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City boy turns love of horses into livelihood

Jeff Rector of Chanhassen checks the halter on Nightlinger, his 10-year-old American quarter horse, after a chilly ride in Minnetrista on Wednsday. (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — How does a city slicker who lives in Chanhassen end up with a job in the rodeo?

For Jeff Rector, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., it started with the horses.

"I really, really loved horses," said Rector, 36. They were the reason he liked to watch Westerns as a kid.

Although none of his family members knew anything about riding, a generous grandfather gave him a horse when he was in eighth grade.

"They saw it was something I was passionate about," Rector told the St. Paul Pioneer Press ( ).

At 16, he was exposed to rodeo and at 18 he was working for one, becoming the first African-American "pickup man" in the sport, according to Rector.

A pickup man is a cowboy on horseback who helps bareback and saddle bronco riders to safely dismount at the end of a ride.

When the eight-second ride is over, the bronco rider doesn't have to jump off and risk injury because a pickup man like Rector will ride alongside and pull him off the bucking horse.

"It's fast-paced," said Rector. "You have to be a good horseman."

Pickup men aren't the stars of the rodeo, but Rector doesn't seem to mind as long as he has a chance to make a living working with horses.

He has five quarter horses that he uses in his job: Roanie, Kobe, Bucky, Cowboy and Mr. Nightlinger. Mr. Nightlinger is named after a character in a John Wayne movie called "The Cowboys."

"I love that movie," Rector said.

He hauls the horses to rodeos around the country in a 32-foot combination trailer and RV. Sometimes his new wife comes along with him. They've been married about a year, and she's from Minnesota, which brought Rector to the Twin Cities. He'll be moving soon to a seven-acre spread they bought in Hudson, Wis., with plenty of space to keep his horses.

He says he'll get $500 to $1,500 per performance and will pull down about $40,000 to $50,000 a year as a cowboy.

"That's pretty good, considering you don't have to punch a clock," he said. "I've been all over the country. It's a pretty blessed life."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.