IF IT BUCKED, Jim Shoulders could ride it. Shoulders, who died last week at 79, won more world riding titles than any other cowboy. For 25 years he traveled the country, making a name for himself eight seconds at a time atop bulls and barebacks—leaving in his wake a trail of teeth, X-rays and incredulous doctors. In 1947 he was, in his words, "worked over" by a bull after a fall at Madison Square Garden. A concussed Shoulders was long gone before the ambulance arrived. "For two days, they tell me, I walked around kind of funny," he said. But he kept riding—and resisting medical intervention. Thirteen years later, after a nasty goring resulted in 17 facial fractures and an operation to rebuild his nose, Shoulders—who would soon be dubbed Mister Broken Bones by LIFE magazine—declared he was "fixin' to enter the Phoenix rodeo." The doctor who tried to stop him was dismissed with a simple, "Hell, doc, I don't hold on with my nose."
A native of Tulsa, Shoulders entered his first rodeo at 14 and remained a cowboy thereafter. His own private West could get wild. Shoulders once stabbed fellow rider Casey Tibbs in the stomach after Tibbs, who was his buddy, scared him with a prank involving a gun loaded with blanks. Shoulders drove Tibbs to the hospital but quickly took his leave, offering as his excuse, "My God, Casey, I'm up on a bull." (Tibbs was fine; Shoulders was not charged.) Shoulders, a charter member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, retired in 1970 but remained visible. He was a longtime pitchman for Wrangler—he helped design the company's most popular model of jeans, the "Cowboy Cut" favored by many riders—and he appeared in a series of Miller Lite spots with Billy Martin, Boog Powell and John Madden. Said rodeo announcer Clem McSpadden, "Even in coming generations, I don't think there will be a hero as strong as Jim Shoulders. The biggest tree in the rodeo forest has fallen."
DEVERE HELFRICH/NATIONAL COWBOY & WESTERN HERITAGE MUSEUM (SHOULDERS RIDING)
BUCK STOPPER Shoulders won a record 16 world titles.
A.Y. OWEN/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES (SHOULDERS)