the hill. That’s the evening bath. They sleep on-site – the boys in the loft and the girls down below – in one of Thaggard’s dwellings.

 

During a break in the action, Micaela Beason practices tying goats. Thaggard calls her a roping demon. She squats down and lunges toward the animal, flips it onto it’s back, and pins it down with her knee. In a matter of tenths of a second, she’s pulled the rope from her teeth and cinched it around three of the goat’s legs. It happens too fast to even follow the intricacies of her knot. The sound is like that of a zip-tie pulled tight. Beason is headed off to college soon on a rodeo scholarship.

 

Husband and wife team Teresa and Rob Reynolds are instructors at the camp. They met Thaggard years ago when he taught them to ride, and now they’re passing it down to the younger generations. For Teresa, the kids represent progress. “All of these probably started little bitty. Now look at them,” she says. Rob, an ex-marine and pilot, helps guide the boys. The instructors reiterate that this camp is about more than just riding a horse. It’s about working together. “You can’t do it yourself and a horse can’t do it by itself,” says Teresa. “It’s a team.”

 

Marley Jay is a pint-sized girl of about eight years old, riding atop a yellow horse. She’s quiet and will stare a hole through you. She doesn’t speak much, but she listens well. She’s a crowd favorite. “Don’t let her age fool you,” says Thaggard. “She’ll be famous one day. She’s got the best mechanics out here.” She and her horse weave through the poles as if they’re of one mind. “See, her feet and hands are always working together,” adds Thaggard. “It’s like a dance.”

 

Thaggard Farms is family land. Eight hundred acres of it. Rick Thaggard’s father was a doctor, like his daddy before him. He wasn’t a cowboy, but he loved horses. Thaggard’s brothers and sisters went into the medical profession, too, as doctors and psychologists. Thaggard is the only one left on the farm, which he runs full-time. “They all got letters behind their names except for me, unless S.O.B. counts,” he laughs. “But this is what I love. Been trying to make a living the hard way my whole life. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

What does it mean to be a cowboy in a modern world?

 

“I’d like to say freedom but you’re married to all these horses,” Thaggard explains. “You ain’t really free. You’re always doing more for others. It’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle. And it’s a lifestyle that I like.”

Thaggard pulls out a tin of Copenhagen and puts a fresh dip into his gums. He’s been dipping since he was 13 years old. If it was any better, he says, it’d be illegal. This rough-hewn cowboy, who has been tossed from broncos and who works all day on the land, is also a sweetheart. He’s polite, and thoughtful, and loving. A cowboy is that, too.

 

 Thaggard is a bachelor (“I never was good at answering to nobody, anyway”), but he’s also the caretaker of his granddaughters. They’re also experts on horseback. “I’m like a single mom,” he says. He makes sure they’re fed, both physically and symbolically. The lifestyle allows him to teach them about life, drive them to competitions across the country, and keep them close. “These rodeo kids. They’re out here practicing all the time. They’re not sitting in the house playing video games, or riding around getting into trouble.”

 

To say Thaggard is like a cowboy straight off the silver screen is to do him a disservice. Nothing about Rick Thaggard is contrived. He doesn’t model himself after cowboy depictions in the Westerns. “Them guys in movies, they’re just characters,” he says. If anything, they’re modeled after him. Thaggard has competed on the circuit himself, making long trips on the open road to rodeos. These days, he prefers the front end of the process: working with the horses and, during his camps, working with the kids. “I would be perfectly happy never to leave Madden again,” Thaggard admits. “If I could stay right here on this place, suits me just fine.”

 

Beginning each fall, Thaggard moves his training operation to Meridian each Tuesday, where he trains adults and children, hauling 15 or so horses, saddles, bridles, and tack in a single trailer for each trip. “I'm building skyscrapers,” he says of the kids he trains. “The adults are harder.” But Thaggard is up for the challenge, believing horse therapy can mend all kinds of ailments and bring people closer to nature.

 

Rick Thaggard has no hobbies. He doesn’t buy golf clubs or fishing poles. Everything revolves around the farm and the work. It will always be that way for him. “I’ve been watching obituaries since I was 18 when I decided this was what I was going to do,” he says. “And I’ve never seen where a retired cowboy died. Well I know we ain’t living forever so I guess that means we work until we die. I don’t worry about putting back for retirement because I know it’s never going to happen. Just rock on.”

 

When it’s all said and done, Thaggard knows he will have left his mark: on the horses he’s trained and on the kids he’s helped mold. He hopes his obituary will be short and sweet.

“I hope it says, this cat could ride a horse. He was fair to everybody he met.”

 

 

Want to know more?

Rick Thaggard provides lessons for children and adults at his farm in Madden and Tuesdays in Meridian 

during fall, winter, and spring months. He is currently accepting new students for fall and on Tuesday. Horses, saddles, and tack are provided. Classes fill up quickly. 

For more information, call Thaggard at (601) 562-3195.

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