Rodeo specialty act: ‘one heck of a cowboy’

Riding rodeo is hard enough with two hands, but doing so with one is unheard of. John Payne, dubbed the One Arm Bandit, does just that, defying the odds every time he puts on a show. Not only does he manage a feat once thought impossible, he does it well. Payne is the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association Entertainer of the Year two years running, and nine-time winner of the association’s ‘Specialty Act of the Year.’To earn such a distinction, Payne says the act has to be something no one has seen before. “It consists of horsemanship to the max and then the buffalo and the mules,” he says. “It’s just a bunch of cowboy stuff nobody can do unless you’re one heck of a cowboy.”Payne, who resembles western legend Buffalo Bill, took inspiration from Bill’s Wild West show and re-introduced buffalo into rodeo.”The buffalo, they have a lot of deep, rich American history in it,” Payne explains. “They fed North America back when people were starving to death and made the migration for the settlers a lot easier because they could feed on the buffalo and travel down their paths just like a highway,” he says.”The buffalo deserve the right and paid the price to be truly an American icon and I wanted to bring them back into rodeo,” he continues. “They was in the Wild West shows back before rodeo even became a sport and the reason they got rid of them was ’cause [they were] too damn tough to handle! I went to great lengths to bring them back.”In his act, Payne leads the 2,000 pound animals on top of a trailer 15 feet up in the air. It took three years of intense training to teach the buffaloes the routines. “I’ve trained steers and horses and mules, and buffaloes are just about 10 times harder to train than any other critter I’ve ever messed with,” he says. “There didn’t get to be 60 million of them back in the 1800’s because they was a bunch of sissys!”Growing up on a ranch in Oklahoma, Payne is no stranger to hard work. A life-changing accident put his work ethics to the test. On June 12, 1973 the then 20-year-old Payne was tearing down a house for his dad. Thinking the electricity had been shut off, he climbed up a telephone pole to cut some wires. “I grabbed a whole 7200 volts and held on cause I couldn’t let go of it ‘til I burnt my fingers off and fell 30 foot to my death,” he says. Lying dead on the ground for close to five minutes, Payne remembers waking up to his work partner giving him mouth to mouth resuscitation. “It was kind of a shocking experience,” he puns.Payne spent five weeks in the hospital with his left leg, intestines, and right arm severely burned. Doctors wanted to amputate his leg but he insisted that he couldn’t ride a horse without it and he couldn’t live if he couldn’t ride. The compromise was the removal of his right arm, which was useless after the massive electrocution. Getting back in the saddle was trying for Payne. “Instead of doing everything right-handed you got to do everything left-handed,” he says. “It teaches you a lot more patience when you cut an arm off.” His persistence paid off. In 1988, he entertained his first rodeo crowd after seeing an act the year before and being unimpressed. Since then, he’s traveled the country under the name ‘The One Arm Bandit’ earning recognition and respect for his daring act. “I had to give them two-armed guys a little bit of an advantage,” he says.Having one arm hasn’t slowed him down, he says. “If I had five arms, my act would still be really tough and I risk my life every time I do it.” But Payne’s not afraid; he’s the literal example of the saying ‘died and lived to tell the tale.’”I really should of been killed four or five times already but I think I was spared for a reason and I think that reason is to entertain folks at rodeos because that’s what I do really good,” he says. “I can take those chances because I have a lot of help from the man up above.”Payne is the headlining act at the Cache County Fair and Rodeo and is preparing to perform this weekend by sitting under a tree, taking in the scenic mountains of the valley. “Your life is what you make out of it,” he explains. He feels he is lucky to still have his. At 57 years old, he’s one of the oldest in rodeo entertaining business. “Hell, I know it but I love life and live it to the fullest,” he says. “Every day is a day in paradise and I don’t care where I’m at. I’m having fun.”

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