If you’re driving along on an Oklahoma highway and you see a big, red farm truck on your tail, and if it’s pulling a fancy rig and sporting on its roof the most enormous set of longhorns you’ve ever seen, then it’s time to move over. Odds are it’s the internationally known cowboy and Shidler’s own One-Arm Bandit, John Payne, and his path isn’t one in which to dilly dally.
Payne’s on the road more often than not with his namesake One Arm Bandit & Co. show, which also features his son Lynn and daughter Amanda, and highway driving is nothing compared to the danger they face in the arena.
The show, performed at more than 40 events across North America last year, features Payne as he rounds up the largest and most wild of plains-roving animals, from mustangs to longhorn steer and full-grown buffalo, and drives them to the top of his oversized horse trailer. Then he blocks them in and stands with both feet on his saddle, his hat high in his left hand to salute the crowd.
Payne has also been known to run his horse in tight circles on top of that trailer, all while the truck drags them through an arena to the sound of a roaring crowd.
“I was a hardcore cowboy, and when I was putting this show together I impressed myself with a few things. I figured it’d impress other people, too,” Payne says.
Now the show is a 10-time winner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Specialty Act of the Year award.
But it almost never was. About 15 years before he got the idea that became One Arm Bandit & Co., Payne grabbed onto a live power line during a building project on his father’s ranch, which sent 7,200 volts coursing through his body. He fell 25 feet to the ground.
He lost his right arm below the shoulder in the accident, and he nearly lost his right leg. He was just 20 years old.
“I just couldn’t see myself as a fencepost for the rest of my life,” Payne says.
A life-long Oklahoman, Payne had grown up on horseback. After five weeks in the hospital, he learned to steer horses with his left arm. When he needed his hand for the bullwhip, he’d ride with his legs.
Payne’s love of a dare and what he calls “cowboy ingenuity” helped him turn his new physique from a handicap into the cornerstone of his award-winning rodeo show.
“I’d seen one rodeo act and it was horrible – I said I’d show up late just to miss it,” Payne says. “The guy dared me to come back the next year with something better.”
That was in 1987. Now Payne and his children split the country three ways, performing their death-defying stunts at rodeos and exhibitions from here to Mexico and back up to Washington state and Canada.
One Arm Bandit & Co. has performed for a variety of persons of note, including several governors, heads of state from as far away as Yemen and even royalty – namely, Prince Phillip of England. In late 2010, he traveled to Oman to perform for the sultan there.
“It’s the farthest away I’ve ever taken the show,” Payne says. “Once you go that far around the world, you can’t go any farther away without starting to come back again.”