A three-decade career has made Gary Rempel one of the most familiar and reliable men in the rodeo arena.
It’s one hour until showtime on Saturday night. A stream of cowboys walks by, many of them stopping to greet Rempel. He’s a mainstay in professional rodeo, with a career spanning 30 years and appearances at most major rodeos in North America. At the CFR, where the rodeo cowboys vote on pick-up riders, Rempel has appeared a record 17 times. He’s also been voted to pick up at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada, eight times—another record. He has picked up at the Calgary Stampede for 30 years. And he’s been inducted into the halls of fame at the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon and the Ellensburg Rodeo in Washington.
“You know what you’re getting with Gary,” says Dan Morgan, a board member for the Ellensburg Rodeo. “He’s like one with his horse, coming in at the right speed, in the right place, at the right time.”
Rempel’s partner is Jeff Resch, who’s appearing in his first CFR. Resch says that part of the honor is getting to ride with Rempel.
“He’s an icon,” Resch says. “It’s pretty special to do a rodeo like this with a guy like that.”
The typical pick-up man comes to the profession by way of rodeo. Not Rempel. He’s a talented enough roper to have made a fair go, but he knew from a young age that he wanted to be a pick-up man.
Rempel grew up on the Matador Ranch, a 140,000-acre community pasture in southwest Saskatchewan. His dad, John Rempel, was the manager. As a boy, Gary learned to ride and rope, helping out on summer brandings that would see 4,000 calves dragged to fire. His father moonlighted as a pick-up rider on the weekends. While he was gone, the Matador cowboys would ride broncs and Gary got his first taste of pick-up riding.
Eventually, Rempel caught the attention of Gerald Shockey, a renowned pick-up rider who was partners with Wayne Vold at the Calgary Stampede. In 1985, Shockey developed a brain tumor. Before his death, he mentioned Rempel’s name to the Calgary Stampede manager.
Vold remembers the day Rempel rode with him into the arena.
“They had me trying different guys the whole Stampede. In 10 days, I rode with six partners. But Gary and I fit like a glove. It seemed like we’d picked up together before. At the end of the day, I rode over to [manager] Winston Bruce and told him, ‘Don’t send anymore guys, because Gary’s who I want.’”
Vold was impressed with Rempel’s unselfish approach to the job.
“For a lot of pick-up men, it’s like they get a dollar for every cowboy they pick up. It doesn’t work like that. When Gary first came along, to make us look good, I would haze horses over for him to pick up. Gary figured out the deal and started hazing them back to me, too. Pretty soon, we both looked good. If a rodeo goes smooth, nobody should notice the pick-up men.”
The word “smooth” comes up a lot when people talk about Rempel.
“Watch Gary ride and you’ll see how well a pick-up can go,” says Tyler Kraft, ranch manager for Calgary Stampede. “When eight seconds are up, he’s in the right spot. He dallies the bucking rein, catches the guy jumping off, gets the back cinch off and he’s out in 15 seconds.”
Having good pick-up riders is the secret to a well run rodeo.
“Nothing looks worse than a pick-up man running around the arena for two or three laps to get the job done,” Kraft says.
Rempel is at the apogee of his career. He’s a role model for both experienced and aspiring pick-up men.
“Gary has respect from the highest committee member down to the 16-year old kid getting on broncs,” Kraft says. “He gets the good rodeos, he rides nice horses and he’s smooth on the pick-up.”