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For cowgirl and rodeo champ at 64, retirement chafes like a flank strap

    GARDEN VALLEY, Idaho — If her battered joints are stiffening with the approach of winter, Jan Youren isn’t complaining.
    It’s a deeper ache that pains her.
    ‘‘I am not a person who sits around twiddling my thumbs,’’ she says. ‘‘I’m not good at that.’’
    But like it or not, Youren is getting older — her 64th birthday has come and gone. She’s like legions of others having trouble adjusting to retirement’s slower pace. And yet, because of what she’s retiring from, the challenge is uniquely her own.
    ‘‘You know, when I quit rodeoing it’s a big hole. This year it’s harder...,’’ says the five-time world champion bareback bronc rider, who only climbed out of the competitive saddle two years ago — and would go back in a minute, if not for her kids, and grandkids.
    ‘‘I never thought I’d stay doing it as long as I did. It’s just hard to stop because it’s very addictive once you start.’’
    A lifetime of roughstock riding has left her with shattered bones, several fused vertebrae, plenty of scar tissue and shoulders that dislocate whenever she raises her arms above her head. The dislocating shoulders mean that at the end of a bronc ride — when most riders would grab on to a pickup man, riding close by to whisk them to safety — Youren must hang on until the bronc bucks her off. A hard landing on the arena’s well-churned dirt floor has sometimes left her unconscious for a minute or two.
    Five decades of watching this physical torture is enough, her family has decided.
    But Youren fears that once she really stops, the years of prophecies from orthopedic surgeons and emergency room doctors will come true.
    ‘‘’You’ll be crippled,’ they told me,’’ Youren says, ‘‘over and over again. But I won one world championship with a broken back. I guess if I end up in a wheelchair I can’t be bitter and nasty — I brung it on myself.’’
    Still, the snort of a wild-eyed bronco is her siren song, and Youren relentlessly seeks the rush of fighting a 1,100-pound beast with nothing but leather-clad hands and a pair of spurs.
    Rodeo is a hard habit to break.
    If that wasn’t already apparent, you should have seen Youren at this year’s Idaho Women’s Rodeo — where folks kept asking if she planned to compete, and her youngest son, Cole, would jump in with an answer before she could reply.
    ‘‘She better not,’’ the 23-year-old said, then turned to his mother and added: ‘‘You better not be getting on any broncs.’’
    ‘‘Well, I guess I better not then,’’ Youren publicly acquiesced. But a little later, away from the family, she confided: ‘‘If one of the riders doesn’t show up, I just might.’’
    The yearly summertime event in the scenic Idaho mountains has been Youren’s rodeo, after all. It’s held in her arena, just a few steps away from the home her husband grew up in. Her daughter, Kristin David, serves as organizer and announcer. Her grandchildren run the chutes. And the names on the draw often include children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with nieces and nephews thrown in for good measure.
    ‘‘My dad rodeoed. He rode bareback horses and wild horse raced and rode a few bulls. I’d been riding calves since I was 4 or 5 years old, mainly at the Cattleman’s convention,’’ Youren said. ‘‘Then, when I was 11, Dad came home from a rodeo and said, ’Babe, I saw some something you’d really like.’’’
    He’d seen girls riding bareback horses and bulls, competing in a rodeo just like the men did.
    At the time, it was a shocking idea. Women had ridden bucking broncs in rodeos in the late 1800s, but women’s participation in the sport fell deeply out of favor after bronc rider Bonnie McCarroll was trampled to death by a horse in the Pendleton Roundup arena in 1929. By the late 1940s, women’s participation in rodeo was mainly reduced to beauty pageants. Though many Western ranch women rode with their husbands during cattle drives, when the rodeo came to town they were expected to sit in the stands, not in the saddle.
    Youren’s father, Sterling Alley, decided to throw his own all-girls rodeo, just so his daughter could ride. It was 1955, and it was one of the first all-girl rodeos ever held in Idaho.
    ‘‘He entered me in every event. I’d never even seen a barrel race at that time,’’ she said. ‘‘I would have done anything for my dad, anything to get a little higher in my daddy’s eyes.’’
    Despite her inexperience, Youren won the bareback and cow riding events. She was 11 years old.
    ‘‘I won $54 for 24 seconds work and I thought I was on the road to riches,’’ she said. ‘‘I was on that road for a long time: I never got rich, but I had a lot of riches. I probably had about the richest life you can have.’’
    Perhaps Alley was looking for someone to carry on his legacy. Youren’s older brother had hip disease that prevented him from riding roughstock.
    ‘‘When I first started they used to say, ’Little Jan Alley from Garden Valley, she wouldn’t weigh 100 pounds soaking wet.’’’
    Youren and others formed the Idaho Girls Rodeo Association, and then joined the Girls Northwest Rodeo Association that started in 1957. Her father was chute boss for some of the rodeos, and lest people accuse him of favoritism, he generally put his daughter on the toughest broncs. One horse, named Bashful Boy, was particularly fierce.
    ‘‘Dad says, ’Babe, you better watch him, he’s a little stout.’ Well, that should have warned me because dad never warned me of anything. You just get on and take your bumps,’’ she said. ‘‘Holy moly, old Bashful Boy popped me back off my rigging and took my heels and he threw me so hard I plowed a furrow you could have planted potatoes in. Dad’s version of it was, ’That horse threw her so high the birds planted a nest in her pocket before she hit the ground.’
    ‘‘He said he thought that would take it out of me,’’ she said, ‘‘but it didn’t.’’
    In the early days of her professional career, Youren limited herself to traveling to rodeos within a 600-mile radius of home. But in 1975 — when most women her age were retiring from the sport — Youren joined what became the Women’s Rodeo Association and began making 1,500 mile trips to rodeos.
    She married (four times in all) and had kids (15, including 7 stepchildren) and often brought at least some of her family along.
    Often, she rode while pregnant, keeping it up for the first five months, until it was obvious she was carrying a child and not just putting on a few pounds. Her daughter Kristen David remembers sleeping in the car as the family drove from Canada to Mexico and back, chasing a 6-second bronc ride and a shot at the purse.
    ‘‘It was something you grew up doing,’’ Cole said. ‘‘It wasn’t like one day Mom asked you if you wanted to rodeo. We were getting led around the barrels when we couldn’t ride by ourselves. You walked, and then you rode.’’
    Eventually, Youren was competing against her granddaughters in the world championship. They never beat her — until granddaughter Tavia Jean Stevenson took the world trophy in 2002. Youren was 58.
    Over the years, Youren, who also rode bulls, became known for her apparent invulnerability. She learned not to show pain in the arena — it makes the crowd worry too much. She took frequent hot baths to soothe her injuries, avoiding hospitals and doctors whenever possible. Aspiring riders from as far away as Australia made the pilgrimage to her ranch, hoping to learn her secrets.
    ‘‘The quintessential role model of women’s rodeo,’’ Danny Latham calls Youren. He’s with the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, where she was inducted in 1993. She later offered the hall her own scalplock — a patch of scalp and hair, torn from her head when a bull stepped on her after a bad ride. The hall declined.
    ‘‘I guess it was too grisly for ’em,’’ she said, shrugging.
    Latham, in a phone interview, credited her unequaled pain threshold, but said that was only part of her gift.
    ‘‘Her reach, her scope and her influence was global. All-girls rodeo would probably have disappeared about 15 years ago if it were not for Jan. Not only being a fierce competitor, but also being someone who encouraged the younger women to come up and be in the sport.’’
    Latham hopes successors will emerge — and yet with Youren’s retirement has come the persistent rumor that women’s rodeo is dying, lacking not just a champion but a heart.
    ———
    But back to this year’s rodeo.
    A few hours before the start, Youren somewhat sadly noted that one of the judges had an emergency and couldn’t make it to the event. So her daughter, Kristen David, drafted Youren to judge the contest, making it impossible to sneak in a ride.
    This brought a grumble: ‘‘It was never too rough for my Daddy, why would it be for me now?’’
    For Youren, the approaching complaints of age chafe like a flank strap. Maybe it was the bucking and kicking that has kept her young. Now that she has slowed, her battered body is starting to stiffen, trying to protect now what it was unable to for six decades.
    But her mind races back to the ‘‘rush’’ of riding a bronc.
    ‘‘I’ve never done drugs but I could almost guarantee it that there’s not a drug in the world that can give you the high that roughstock will,’’ she said. ‘‘I’m still having withdrawals and I’ve been off a year.’’
    A moment later, she admitted, ‘‘It’s hard to replace that. It’s hard to get your blood pumping when you’re a fat old lady and can’t do nothing.’’
    She’d promised to quit at 60, but reneged when that birthday came faster than she wanted.
    ‘‘Sixty was just the number,’’ her niece, Misty Grosvener, said, noting that at the rodeos, ‘‘they always need one more rider. I think she always needs one more ride.’’
    Ending it all on a horse rather than a rocking chair would suit Youren fine, but maybe her family has been through enough.
    ‘‘Getting killed is bound to happen anyway so I’m not going to worry about it, but they’ve really been after me, ’No you can’t, no you can’t,’’’ Youren said. ‘‘And I guess they were probably sweating blood the last couple of years because I’m getting older. I suppose they’ve put up with my tomfoolery for enough years maybe.’’
    Still, she said, ‘‘It’s a big hole. This year it’s harder than it was last year.’’
    At the rodeo, Youren pulled out her own leather chaps — once bright red, now fading — and turned to her grandniece, helping the nervous teen buckle the leather around her waist.
    ‘‘Get your spurs on,’’ she told the girl.
    Youren cheered during the ride, then gave a score. At the announcer’s booth, she offered a quick critique, but at the same time she knew this: It’d be easier to coach if she could just climb on herself and show the girl how it’s done.

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