Spin to Win Rodeo - - Competitive Edge - By Ken­dra San­tos

The team rop­ing busi­ness is boom­ing. And now that the shift in gears from sur­viv­ing to thriv­ing is be­hind us in the rear view mir­ror, that state­ment goes for ba­si­cally every as­pect of the in­dus­try—in­clud­ing rope horses.

Ev­ery­body knows there’s no more cru­cial com­po­nent to suc­cess at every level of this game than horse­power. It’s also a fact that the ma­jor­ity of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of team rop­ers in this coun­try make their liv­ings out­side the arena and rope recre­ation­ally af­ter work and on week­ends.

But with bun­dles of big bucks up for grabs at every turn for team rop­ers to­day—$5 mil­lion at the 2017 Cinch Na­tional Fi­nals of Team Rop­ing in Ok­la­homa City last Oc­to­ber, and $12 mil­lion at the 2017 World Se­ries of Team Rop­ing Fi­nale last De­cem­ber in Las Ve­gas alone—a horse up­grade is how rop­ers grad­u­ate from good to great and come through in the clutch for the win.

The ba­sic eco­nomics law of sup­ply and de­mand has kicked in full force in the rope-horse busi­ness, and it’s a hot topic for all in­volved—recre­ational rop­ers and rodeo rop­ers alike. We asked a few in­dus­try ex­perts to share in this conversation about the grow­ing rope-horse mar­ket, and how all rop­ers of all ages and skill sets can ben­e­fit from a move­ment that’s gain­ing mo­men­tum fast.

J.D. Yates is an all-around rop­ing in­dus­try icon. Yates, 57, has roped at 21 Wran­gler Na­tional Fi­nals Rodeos, and is one of the rare few ver­sa­tile enough to qual­ify at both ends—19 times as a heeler and twice on the head­ing side. The 10time Na­tional Fi­nals Steer Rop­ing qual­i­fier has also rid­den horses to 44 Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse As­so­ci­a­tion world cham­pi­onships, and five ul­ti­mate ver­sa­til­ity Su­per­horse awards at the AQHA World Cham­pi­onship Show.

“The team rop­ing in­dus­try has grown by leaps and bounds—over 1,000 per­cent since when I started rop­ing,” said Yates, whose Pue­blo, Colorado-based Hitchrack Per­for­mance Horses got its name from the brand handed down to him from momma Jan’s fam­ily ranch in Colorado Springs. “The big rop­ings are multi-mil­lion-dol­lar op­er­a­tions that give team rop­ers so much fi­nan­cial op­por­tu­nity to­day. Ev­ery­body loves to win, and wants in on that big-money ac­tion. That makes good horses worth a lot of money.”

J.D.’s cousin, Jay Wad­hams, heeled for Jay Eller­man at the 1993 NFR, and for J.D. at the Fi­nals in 1996. Jay works as a hired gun for train­ers, show­ing a num­ber of horses in the head­ing and heel­ing. Jay’s rid­den horses to 14 AQHA world cham­pi­onships over the years, in­clud­ing 2017 AQHA World Cham­pion Se­nior Heel Horse Smart Nu Shiner, AKA Cisco.

Jay and his wife, Lind­say, who also live in Pue­blo, founded the Amer­i­can Rope Horse Fu­tu­rity As­so­ci­a­tion 14 years ago. They started small in Fort Worth, and built the con­cept in Ok­la­homa, Texas and Ne­braska be­fore re­turn­ing to Fort Worth last Oc­to­ber for the break­through, block­buster ARHFA World Cham­pi­onship Rope Horse Fu­tu­rity, which fea­tured $100,000 in added money and was held in con­junc­tion with the Na­tional Reined Cow Horse As­so­ci­a­tion’s Snaf­fle Bit Fu­tu­rity. The Rope Horse Fu­tu­rity is for horses rang­ing in age from 4-6.

“We paid out $292,000 plus prizes in one day, which is a first,” Jay said. “There were 97 head horses and 122 heel horses en­tered. The in­dus­try is ob­vi­ously ready. It’s hard to sea­son young horses at the big-money rop­ings, where peo­ple are go­ing to get on old faith­ful. But with lots and lots of money to win to­day, fu­tu­ri­ties are a place to show­case some very tal­ented young horses. Be­cause of the lim­ited age group, the play­ing field is lev­eled, kind of like the num­ber sys­tem does for the rop­ers. Horse sales where peo­ple have a chance to buy some of these re­ally nice horses will fol­low, no doubt. These horses that are solid and about to turn 7 are pretty well sea­soned for a recre­ational type roper to go on with.

“All rop­ers are look­ing for a nice horse, and these fu­tu­ri­ties give peo­ple a chance to come watch a lot of great horses work, then pick one out for them­selves, their kid or grand­kid. When I go to buy a horse, I’m not look­ing for that re­ally big show horse or rodeo horse. I’m look­ing for that re­ally good horse you want to ride at the big rop­ing. The horses at these fu­tu­ri­ties have such a solid foun­da­tion, and that’s the best base to start with and go on with to the rop­ings.”

Ac­cord­ing to Jay and J.D., the guy who stepped up and took the rope-horse fu­tu­rity to the next level was Dean Tuftin of DT Horses. Dean heeled for Speed Wil­liams at the 2007 NFR. He’s also a life­long horse­man, who’s rid­den colts all his life, as well as ev­ery­thing from English horses to bar­rel horses, in ad­di­tion to rope horses by the thou­sand.

“There are 200,000 team rop­ers in North Amer­ica, and there are lots of NRCHA horses that don’t make great cow horses or cut­ters, but do make great rope horses,” said Tuftin, 47, who runs his op­er­a­tion with his wife, Les­lie, out of Scotts­dale, Ari­zona. “With these rope-horse fu­tu­ri­ties, we’re show­cas­ing the best young horses and train­ers in Amer­ica. A lot of the horses be­ing built now fit the jack-

pot sys­tem bet­ter than they do the rodeo trail. Ide­ally, I want my horses to go to the World Se­ries of Team Rop­ing arena, where there’s less pres­sure.”

Dean’s had DT Horses out on the rodeo road, mind you, in­clud­ing Brady Mi­nor’s two-time AQHA Heel Horse of the Year, Rey, who won that award in 2014-15.

“We build horses for longevity,” Tuftin said. “I don’t want to put all my time into the ge­net­ics, train­ing and vet bills it takes to get one to a cer­tain level, then have him get blown up in six months. That’s not a win-win. I typ­i­cally sell a horse when he’s about 5. They aren’t ready for the rodeo trail then any­way.”

Tuftin started his rope-horse breed­ing pro­gram be­fore he and Speed set sail with the goal of slay­ing the NFR dragon. Iron­i­cally, it all started with a cou­ple of mares he bought in Rhode Is­land, which is where so many of their pro­gram’s proven cham­pi­ons came from, in­clud­ing Rey. Also some­what un­ex­pected was the ad­vice Speed gave the life­long horse­man for when he wanted to win when timed and not judged.

“Speed said, ‘ You can’t be fo­cused on your horse go­ing down the arena at the rodeos,’” Dean re­mem­bers. “You have to do your prepa­ra­tion at home, trust him at the rodeos, and fo­cus only on rop­ing that steer as fast as you can.”

Bil­lie Jack Saebens also en­ters this conversation from every an­gle. He’s heeled for Cole­man Proc­tor at the last two NFRs, and has been the head trainer for Dixon Flow­ers Rope Horses—which is owned by Duke and Lind­sey Dixon, and Lind­sey’s folks, Mike and Mar­cia Flow­ers—in Nowata, Ok­la­homa, the past eight years.

“We do ev­ery­thing from rais­ing horses to start­ing 2-year-olds, train­ing out­side horses, tun­ing up peo­ple’s horses, and sell­ing horses,” said Saebens, who’ll be 29 on March 24. “As a trainer, I just want to make a horse that any­body can ride. Of course when I start rid­ing a horse, I al­ways have high hopes that he’ll be the next great one. But whether he’s great or not, I want a #3 or a #10 to be able to win on him.”

Or her. Bil­lie Jack’s been seen in re­cent times rid­ing DT Sugar Chex Whiz at rop­ings and rodeos. The horse Bil­lie Jack calls “The Black Mare” was raised, cow-horse broke and roped on by Tuftin be­fore be­ing fin­ished as a rope horse by Yates for Dixon Flow­ers Rope Horses. J.D. won the 2015 AQHA Ju­nior Tie-Down Rop­ing World Cham­pi­onship on her. At 55, J.D. hung up his com­pet­i­tive calf ropes with that win, though he still trains tiedown rop­ing horses.

“Any­body who trains horses for a liv­ing will tell you that by the hour we prob­a­bly don’t make min­i­mum wage,” Bil­lie Jack said. “But train­ing horses has helped me un­der­stand horses bet­ter and ap­pre­ci­ate them more. So many peo­ple han­dle their rope good. There has to be some­thing that sep­a­rates the good from the great, and that’s the horse you ride.”

Bil­lie Jack pi­loted Dixon Flow­ers’ bay Ma­cho Man Whiz, whom he’s rid­den since he was 2, to the win at the big Rope Horse Fu­tu­rity in Fort Worth in Oc­to­ber, and won $22,500 on him there as just a 4-year-old.

“The in­dus­try is get­ting good enough to where it makes sense to raise and train rope horses to­day,” Saebens said. “We’re get­ting to the point where it’s fi­nan­cially fea­si­ble to take the time and money to do that. Horses are ev­ery­thing. If you’re very se­ri­ous about your rop­ing, you bet­ter be on some­thing that won’t cost you any­thing. You might not be able to af­ford the very best one out there, but you need one you can count on.”

Horses are the heart­beat of the Yates-Wad­hams fam­ily, and they’ve banked their lives on the backs of horses.

“Horses are our fam­ily,” said J.D., whose sis­ter, Kelly, is an NFR bar­rel racer. “They bring our fam­ily to­gether. They’re who we are and what we do. We ride horses. In our fam­ily, these horses are part of the fam­ily. They’re who we are and what we love.

“All we’ve ever done is ride horses, and what we fig­ured out a long time ago is that if you teach a horse the right way first, he’ll last longer and make you more money at the end of the road. There are no short­cuts to mak­ing a good horse, and the value of the good ones is at an all-time high along with the money peo­ple can win now, which is amaz­ing.”

J.D. has count­less cool horse sto­ries. But

the coolest of all has to be the one about a bay horse by the name of Buster, whom J.D. bought as a 3-year-old and gave to Daddy Dick for Fa­ther’s Day that year. Fast for­ward 22 years to the 2016 Cheyenne Fron­tier Days Rodeo, where then25-year-old Buster (his reg­is­tered name is Catheys Div­i­dend) helped 56-year-old J.D. win the all-around cham­pi­onship at the Daddy of ’em All in the Cow­boy State of Wy­oming.

“I bought Buster from (1949, ’50, ’54 and ’55 World Cham­pion Steer Roper) Shoat Web­ster,” J.D. ex­plained. “He was by Shoat’s Thor­ough­bred stud he called Div­i­dend and out of a Quar­ter Horse mare. My dad roped on him for years. I won the 2002 NFR av­er­age on him (head­ing for Bobby Har­ris). I won the NFSR av­er­age on him in 2008. When Jay and I won the BFI in 2010 I was rid­ing Buster.

“At 56, that 25-year-old horse let me split the sec­ond round and win third in the av­er­age with my son (Trey) at Cheyenne. I also won third in the steer rop­ing (rid­ing a dif­fer­ent horse that day). I’m a short, fat guy who’d had a knee re­place­ment ear­lier that year, and I won the al­laround at The Daddy. Horse­power let that hap­pen.”

And that was not an iso­lated in­ci­dent. “I’ve al­ways known that the bet­ter the horse I had, the bet­ter chance I had to win,” J.D. con­tin­ued. “A lot of peo­ple have al­ways roped bet­ter than me. I take a lot of pride in hav­ing good horses be- tween my legs. I’m now 57 years old and com­pet­ing against guys half my age. I want and need a great horse to make up the dif­fer­ence. The suc­cess in my ca­reer has been all about horse­power.

“At my age, there’s noth­ing bet­ter than see­ing some­one take one of the horses I’ve trained and go win on him. When you can train one some­body else can ride and win on, that’s a great feel­ing. It doesn’t get any bet­ter than that. It’s where I get my pride and en­joy­ment now—spend­ing time on horses and mak­ing sure that when they go on down the road af­ter me they can help other peo­ple suc­ceed. That’s a win for me.”

“We’re to the point where there’s ac­tu­ally com­pe­ti­tion among rop­ers to get their hands on the good horses,” Jay said. “These rop­ings are pay­ing so much money that peo­ple are start­ing to rec­og­nize the value of in­vest­ing in the best horse they can buy. There are so many peo­ple rop­ing any­more that the good ones can be hard to find. But as that de­mand in­creases, more train­ers are able to make a busi­ness of mak­ing good horses, and the re­sult of that is more good horses on the mar­ket.

“There are more rope horse train­ers now than ever be­fore, be­cause of that de­mand. Peo­ple like me are work­ing to con­nect the peo­ple who are mak­ing the best horses with the peo­ple who need them. Not every glove fits every hand, so it’s im­por­tant that peo­ple are matched with horses that’ll work for them.”

Wad­hams cau­tions recre­ational rop­ers from mak­ing the age-old mis­take of start­ing with a green horse and think­ing they can learn the ropes to­gether.

“I tell peo­ple who work for a liv­ing to go spend the money on a good, fin­ished horse, so they can en­joy rop­ing,” Jay said. “Rop­ing is not their job, and get­ting on a colt or a horse they have to fight with when they have lim­ited time to rope is not fun. If you rope for fun and aren’t hav­ing any fun at it, what’s the point?”

Tuftin, who bred, raised and trained 2017 World Rope Horse Fu­tu­rity Head Horse Champ DT Air Jor­dan, sec­onds that.

“Some lower-num­bered rop­ers don’t re­al­ize how much bet­ter they’ll do on a good horse,” he said. “At that stage, you don’t need a sports car. You need a Chevy pickup you can trust, that won’t get you in a wreck. You wouldn’t drive down the free­way with­out steer­ing and brakes. Why would you want to run down the arena chas­ing a steer at full speed with­out steer­ing and brakes?”

“These horses are ath­letes. What the best rop­ers do is magic, and ev­ery­one wants to watch the best in any sport. But a lot of guys at every level blame miss­ing on their right hand when they didn’t ride their horse into cor­rect po­si­tion. We’re just now tap­ping into the im­por­tance of ge­net­ics and horse­man­ship in the rop­ing in­dus­try, and the dif­fer­ence it’s al­ready mak­ing is huge.

“The re­sults that come with rid­ing a bet­ter horse are off the charts. Our process is long. Pa­tience is a big part of all good train­ing pro­grams. But the re­sults say it’s worth it. A lot of peo­ple have never rid­den a re­ally good horse, so they don’t know what they’re miss­ing. That’s chang­ing, too. Try it, you’ll get it and you won’t go back.”





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