Horses ran in George Buckingham’s blood. It was the only explanation. 

Buckingham’s mother, Joyce, was a horsewoman herself. Raised in Seattle, she trained horses with her first husband, a former rodeo clown named Donald Woods, and had three children before Woods died. Joyce then married George’s father, a member of the Royal Canadian Navy also named George Buckingham. 

The kids once lived like cowboys, growing up around racehorses, broncos and show horses, according to Buckingham’s brother. But after Woods died — before George was old enough to ride — the family had stopped going to rodeo shows and working with horses. George didn’t grow up with them the same way his siblings did.

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Nevertheless, Buckingham ended up working at a Washington ranch, and at age 21, found an ad asking for help at a horse farm in Kentucky. It offered something new, something far away. So Buckingham answered the ad, received a bus ticket from Seattle to Kentucky, and off he went. 

George Buckingham moved to Kentucky when he was 21 to work with racehorses. (courtesy Douglas Woods and Andrea Rosentreter)
George Buckingham moved to Kentucky when he was 21 to work with racehorses. (courtesy Douglas Woods and Andrea Rosentreter)
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Before Buckingham died outside on Fourth Avenue South on July 29, just a 10-minute walk from his homeless shelter, he spent nearly 25 years working with racehorses across the American South. The calling to work with horses was a spiritual one, according to his family. But the end of his life at 55 follows a sadly familiar pattern. More than 100 people have died homeless each year in Seattle since 2017.

I met George at a coffee shop in Pioneer Square last fall, where he began to open up to me about the details of his life before he became homeless in Seattle. He was a slight, wiry man, and his shirtless Facebook photos and the lines around his smile told me that he had some good years of partying under his belt.

George had a way of telling stories about his racehorse days that, at first, I believed were maybe too good to be true — but at the time, we were focused on the present. George’s encampment had been cleared by the city and in the process the city seized a medical device he used to help him walk. His attempts to get it back became the focus of a story I wrote in January about how common and distressing it was for people to lose important items during the city’s encampment removals.

After the story, George and I stayed in touch. We’d chat by phone or meet up for coffee, where he’d slide on a pair of rectangular glasses that gave him grandfatherly airs to search on his smartphone for photos of the horses he worked with. At his feet lay Trigger, a tiny, friendly Chihuahua-Jack Russell service dog that was often more fashionably dressed than his owner. At the shelter, Trigger was known as the “baby,” and it was clear that no matter George’s circumstances, Trigger’s needs would come first.

Over the months I knew George, I learned that in the good old days, he would get up at 5 a.m., ride 10 horses before 10, then head to another farm or two to do it all over again. Days off would be spent at the beach, or partying hard with others on the farm. Buckingham took pride in the physical scars from all those years of work. He had broken both wrists, both arms, had teeth knocked out, split his eye, and had plates and screws in an ankle. 

He loved what he did. 

“It was spiritual, being kind to animals,” Buckingham’s brother, Douglas Woods, remembered. “He loved animals.” 

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Back at auction, the horses Buckingham took care of could sell for at least six figures. Buckingham had the auction YouTube videos as proof. But beneath the luxe world of racehorse sales was a harsh business: Buckingham was paid in cash and didn’t have insurance. He had long struggled with alcohol and opiod use. Many of his friends also endured injuries, chronic pain and addiction. 

“He’d be working even if he was dog sick,” said Buckingham’s nephew, Billy Tatom. “He’d still go to the stalls and make sure his horses were taken care of.” 

At the same time, Buckingham’s drug problems got him into trouble in Florida, where he got a job breaking racehorses. He served more than two years in a Florida prison on a theft charge after he violated his drug treatment probation.

Still, even in prison, Buckingham found a way to work with animals. He joined a program working with stray dogs to train them to be adopted.

“All animals loved him,” according to Buckingham’s former sister-in-law Andrea Rosentreter. “He had that way about him. He could get all animals to come to him. He had that knack.” 

George Buckingham loved working with horses. “I know when he couldn’t ride horses anymore, that broke him,” said Buckingham’s nephew, Billy Tatom.   (courtesy Douglas Woods and Andrea Rosentreter)
George Buckingham loved working with horses. “I know when he couldn’t ride horses anymore, that broke him,” said Buckingham’s nephew, Billy Tatom. (courtesy Douglas Woods and Andrea Rosentreter)
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Later in his life, Buckingham would come back to the Seattle area during summers to work with friends or family selling fireworks on the Muckleshoot Reservation. He’d sleep near the fireworks shed on those summer nights to make sure no one messed with the goods, and when he was in town, he’d make sure to show up to all of his nephews’ birthday parties and football games.  

“Uncle George loved them,” Rosentreter said. “And he would go out of his way to be at a party for one of them. Whatever he could do, he would be there.” 

But the work with horses took its toll. One day, while rounding a corner with a horse on the track, Buckingham heard what he thought sounded like a two-by-four plank snap. 

He woke up in a Miami hospital with shattered vertebrae in his spine and a leg he could largely no longer use. 

Chronic pain from Buckingham’s injuries worsened existing addiction issues. And when Buckingham couldn’t work with horses anymore, he ended up in the Seattle area to seek help from family and his home state. He bounced around with friends and family before ending up in the homelessness system.

“I know when he couldn’t ride horses anymore, that broke him,” Tatom said. “That was his purpose in life, to be around horses and animals. Once he got hurt, he couldn’t do that anymore. He couldn’t even work as a shedrow hand because he couldn’t physically do it.” 

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Sometimes Buckingham’s behavior — particularly his tendency to leave without notice — strained trust with people close to him. But over the months I knew him, George and I developed a form of it. Before I published the story about his missing medical device, George called me to make sure I knew about his criminal record. (The Seattle Times always backgrounds sources, so I did.) He was also open about his struggle to stay sober, and began to tell me about scary overdoses he experienced, usually a couple of weeks after they happened. Over more time, George began to tell me about things that had haunted him since childhood.

George was much more than a source on a single story. I began to call him a friend.

George did everything people are supposed to do if they become homeless in Seattle. He applied for a state housing program for people with disabilities, and he got a small apartment he spiffed up. But when he was approved for federal disability, he was kicked off the state program and ended up back on the street. 

The last year of Buckingham’s life was mostly spent in the St. Martin de Porres shelter with Trigger, his service dog. There, Buckingham spent months waiting for housing and trying to replace the medical device that helped him walk.

Buckingham was close to getting housing again — he would have been able to have a place of his own if he had survived just a week longer, according to his brother.

Buckingham died of an overdose before that could happen. His family plans to scatter his ashes off Hurricane Ridge, the same way the family put Buckingham’s mother and older sister to rest.  

Buckingham is survived by his brothers Douglas and Steve, his son Lane, Trigger, of course, and many of the horses he worked with.