JOHN PAYNE, THE ONE ARM BANDIT
Inducted in 2017
John Payne, the “One Arm Bandit,” has had one of the most entertaining and sought-after acts in pro rodeo. He has been chosen as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s (PRCA) “Specialty Act of the Year” twelve times. The voting for this award is done by professional rodeo cowboys, announcers, stockmen, and the specialty performers themselves, so it’s quite an honor to be recognized so many times in this way by his associates and peers.
Payne is called the “One Arm Bandit” because in 1973 he lost his right arm while working at a construction site when 7200 volts of electricity went through his body for ten seconds, and he was dead for five minutes. He was told that he should have his right leg amputated as well, but knowing he couldn’t ride a horse with one leg, he refused. Doctors told him the infection might kill him, but he took that chance to be able to ride.
As soon as he could walk again, he was training animals. He has trained a lot of animals in his life—including horses, mules, zedonks, zorses, Corrientes, Watusi longhorns, mustangs—but he has called buffalo “the meanest critter in North America.” He said the “buffalo tried to kill me almost every day for two years, and they’ve hooked me off the top of the trailer, twice, horse and all.” He brings to the rodeo and Ellensburg a touch of the Wild West Shows that characterized our earliest rodeos. His act requires extraordinary training, horsemanship, and an appetite for daredevil danger.
He also has a healthy respect for his mule, Moe. In an interview for a video called “Horse Country USA,” Payne talked about Moe: he’s a “dirty, rotten sonofagun. He’ll run off with ya, buck ya off, he’s bucked me off three times during a performance, one time he kicked me and knocked my arm off.” He said when he got Moe he had six problems: “you couldn’t catch him, you couldn’t bridle him, you couldn’t saddle him, you couldn’t get on him, and you couldn’t ride him. And he’d run off with you if you tried.” But they have reached a mutually suspicious compromise. Payne said that “I used a horse for twenty years. I was the cowboy who said, when all the horses die, and I get tired of walking, I’ll get a mule.” But since Moe has been in the show, Payne likes how he works: “he’s surefooted on the ramp. If it rains and it’s muddy and that ol’ ramp is wet and slick, he’s really good at keeping his feet under him…I do parades and when I jump off the trailer onto asphalt, he slides on all fours. A horse would be straddle-legged. He’ll outwork two horses, but he’ll outwork two horses trying to get out of work and being a little pillbox. . . I’ve been offered $20,000 for him, but nobody could handle him but me.”
It’s this understanding of and respect for the animals he trains that makes his show so appealing. He and Moe round up buffaloes or Watusi longhorns in the arena, make them climb a steep ramp and stand on top of an eighteen-foot trailer while Payne cracks a whip with his left hand. Then the animals go quietly back down and out of the arena. Usually. Boyd Polhamus, a four-time Rodeo Announcer of the Year, said Payne “is by himself an 8 minute Wild West Show. . . If his act goes according to plan, it’s going to be awesome. If it doesn’t go as planned, it’s going to be awesome.”
And the plan has failed. He’s been knocked off his trailer during a show several times, horse and all, yet he got back up and finished his act. In fact, Ken MacRae, a roper and veterinarian who helped with the Ellensburg Rodeo for years, and is a member of the Hall of Fame board, said “I was Arena Director the first year John Payne came to Ellensburg. In those early years, the act included Catahoula Leopard Dogs that helped get the giant horned Watusi bulls onto the trailer. The dogs were pretty tough. I believe it was also that first year that John’s horse made a misstep and fell off the trailer backwards. Horse and John both survived, and he resumed the act. John is obviously a great animal trainer and showman. We have developed a friendship over the years, and I’m proud and happy that he is going into the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame.”
John Payne has a gritty, homespun outlook on life that is about as tough as the buffaloes and the mule he admires. He said “I’m a cowboy, a hardcore, redneck, Okie cowboy, through and through. . .I’m happy being that. I want to earn everything I get. . .I don’t want nothin’ easy. . . Never give up, never give up, there’s a way of doin’ everything, and when they cut my arm off, I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I can do anything I wanted to do with this hand and this arm, if I can’t do it with this hand and this arm, it don’t need done.”
The One Arm Bandit lives in Shidler, Oklahoma where he was born and raised with four brothers which he said taught him to “get out of the way or get run over.” His son and daughter now participate in some of his performances.