My year started with a surprise phone call.
by Spencer Mitchell
In March of this year, after the winter rodeos, I was back home in California breaking in steers for a friend of mine, when my phone rang. It was one of my best friends, a guy I grew up with.
“I just got off the phone with Clay O’Brien Cooper,” he said. “He was asking whether I thought you’d be the right partner for him. I told him that you’re roping really good and this would be a great time to rope with you.”
Clay’s an icon, as anybody in the rodeo industry knows. Twenty-nine trips to the National Finals Rodeo. Seven gold buckles. He’s a heeler. I’m a header. I’ve seen Clay since I was a little kid and have always thought about roping with him.
“He should be calling you pretty soon,” my friend said.
About five minutes later my phone started going off again. It was Clay.
I started the year roping with a good friend, Jason Duby. We won the first round at Odessa, Texas, the very first rodeo we went to. We placed really good in a round at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver. We won the second go-round at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. We went back to Arizona and won the rodeo in Buckeye. We were doing great. I was right around tenth in the standings.
After Clay called, I faced a really tough decision, but roping with Clay was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. Jason understood. We worked things out so that he would have enough time to find another partner.
The first rodeo me and Clay entered was Oakdale, California. We placed in both the rounds and won the rodeo. Shoot, there isn’t any feeling better than that. No matter who your partner is, to succeed at the very first place you go, it’s hard to beat the confidence you gain from that.
From what Clay has told me and what I’ve read about him, he likes to rope with a guy who’s pretty aggressive, and that tends to be my nature. Ever since a young age, I’ve liked to throw a little more rope than most people. I’m pretty tall and have long arms, which helps. And I’ve been lucky to have had nice horses and talented partners. I’ve roped with heelers whose consistency level allowed me to miss a few more steers, but when we did catch a steer, we’d place at the top of the go-rounds and keep moving on.
After Oakdale, me and Clay went to Red Bluff. I missed the first steer, but we came back and placed in the second go-round. We won checks dang near every weekend for the first few weeks. Then we hit a patch of trouble. The Fourth of July was tough. I struggled at some of the bigger rodeos. We placed at a few, but I missed a few good steers and broke a barrier over the Fourth and that cost us. Clay’s got the right attitude. He always seems to keep your confidence and his confidence really high. He never questioned the shot that you took at the rodeo, which is good, because as soon as you get down, it’s hard to get back up in the rodeo world. He doesn’t let it get you down if you draw bad. He’s the first guy to say, Well, I guess we’ll draw a few more lopers next week.
Around the middle of August, Clay wanted to take a break. He had about twelve thousand less than I had won and had different goals from me. He was looking to break the top forty to qualify for the big winter rodeos and set himself up for next year. I understood what he was trying to accomplish, but I still had a good chance of making the NFR. Clay told me if I could find another heeler that would be great.
I partnered up with my good friend Russell Cardoza. In the first couple of weeks, we won six thousand dollars. We never did kick butt, but we dang sure kept placing. At the start of September, with one month of rodeoing left, I was right around the fifteenth hole. Russell was a little farther back in the standings, but he still had a chance.
In the team roping, we have the fewest amount of rodeos that count towards our PRCA winnings of all the events. I knew what rodeos we had and what a person needed to get done at those rodeos. Puyallup and Pendleton were the last two where we could win really big checks.
Russell had been limping around since June. His hip was hurting to the point where he had to mount his horse on the opposite side because his hip couldn’t take the pressure. I don’t think it affected his performance. He’s so talented, I believe he could rope through dang near anything.
He never saw a doctor about his hip until late August in Kennewick, Washington. He got an X-ray, and they told him his whole hip socket was messed up and he might need surgery. Russell’s a calf roper, too, and at some point, he hung a toe in his stirrup and got jerked down. The doctors told him he needed to be on crutches, but he was still roping.
We both could have used big checks at Puyallup and Pendleton. At Puyallup, Russell lost the second steer, and I missed the second steer at Pendleton.
After Pendleton, Russell’s chance was done, but I still had a really good chance at making the National Finals and was entered in six more rodeos to give it a go. I knew how much Russell was hurting. He’s such a good friend that if I would have asked him, he would have gone on to those six rodeos. But I couldn’t see him hurt himself worse, even if it was going to help me.
We started making calls.
The night after we were up at Pendleton, we were entered at St. George, Utah. My good friend Randon Adams was entered at St. George with his brother-in-law, Jory Levy, but Randon said I could take his position and rope with Jory. We made a good run. I believe we were 4.8 and split fourth and fifth at the rodeo.
Another friend, Tate Kirchenschlager, was entered at Albuquerque, with Nano Garza. Tate allowed me to rope with Nano.
Having such a big network of friends means everything to me. Randon and Tate are more like family. They’ve really helped me out over the years. In fact, the last time I made the NFR, in 2012, I was on the bubble. My partner, Dakota Kirchenschlager, and I flew to Las Vegas, and Randon sent his two best horses and a driver to help me make the Finals.
This year, with two rodeos left—Poway and San Bernardino, both in California—I was about thirty-five hundred dollars away from making the NFR. I needed to do well at both to have a chance. For those rodeos, I partnered up with Cody Cowden. I roped with Cody back in 2007, when I was just a kid. We’ve been friends for a long time.
At Poway, I decided to ride a horse I’ve been riding all year, a sorrel mare called Megan. She scores really well and she hadn’t done anything all year to cost me. She’s not known for her speed. She’ll run as hard as she can, but if you draw too strong a steer, she might have trouble. In July, I bought a new horse, a fourteen-year-old gelding called Houdini. He’s faster than Megan, but Megan got me to where I was, so I wanted to stay on her.
In hindsight, I probably should have ridden Houdini. We drew a strong, fast steer. I took more of a chance than I should have and missed him.
I ended the year at sixteenth, the crying hole. It was tough. I’ve been within about four thousand dollars of making the Finals four or five times in my career, so I know the feeling. I rope great, and I’ve been fortunate to have great partners. I know the only thing I can do now is go back and find the spots I need to work on to improve myself and my horses. Maybe the biggest thing I realized is that this year I only placed in three averages. The way the money adds up in team roping, that’s not acceptable. I need to be catching more steers. I’m not saying I’m going to rope any less aggressively. I just need to get more consistent while roping aggressively. Maybe slow down just a bit without changing my style.
I’m really confident in my new horse, Houdini. Next year, I’m planning on ending the year at the top, not the bottom.