Only a true cowboy could describe sitting atop a 1500-lb snorting, twisting, bucking bronco that wants to do nothing but toss its rider as ‘sitting in a rocking chair.’ Kenny McLean, Canada’s greatest rodeo cowboy, once did just that.

“If you’re in time with the horse, your feet go forward when he kicks, and when he comes up, they go back,” Kenny said, describing bronco riding. “It’s like sitting in a rocking chair.”

If you were lucky enough to watch Kenny rope or ride or saw his natural way around horses in the arena, corral, or in the hills, you know there were few truer cowboys than the rodeo legend from Okanagan Falls, BC. Many have said the place where Ken felt most comfortable was in the saddle.

Born the youngest of ten children in 1939 in Penticton, Kenny grew up in Okanagan Falls on a ranch at the south end of Skaha Lake. His father was Scottish, a descendant of the Clan MacLean of Duarte Castle on the Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. His mother was Indigenous, a member of the Syilx Okanagan Nation whose traditional territory stretches from the Rocky Mountains in the north all the way south into central Washington State.

There was much to keep young Kenny busy on his father’s ranch where they raised horses and Herefords. By age two he was already riding horses.

“My brother and I built a chute and started riding,” he recalled.

By age 12, he was breaking colts for his father and by age 17, he entered his first rodeo, riding in a bareback event at an amateur rodeo in Keremeos.

Saddle bronc riding had always been the showcase event at most rodeos, so Kenny shifted into that discipline and began practicing, riding up to seven times a day on the seven bucking horses on the ranch.

“The saddle I started with was a terrible old wreck,” he remembered. “It was an old Adams. We never had the stirrups tied up or nothin’. It had big old wide stirrups on it. None of us knew too much about anything really.”

But every day he was learning, developing a feel around horses and a determined toughness that would become legendary. In the spring of 1957 he won the bronc riding competition at the Kamloops rodeo, pocketing a cool $250.

In 1958 Kenny won the BC amateur bronc riding championship, then turned professional in 1959 and made an immediate impact at major rodeos throughout Alberta and BC winning his first Canadian saddle bronc championship. He would win that title four more times (1960, 1961, 1968, 1969) becoming the first Canadian cowboy to win the title three straight years and five years total.

In 1961, Ken then turned his sights onto the tough Rodeo Cowboys Association (now called the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association or PRCA) circuit south of the border and turned heads with a seemingly effortless yet unorthodox right-handed riding style that scored points with judges and baffled his competitors. He finished fourth overall in the bronc riding standings and was named the PRCA’s rookie of the year winning a massive six-foot-tall trophy that resides today as the largest trophy in the BC Sports Hall of Fame collection.

He qualified for the National Finals Rodeo for the first time that year—the first of his ten appearances at the NFR (1961-65, 1967-69, 1971 in saddle bronc; 1972 in calf roping). As of 2006 he was still the only Canadian to have qualified for the NFR in both of those disciplines. Over his career he never missed a payout at the National Finals, winning the bronc riding title a remarkable three times (1964, 1968, 1971)—the first cowboy ever to win three bronc titles—while also finishing 2nd once, 4th twice, and 6th three times. Even more amazing? In 77 career rides at the NFR, he was only bucked off his ride five times.

In 1962 he led from season’s beginning to end winning the RCA world bronc riding championship held in Los Angeles despite constant pressure from previous champions Winston Bruce and Marty Wood. Asked about the world championship, he fell back on an answer he used frequently when discussing his career accolades. “I was mighty lucky,” he said.

It was more than luck that made Kenny McLean so good in the rodeo corral. For one thing, at 5’10” and 170 lbs of hard muscle during his prime competition years, he was a true athlete wearing a Stetson and Levi’s blessed with amazing strength and agility and the willingness to work harder than just about anyone at his craft.

“He didn’t like being called a natural,” Ken’s son Guy McLean told the Vernon News in 2013. “He was one of the first rodeo guys to start working out and running. He rode six hours a day. He had natural abilities, yeah, but it was a lot of hard work.”

Tiring of the grind travelling the rodeo circuit across the continent, Kenny scaled back his competition schedule after the world title. He also came up with a solution and a new way to challenge himself. Most cowboys limited themselves to one event and that was usually all they could handle. Kenny decided to try calf roping and steer wrestling in addition to his signature event bronc riding.

“I just figured that, you know, I didn’t like the travel that much, and if I could rope and bulldog [steer wrestling], get to where I could win, I wouldn’t have to go to as many rodeos.”

In Canada alone during his career Kenny would win five Canadian Pro Rodeo Association saddle bronc championships, as well as one for calf roping, one for team roping, and one for steer wrestling. He would also take home four CPRA all-round champion titles. He often finished in the world’s top-15 in multiple disciplines when it was rare to earn a place once in just one. He would win championships at rodeos across North America including Cheyenne, Calgary, Tucson, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Denver, San Francisco, Pendleton, and Ellensburg. Twice he was recognized with the RCA’s prestigious Bill Linderman Trophy (1967, 1969) as the cowboy who demonstrated the highest level of excellence at both ends of the arena. He was the first Canadian to receive this honour. Despite all the accolades, like so many other things Kenny rarely talked about his accomplishments, even to his family and friends.

“If I happen to miss a contest, I’ll ask him, ‘How did it go?’ And he’ll say, ‘Fine,’ and that’s all,” his first wife Joyce said. “A while later, there’s the trophy on the fridge. Not many people know him, really. He keeps everything to himself.”

In addition to prize money, at one point it was estimated Kenny won 41 prize saddles, 15 watches, over 100 trophies, and nearly 200 assorted prize buckles, belts, spurs, rifles, boots, hats, silver trays, and even a tea set. Stories exist of the unfinished trophy room in his basement being so full of saddles and other awards that there wasn’t any room left to move.

He retired from bronc riding in the early 1970s, but continued to compete in timed events and on the Canadian and American senior pro rodeo circuits. He took the world championship title in calf roping and ribbon roping, as well as the Reserve All-Around Champion Cowboy as late as 2001 at the age of 62. Later living for extended periods of his life in Vernon and Princeton in BC, as well as Hamilton, Montana, he became a respected trainer and breeder of his beloved paints. Outside of sitting in the saddle, he seemed to get the most pleasure from passing along little bits of his accumulated rodeo wisdom to the next generation of young cowboys and cowgirls. He sponsored rodeo schools and even converted his own property to host them. Many of the young riders he taught became champions themselves.

Sadly, on July 13th, 2002, Kenny was in his saddle on Last Wish, his rope horse, waiting for a senior roping event at a rodeo in Taber, Alberta when his number was called for the final time at the age of 63. He died of a heart attack doing what he loved, rope in hand, 45 years after he saddled up for his first rodeo.

To this day, Kenny holds more records than any Canadian cowboy in “a career distinguished by its volume, versatility and singular consistency” his Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame biography reads, where he was inducted in 2013, 11 years to the day after his death. He is also inducted into the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Rodeo Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and the Indian Rodeo Hall of Fame. Kenny also received the Order of Canada in 1976 and remains the only rodeo cowboy to receive this honour to this day. His career was the focus of an hour-long National Film Board documentary in 1972 entitled Hard Rider.

Perhaps the most impressive honour bestowed on Kenny, at least visually, was unveiled in 2010. Created by sculptor Hannah Lois to commemorate his life and career, a beautiful, life-size bronze statue of Kenny, calmly sitting back in his characteristic ‘rocking chair’, having the time of his life riding a bucking bronc. The statue stands today at Centennial Park in Okanagan Falls.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

For a more in-depth look at Kenny McLean’s career, please see the June 2021 Curator’s Corner feature article here: