From the Ranch to the Rodeo —

Spin to Win Rodeo - - Features - Ken­dra San­tos

If you’re look­ing for a more suc­cess­ful, proven, longterm team rop­ing horse pro­gram than the one put to­gether by NFR rop­ers David Gill, Joe Murray, and Jim Wheat­ley—good luck with that. by Ken­dra San­tos

If you’re look­ing for a more suc­cess­ful, proven, long-term team rop­ing horse pro­gram than the one put to­gether decades ago by David Gill, Joe Murray, and Jim Wheat­ley— good luck with that. The “Horses with a His­tory” way of breed­ing, break­ing, and train­ing tal­ented team rop­ing mounts is tried, true, and trusted by rop­ers at ev­ery level of the game. And on top of great horses, these three Na­tional Fi­nals Rodeo rop­ers’ gold-stan­dard rep­u­ta­tions have stood quite the test of time.

Gill, Murray, and Wheat­ley all come from foun­da­tion ranch­ing and cow­boy fam­i­lies in Cal­i­for­nia. The Gills started rais­ing horses—heavy on the Drift­wood and Han­cock blood­lines—back in the 1940s. The fam­ily is now four gen­er­a­tions deep in cat­tle­men, and has been run­ning cat­tle in the coun­try around Madera, Ex­eter, Porter­ville, and Gus­tine since the 1900s.

“My dad (Will Gill Jr.) bought an own son of Drift­wood,” said David Gill, 69, who roped at the 1985 NFR with Jim Petersen. “Easy Keeper was a 7/8 brother to (Dale Smith’s ProRodeo Hall of Fame rope horse) Poker Chip. Along the way, our cousins owned Pel­i­can, a Quar­ter Horse they used to match race all the time that could beat the Thor­ough­breds. Pel­i­can was a Joe Han­cock-bred horse. We ended up with Pel­i­can, and started cross­ing him with our Easy Keep­ers. That’s what got our pro­gram go­ing.”

The gar­gan­tuan Will Gill & Sons horse and cat­tle op­er­a­tion included David’s dad (one of the sons from the name of the out­fit; Will Gill Sr. was David’s grand­fa­ther), Will Jr., who won the Oak­dale 10 Steer Rop­ing and about ev­ery­thing else there was to win back in the day. Will

Jr.’s broth­ers included David’s Un­cle Ernest, who was the 1945 world cham­pion team roper, and Un­cle Ralph. A lot of the late, great, old-school cow­boys, in­clud­ing 1951 World Cham­pion Team Roper Olan Sims and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Clay Carr—who won world all-around ti­tles in 1930 and ’33, steer rop­ing gold buck­les in 1930 and ’40, and the world sad­dle bronc rid­ing cham­pi­onship in 1930—lived and worked on the Gill Ranch, and rode Gill horses.

The first Horses with a His­tory Sale hap­pened in 2001. The sale has since been held ev­ery other Oc­to­ber—in 2017 at the Gill fam­ily’s his­toric Adobe Ranch in Madera—with the next one slated for the fall of 2019. David’s Madera-based im­me­di­ate fam­ily also in­cludes his wife, Crea­tia, and Pro­fes­sional Rodeo Cow­boys As­so­ci­a­tion team roper son, Lan­don.

“What got us go­ing with the sale is Joe and Jim both started buy­ing and rid­ing horses from us, and built their pro­grams off of our pro­gram,” David said. “Joe bought (stud) Blue Light Ike from us, and we raised Frostys Tops (who was a Pel­i­can grand­son), which was Gil­bert Reynolds’ sor­rel stud Jim trained and won so much on. One of the rea­sons we had that first sale was that I was want­ing to cut back from the 40 mares I had at the time. It was a per­for­mance and pro­duc­tion sale, and also a re­duc­tion sale for me.”

So many greats have won a ton on horses from the Gill-Murray-Wheat­ley horse herds. There was a horse they called Cadil­lac, who was a half-brother to Frostys Tops, that Tee Wool­man and Jake Barnes rode reg­u­larly when com­pet­ing on the West Coast dur­ing their primes.

In fact, Jake rode Cadil­lac on the last three steers at the Fi­nals in 1985, the year he and Clay O’Brien Cooper won their first of seven world team rop­ing ti­tles. Hall of Fame team rop­ers Jimmy Ro­driguez and John Miller won world cham­pi­onships rid­ing horses from these same blood­lines. Derrick Be­gay’s good sor­rel horse, Swag­ger, who won the Head Horse of the BFI award one year, is a grand­son of Frostys Tops.

Murray, 68, and Wheat­ley, 72, have been bud­dies since they were ba­si­cally boys. Murray’s mom, Dorothy, was a sis­ter to World Cham­pion Team Rop­ers Vern and Vic Cas­tro, who won the world rop­ing to­gether in 1942—Vern struck for a sec­ond gold buckle in 1955. Vic gave Joe and Jim a job at which they rode side by side from sunup to sun­set for sev­eral years.

“Jim and I worked for my Un­cle Vic, cow­boy­ing at his ranch in Oak­dale,” said Murray, who still lives there in the orig- inal Cow­boy Cap­i­tal of the World with his wife, Cathy, and has two sons, Troy and Lane, who also rope. Murray headed at three straight NFRs—for Gary Gist in 1976, Rickey Green in 1977, and Gary Hem­sted in 1978. “Jim and I took care of sev­eral thou­sand head of cat­tle a sea­son. There was a time then that I was head­ing for Jim’s brother, John, at the ama­teur rodeos, too. So I go way back with the Wheat­leys. I didn’t meet David un­til about 1976. He wa­ter-skied when he was young.”

Yes, Gill was an all-around dare­devil in his youth.

“I cow­boyed all my life, and worked in the feed­lot most of the time,” David said. “But I didn’t care much about rop­ing un­til I was about 25. I was more into rac­ing go carts, dirt bikes, and drag boats. Then some of the guys at the feed­lot talked me into go­ing to a lit­tle, old nickel jack­pot with them, I won a lit­tle money, and the rest is his­tory.

“A cow­boy who was a re­ally good hand and work­ing here at the ranch, Tom Harsh, helped me a lot with my rop­ing, as did guys like Ron Goodrich, John Miller, and Tom Flen­niken. Tom was teach­ing school in Chowchilla, and would come over and turn me steers ev­ery evening. He taught me how to win, and got me over

the top.”

Wheat­ley’s a six-time NFR header, as is son Wade. Jim roped at the Fi­nals from 1973-76 with John Bill Ro­driguez, who’s Jimmy’s brother; and in 1978 and ’ 81 with the late Stan Melshaw.

“My dad (John Wheat­ley Sr., who roped with one arm—reins in his teeth— af­ter los­ing the other one to a hunt­ing ac­ci­dent in his youth) started rais­ing horses in 1954,” said Wheat­ley, who lives in Hugh­son, Cal­i­for­nia, and with wife Terry also has a daugh­ter, Katie. “He started out with one mare, Ru­bia Linda, and just about all the horses we raise go back to her. One year at the NFR in the sev­en­ties, there were three horses out of her— rid­den by me, Jim Ro­driguez, and John Deaton.

“We had our own line of horses, and then I started cross­ing them with some of David’s blood­lines. We’re rais­ing the kind of horses we like to ride—good look­ing, ath­letic horses with good dis­po­si­tions that you can ride to gather your cows, brand the calves on, then take them to the rop­ing or rodeo and com­pete on at the high­est level.

“The horses Wade and I rode at the Fi­nals were horses we raised (Wade’s renowned palomino horse, Woody, was out of a Frostys Tops mare; and his good sor­rel horse Bis­cuit was by Frostys Tops). When I was rid­ing Frostys Tops, Tee rode him at the Fi­nals. I’ve had 14 horses I’ve raised and/or trained rid­den at the Fi­nals by guys like Tee, Jake, Bobby Hur­ley, and Walt Rod­man.”

Murray’s World Cham­pion Team Roper un­cles rode Drift­wood horses through­out their leg­endary ca­reers, and that strong in­flu­ence has been handed down like a fam­ily heir­loom.

“The horses David, Jim, and I are rais­ing all go back to proven blood­lines from way back,” Joe said. “These horses have had a lot of suc­cess for many, many years, and it makes me proud that they’re still the kind of horses you can go win on to­day. They re­ally are Horses with a His­tory, they’re very train­able, and they’re made to be good at their job.

“We were all old friends and NFR team rop­ers rais­ing like-kinded horses for our­selves and our kids. When we got to where we had more than we needed for our fam­i­lies, we de­cided to get to­gether to of­fer them to the pub­lic. Our goal is to raise a higher-level rodeo and jack­pot-type horse that you can use on the ranch dur­ing the week, like they did 60 years ago. We’ve stuck with what we started with, be­cause we’ve had quite a bit of luck with these horses over the years. They’re big­ger boned and bet­ter footed than the av­er­age horse. They’re built to rope on.”

Murray men­tioned a few more four-footed suc­cess sto­ries out of this line of horses, in­clud­ing Spencer Mitchell rid­ing one at the 2012 NFR. David raised Doyle Geller­man’s good bay horse Badger. Cody Cow­den’s su­per­star bay horse Shot was by Murray’s stud Blue Light Ike (who Murray bought from Gill as a baby colt, and is out of a Frostys Tops mare who was a dou­ble-bred Lucky Blan­ton) and out of a Frostys Tops daugh­ter.

And this suc­cess story is not lim­ited to team rop­ing horses. Both of reign­ing World Cham­pion Bar­rel Racer Nel­lie Wil­liams Miller’s NFR horses, Blue Duck and Sis­ter, are out of a mare her dad, Sam Wil­liams, calls Reba, who’s a daugh­ter of Murray’s Blue Light Ike. Sis­ter showed her true grit yet again in July by win­ning Cheyenne in a hail storm. Levi Rudd also won the steer wrestling at the 2018 Daddy of ’em All rid­ing a horse out of Murray’s stud that was sold at the 2017 Horses with a His­tory Sale, and is now owned by hazer Jeff Green.

Bar­rie Beach Smith has had a lot of suc­cess over the years at the bar­rel fu­tu­ri­ties rid­ing Gill-branded horses, as has her World Cham­pion Heeler hus­band, Brad Smith. Bar­rie and Brad’s son, Ster­ling Smith, has made the NFR rid­ing Gill­bred horses in the tie-down rop­ing.

“It’s all about get­ting good horses into good hands,” Gill said. “You can breed and break them right, but if you put the best horse in the world into the wrong hands, they’ll be just an­other hay-burn­ing plug. It’s all about who does what with horses to give them the best chance to suc­ceed.

I’m not say­ing our horses are bet­ter than ev­ery­body else’s horses, but we do try to do right by them, and do what’s best for them. Bring­ing horses along slowly is a big key. Pa­tience and tak­ing the time to let them progress at their own pace is very important.

“We all ranch on these horses, which puts such a strong foun­da­tion on them. We use them, and we cow­boy on them be­fore we take them to the arena. Ninety per­cent of rodeo horses to­day are just arena broke. But giv­ing them a job be­sides just run­ning steers or bar­rels is bet­ter for their minds. Our horses en­joy get­ting out there on the ranch, and so do we.”

Gill starts his 2-year-olds, then turns them out un­til they’re 3. Then he and son Lan­don ranch on them awhile be­fore they ever see the inside of an arena.

“I like a well-mus­cled horse with good bone and good feet, with a nice, big hip,” Gill said. “We’ve tried to class up our horses over the years, be­cause ev­ery­body wants to ride a good look­ing horse now. The old Pel­i­cans were ugly. We like our horses to have a lot of cow, am­ple speed, and in­ten­sity, and the mind to han­dle it. When you’re talk­ing specif­i­cally about team rop­ing horses, we want a horse that scores and fin­ishes, and can take the pres­sure.

“It’s important to me to have a horse that’s re­ally will­ing, and en­joy­able to train. Those horses learn fast, and you don’t have to slug it out with them. Horses who like their jobs are a lot more likely to fit the next guy who rides them, too. I sell a lot of horses to busi­ness­men who rope at World Se­ries rop­ings. Those guys can win so much money. Horses I’ve raised and trained have won the Perry Di Loreto (now the Reno Mil­lion; John Pa­boo­jian won it one year on a horse David raised and Jim trained) and the BFI (Rocky Car­pen­ter won it with Tom Flen­niken Jr. in 1990), and $100,000 at the World Se­ries Fi­nale in Ve­gas.”

As is the case with the Gills and the Wheat­leys, the Murray fam­ily is all hands on deck with their horse pro­gram. Joe hal­ter breaks all the ba­bies him­self, and from there, ev­ery­one sad­dles up. They stand three studs—each with his own story on how he ties back to this blood­line—in­clud­ing Four Gill, Espuela Tom, and Azul­tis. Like Murray’s old Blue Light Ike horse, Espuela Tom is out of a dou­ble-bred Lucky Blan­ton mare. Azul­tis, which means “lit­tle blue,” is out of a half-sis­ter to Sam Wil­liams’s mare Reba, who, again, has blessed Nel­lie so richly in the bar­rel rac­ing arena. Four Gill was raised by the Haythorn Land and Cat­tle Com­pany in Arthur, Ne­braska, and when the Haythorns sold out, the Mur­rays made the trek to Arthur, be­cause Four Gill was the only full brother to Blue Light Ike who was still a stallion.

This Horses with a His­tory pro­gram— which of­fers horses rang­ing “from wean­lings to fin­ished jack­pot and rodeo horses you can go win money on” at the bi­en­nial sale—is based on a bond of trust and re­spect. And though their herds get a lit­tle smaller as these liv­ing-leg­end cow­boys get a lit­tle older—David’s down to 10 mares and three studs, Joe has 22 mares in ad­di­tion to his three studs, and Jim’s cut his herd back to five mares—that bond goes for both the hu­mans and the horses. Qual­ity has never been sac­ri­ficed for quan­tity, and—bot­tom line—these are good horses in good hands.

“To train a good rope horse, you’ve got to start ’em the same old way they did years ago—with a lot of wet sad­dle blan­kets,” said Wheat­ley, who proved yet again to be a friend in­deed when Murray found him­self in need of a short-round ride at Cal­i­for­nia Rodeo Sali­nas in July. Joe jumped on Jim’s 8-year-old head horse Dude, and won the in­cen­tive buckle in the Gold Card rop­ing with Ron­nie Gar­cia. “I spend a lot of time with my colts when I’m hal­ter break­ing them. Then I like to do a lot of ranch work on them. Af­ter all that, when you take them to the arena, ev­ery­thing is easy.

“Rid­ing a horse you can de­pend on makes win­ning so much eas­ier. It doesn’t mat­ter if you’re a hobby roper or rop­ing for a liv­ing, you need some­thing you can de­pend on. That’s the point of rop­ing, and horses like these make it fun.”








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