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Ravalli County's 2015 Rodeo Queen Sarai McCollaum stays on her horse, Tuffy, as he bucks just as she was beginning her "queen buzz" at the rodeo. 

HAMILTON – Tuffy is a horse that Ravalli County’s 2015 Rodeo Queen Sarai McCollaum knows she can always count on.

“I basically have done everything on him,” she said. “I carried flags, moved cows, used him for lessons. Even when we first put a saddle on him, he never bucked.”

But when he did decide to launch, Tuffy and his rider set the internet on fire.

“I’m just a girl who graduated from Darby three years ago,” she said Tuesday. “Who would have ever thought that it would be me who blew up Facebook? I’m still in shock about it all.”

Everybody who has ever been to rodeo has watched as rodeo queens race around the edge of the arena waving to the crowd.

McCollaum was just beginning her “queen buzz” when the trouble began.

She and Tuffy “came through the gate walking,” she remembered. “I asked him to canter and then we started to lope. We were just doing that when he caught his reflection on the big screen or something pinched him. I don’t what happened.”

All she knew for sure was both of Tuffy’s front hooves had just pounded into the ground.

“I knew instantly what was coming,” she said. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You chose now to do this? You have never ever bucked. Oh crap. Hang on.’ ”

That’s exactly what McCollaum did.

“It was crazy,” she said. “I just kept telling myself that I’m not going to hit the ground. Not in front of all these people.”

“I was thinking, ‘You sucker. Get your head up.’ The front of my chaps got caught in the horn for what felt like forever. I’m stuck and then he shot me backwards. It broke the buckle off my new chaps.

“And then my belt buckle went over the horn. My chaps were flopping. My belt was going every which way. I was trying to get his head pulled to the side, but he was having none of it. He was mad or afraid. He was just something else.”

Dillon-based rodeo photographer Dave Hollenback had just come into the arena and was getting his camera ready when the excitement began.

“Here comes Sarai and her horse blows up,” Hollenback said. “My first five shots were pretty out of focus, but then I got on track. I actually took 74 shots. I wasn’t machine-gunning it. I was picking my shots.”

The photos captured McCollaum’s ride across the arena that ended when the horse was faced with a fence. They also showed McCollaum calmly putting her hat back on and riding around the arena to the cheers of an appreciative crowd.

The collection of photos has been shared almost 8,000 times on Hollenback’s Facebook page and through his website,

“I’ve never had anything quite like that happen before,” Hollenback said. “There were people commenting from Florida that if she ever made it there, they would be happy to let her use their horse. She obviously knows how to handle one.

“That ride was kind of crazy,” he said. “I was just totally impressed with her horsemanship and her grit.”

The cowboys who rode saddle broncs that night had to stay on for eight seconds to get a score. A videotape showed McCollaum’s ride lasted 15 seconds.

“I think she got the highest score for the night,” Hollenback said. “She did good.”

When her horse finally came to rest, McCollaum said her mother and couple of other friends rushed over to be by her side.

“I was in complete shock at what had just happened,” she remembered. “They were telling me to take my time and get collected, but I said, ‘I’m good. Where’s my hat?’ They handed me my hat and I just trotted him around the arena. I knew now we have to go around. I didn’t want to let him think he can start bucking and we’ll just quit.

“People were hooting and hollering,” McCollaum said. “They were lifting their hat to me.”

McCollaum is still having a hard time believing that really happened.

“It’s crazy when I think that on Wednesday morning I rode him on his first parade ever,” she said. “There were kids shaking plastic bags and he never bucked or bolted. That night I carried the American flag on him for the ranch rodeo.

“Just before I went into the arena, this little girl that I’m coaching was riding behind me as we walked and trotted and cantered. She was sitting right behind me on his butt and that didn’t bother him one bit.”

The part-thoroughbred and part-quarter horse waited until everyone was watching.

“Knock on wood, I haven’t hit the ground for awhile,” she said. “I ride horses for a lot of people and some them really do want to buck.”

“I’m not sure how I stayed on that night,” McCollaum said. “There was definitely a higher power involved in that one. I’m sure it was a high point for a lot of people.”

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