By KEN LEVY
She rodeoed for 51 years, battling for the 6-second whistle in bucking broncs and bull riding while breaking virtually every record ever kept for a woman roughstock rider.
She also broke nearly every bone in her body in the course of doing it.
Jan Youren, 79, has won five world championships in bareback bronc riding, with 17 reserve championships (“first loser,” she dubs them), and 13 reserve championships in bull riding. Her career ended in 2005, when she finished third overall in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association circuit and kept a promise.
Youren rode against daughters and granddaughters and defeated them most of the time, but she vowed to retire when one of her granddaughters topped her score for the year. Granddaughter Tavia took second place that year, and Youren kept her word, even though she beat Tavia in the finals.
Broken but Undaunted
“I broke my arm in August that year,” Youren said. “Shattered it, broke it in seven places, so I was out for a while.”
Tough, undaunted, and persevering, she took a lot of hurt over the years, with injuries that would have cut short most other rodeo careers. But, she said, rodeo is addictive, with more of an adrenaline high than any drug might produce.
“When I was on the Conan O’Brien show (June 1996) he asked me how many bones I broke. It was a lot easier to tell him how many I haven’t,” she said. “I have one rib that’s never been broken, and I never broke either leg. Other than that, I got ‘em all.”
“All” means breaking her nose 14 times, her cheekbones eight times, and fighting through numerous dislocated shoulders, and other injuries.
“I tell everybody I used to be good looking, but they just laugh at me.”
Possibly her worst injuries came in an event in Colville, Wash., in 1980, when a bull stomped her, breaking ribs, collapsing a lung, and bruising her heart. She still breathes with only one lung.
She’s broken her neck and back, and doctors told her repeatedly to quit the sport long before she did.
In 1999, she drove a school bus in Dodge City, Kansas. During her physical, the doctor told her she had the most bone density of any woman he’d ever checked. He saw evidence of a lot of broken bones.
“They were calcifying up, and I said, ‘see, I was just preparing for old age.’ And it must have worked because I haven’t broken a bone in a long time.”
She taught numerous bareback and bull riding clinics to young women, in Garden Valley and Sweet, Idaho, plus in Texas and Oklahoma. She’s always given the same advice: “Enjoy what you’re doing, and put your all into it. If you don’t enjoy it, get out of it. It’s not a case of if you get hurt, but when and how bad. If you can’t handle that, you don’t have any business in the roughstock.”
Divine Protection and Inductions
Youren’s upbeat demeanor and warm, genuine laugh carried her through the rigors of the sport, the injuries, the travel, and other hardships many others have battled.
“I know the good Lord’s been with me all the time because I should be dead,” she said. “Obviously, he doesn’t want me, and I must not be bad enough to go down below because I’m still here.”
She was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, now in Ft. Worth, Texas, in 1993. That induction honors women of the American west “who have made and are making a lasting impact in and around horse culture.”
Youren was also inducted into the Idaho Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2015, which is “dedicated to preserving and promoting Western American Heritage and culture.”
Hitting the Ground From the Beginning
Youren’s late father and biggest supporter, Sterling Alley—himself a roughstock rodeo and wild horse racing competitor in his day—piqued her interest in riding when she was 5 years old. He gave her a yearling filly and said if she could break her, Youren could have her.
“That little rip bucked me off many times,” Youren said. “One day I had ridden her down a hard dirt road, and she bucked me off. I didn’t want to get back on her, but that was a rule: if you got bucked off, you got back on. You didn’t come leading a horse home. She got me used to hitting the ground.”
In 1955, when Youren was 11 years old, her father told her about some girls exhibiting some bareback horses. Two months later, he put on the first full all-girl rodeo in Idaho.
“He entered me in every event,” said Youren. “I won money in the bareback and the cow riding, and I won $54 for 24 seconds of work. I thought I was on the road to riches.”
Youren said she was on the road for many years, traveling to rodeo competitions. “I had a lot of riches, but not necessarily monetary ones.”
For the first 25 years of her career, Youren worked all women’s rodeo events, including roughstock. She competed in tie-down calf roping, team roping, steer undecorating, and occasionally goat tying.
“I didn’t like it, but if that was the event I did it,” she said. “My only claim to fame with goat tying was in a rodeo up in Canada when I beat the Canadian champion. I think she must have had a bad day.”
Youren won the world championships twice after age 50, in 1994 and 1995, in Ft. Worth. In 1995, the horse she drew was bucking hard. “My rigging started to shift, but it stayed on just as the whistle blew, and I won the world,” she said.
She made the Guinness Book of World Records at Sierra Vista, Ariz., in 2001, for riding bareback horses longer than anybody else.
And Youren went on to break that record for four more years. In 2003, at another rodeo in Sierra Vista, she beat two of her daughters and two granddaughters in two consecutive days on the broncs. “I was pretty proud of myself.”
According to Youren, her later years were, for her, always shining moments. “I was by far the oldest one competing. I was beating kids that were younger than my kids. And if I didn’t win, I had to give excuses, like I was too old. That’s riding a horse both ways.”
Her very sizeable family keeps her retirement years occupied with numerous events and milestones.
“I tell everybody I’m the most blessed woman in the whole world because between Jim (her late husband) and I, we had 15 kids (eight together), 64 grandkids, 116 great grandkids, and they’re all healthy, they all have good brains, they’re great athletes, and I did something I thoroughly enjoyed my whole life and had a small measure of success at it,” she said. “I still get around about as good as most women my age, and they didn’t have near the fun I did.” MSN