California veterinarian bucks the norm

Dr. Ed Le Tourneau balanced bull riding and veterinary medicine, from veterinary school to his senior years

By Dr. Maureen Lee-Dutra

I met Dr. Ed Le Tourneau in 2018 in a place that you would not normally expect to meet veterinary colleagues. We found ourselves in the corridor of the Madera County Courthouse, both seated on the characteristic hard wooden benches, waiting our turn to testify in an animal cruelty case. We spent many hours over two days getting to know each other, trying to while away the time awaiting testimony.

As we each attempted to find a comfortable position on the bench, our conversation hit the usual notes: a little small talk, then on to our alma maters. When he heard I was from Canada, he highlighted some of the rodeos he had participated in north of the border. I gladly settled in for a longer story, losing track of the courthouse foot traffic passing by.

The call of the cowboy

Dr. Ed Le Tourneau rides a black bull
The very first National Finals Rodeo, held in 1959 in Dallas. Dr. Ed Le Tourneau, attending during Christmas vacation, ranked second after riding eight of 10 bulls. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Le Tourneau)

When Dr. Le Tourneau was a child in the 1940s, his uncle had cattle in the Stockton, California, area, exposing him early to the cattle industry. He would watch the cattle being offloaded from the railcars in Oakdale and, guided skillfully by cowboys, make their way to Moffat Ranch about 12 miles out of town. For a boy of 10, the cowboys made an impressive sight as they drove the animals past his house and down the road to finally disappear in the dusty, distant horizon.

On one of these occasions, the foreman stopped to ask if he would be interested in a job. He eagerly agreed, and Dr. Le Tourneau began his first real job—other than helping his uncle—pulling staples out of fence posts. He was later promoted to irrigating. 

Still in high school, he would finish football practice, walk the 5 miles to his home outside of town, then head to his irrigation job. This consisted of lifting and lowering irrigation plates, with the distance between fields adding many more miles to his day.

By 14, Dr. Le Tourneau was trying his hand at some roping and cutting for his uncle and was lured into steer riding. He rode his first bull at 15 and was hooked. While still in high school, he entered the Oakdale Rodeo on a dare. That sealed his money-earning aspirations—the remaining summer vacations were spent on the rodeo circuit.

Pursuing his passions

Dr. Le Tourneau working in his home office
Dr. Le Tourneau working in his home office last year in Madera, California, surrounded by decades’ worth of reference materials, files, and photos. His passion for books was inspired by his mother.

From those early experiences, Dr. Le Tourneau knew he wanted to become a cowboy and rodeo professional but succumbed to pressure from his mother to attend college.  However, his stint at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, was short lived, as he quickly found that his ability to sail through high school with minimal effort would not be replicated at the college level. 

He returned home at the end of his first year, proclaiming that college was not for him. With a little time and dose of reality, though, he recognized that the life of a cowboy and participating in rodeos, like most athletic endeavors, could not go on forever—not likely past 30, he reckoned, looking from a 19-year-old’s perspective. After some more introspection, he wondered if veterinary school might be the answer. He enjoyed being around horses and cattle, and this kind of career offered a decent living at the same time. Digging into his studies with earnest, he was admitted in 1956 to the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis) after two years at a junior college.

Dr. Le Tourneau continued his participation in rodeos when he started at UC-Davis’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 1958, struggling to balance the extracurricular activities with the demands of his studies. The choices were not always easy to make, nor perfectly executed. In that first year, anatomy class took place on Saturdays. This prohibited his participation in most Saturday draws, but not all. With the temptation to chase points to qualify for the larger and most prestigious rodeos, he would calculate the driving time from the end of class to prospective rodeo locations. Bull riding was always the last event of the evening, so if he left Davis by at least noon, he would still be able to make a 9 p.m. draw at some of the California locales, and even as far away as Idaho. 

On one such occasion, determined to participate in a rodeo in Filer, Idaho, Dr. Le Tourneau and his classmate jumped in his 1959 MG the second class had ended. They pulled up just in time for him to head for the chute and mount his bull. On an impulsive contemplation of the bull he drew, Dr. Le Tourneau thought he might get a higher-scoring ride by loosening his rowels. The bull disagreed—Dr. Le Tourneau was thrown high after four bucks. He brushed the dust off from the unceremonious landing, and he and his companion were pointed westward again in less than an hour.

Burning the candle at both ends

Dr. Le Tourneau riding a black bull with cowboys in the background
Dr. Le Tourneau rode Bull #8 to win first place at the Great Western Rodeo in 1959 in Los Angeles.

As Dr. Le Tourneau advanced through veterinary school, so did his bull-riding ability. In his last year as an amateur, he rode 50 of 52 bulls past the 8-second horn. He entered the pro arena in 1958, competing in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). Through the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, he was the West Coast Region Champion in that first year he went pro. In 1959, he was fifth in the world standings, having ridden eight out of 10 bulls to achieve reserve champion in the National Finals Rodeo. He was known as “The Bookworm” by his fellow competitors on the circuit—always deep into a textbook, sitting on his rigging bag behind the chute awaiting his turn, or anywhere conducive to cramming for the next examination.

Back at UC-Davis, his classmates would anxiously await his results, and share in the excitement that mercifully disrupted the endless stream of studies and examinations. Most often, Dr. Le Tourneau’s bull-riding exploits of the weekend would end up in the following week’s UC-Davis student newsletter.

In 1960, he came out on top at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, bringing a prestigious win back to the U.S. A year later, Dr. Le Tourneau was the National College Rodeo Finals champion bull rider and reserve champion for the year.

From 1956-62, he crammed as much rodeo time in as he could, which allowed him to pay for his education and lodgings along with building up some savings. Living in Aggie Villa—former World War II housing units acquired from the federal government—cost $40 a month. Adding tuition amounted to about $500 in monthly expenses. By spring of 1962, he had not only earned his veterinary degree, but also the reputation as a champion bull rider, amassing an impressive collection of bull-riding trophies, belt buckles, and award certificates.

Not anxious to leave Davis, Dr. Le Tourneau elected to stay an additional year to pursue an internship at the UC-Davis Large Animal Clinic. He continued to travel extensively, made more convenient by a rodeo friend who had a pilot’s license. This allowed them to participate in rodeos in Canada’s cattle country, such as the Williams Lake Rodeo in Williams Lake, British Columbia, where a small grass airstrip on the edge of town sufficed as the airport, then on to Ponoka, Alberta. With frequent trips both north and south of the border, Dr. Le Tourneau thought it prudent to also obtain his own pilot’s license.

Making his way

In the ensuing years, having returned to the Stockton area, he spent more or less time on the circuit, depending on how busy the veterinary business was.  At times, he relied more on his rodeo earnings than his practice income. Depending on distances between locations, Dr. Le Tourneau could attend two to three rodeos in a single day, with a summer netting over 50 competitions.

Dr. Le Tourneau rides a white bull at a rodeo
Dr. Le Tourneau wins first place at a rodeo in 1966 in Salinas, California. At the time, he was working for a large animal practice in Stockton, California.

Departing from his first job as a feedlot veterinarian, he built up an equine practice in Oakdale, California, before finally settling in the Madera area. He was originally lured to be a resident veterinarian at not only Huntley Quarter Horses but also the nearby El Peco Ranch. The former was a renowned Quarter Horse stable, producing All American Futurity–level candidates. Equally prestigious in its own right was the El Peco Ranch. It was headed by George Pope, who produced a number of world champion Thoroughbred horses, including the 1962 Kentucky Derby Champion Decidely. The loss of the Huntley’s main stud, Sugar Bars, resulting in an irreparable loss to that stable, and the death of George Pope, led to Dr. Le Tourneau’s decision to permanently work on his own.

After a decade-long hiatus from the rodeo circuit, he returned to the National Senior Professional Rodeo Association and attained the title of senior world champion four years in a row, from 1991-94. Dr. Le Tourneau continued to compete until 1999. 

A time for reflection

And so, the two days in the courthouse ended. After multiple delays in the hearing of the case, the defendant finally pled guilty to the charges. I never did have to testify. However, I was given the unique privilege of sharing in a colleague’s life experience: A career in veterinary medicine that began the year I was born and continues to this day. A career concurrently injected with the pursuit of a passion that has also lasted a lifetime. 

I caught up with Dr. Le Tourneau several years later. His story had been mulling around in my mind, and I wanted to tell it—as abbreviated as it must be to attempt to recount a person’s life in a few paragraphs. Now 88, he continues to take calls from his favorite clients. As any veterinarian knows, you never really retire from taking care of animals.

His injuries dog him from time to time. He doesn’t say much about the aches and pains, but as I peruse the collection of photos on the walls of his home depicting his mid-air gymnastics atop 2,000 pounds of pure muscle, I am amazed that anyone can walk away in one piece—let alone do it hundreds of times. And I imagine what it was like to work through veterinary school riding bucking bulls. A unique experience to be sure.

Dr. Maureen Lee-Dutra is a veterinary supervisor in the Tulare District Office of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Animal Health Branch.