The Horse That Made Me

 Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

Reata gave me everything. Now, he deserves to go home.

by Shane Hanchey
 
 

 

It finally hit me one day last September at my buddy Clint Robinson’s ranch in Spanish Fork, Utah. As realizations go, it wasn’t a surprise—I always knew the day would come—but the emotions that washed over me stopped me in my tracks.

I had settled my new horse, Pam Pam, into one of Clint’s stalls and was helping with chores and feeling excited about adding another top-caliber horse to my collection. The 2017 season was winding down, and I was looking forward to roping in December’s National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

“Hey, go pull those horses off the walker and put them up,” Clint said.

Approaching the round pen, I realized that one of those horses was my Reata.

I knew he was there, of course. Clint had kept him half the summer, ever since the Calgary Stampede and K-Days Rodeo in Edmonton. But I had just purchased Pam Pam, the sister of my horse Bam Bam. That’s when it hit me.

It was time for Reata to retire.

Reata didn’t need this life anymore. He had proven himself. He was a champion.

And he had taken a skinny kid from south Louisiana and turned him into a champion, too.

Retirement would be a good thing, but the idea of never roping on Reata again left me feeling empty. All these years, he stuck by me. But now, nearly 20 years old, he was aging out. I still have years to compete, God willing, and the good fortune to own three fine, young horses. It feels unfair—the short lifespan of horses. I’ll keep rodeoing, but I won’t have Reata to check on in the middle of the night. Or to reassure me in the arena.

Without Reata, a part of me will always be missing.

 Photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

Photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

For years, Reata was all I had. Just him and me, trailering from rodeo to rodeo, staking my claim in a future I wanted more than anything.

And before that? I was a lump of clay waiting to be shaped.

Before Reata, I secretly dreamed that roping or baseball would be my ticket. I was handy at both, despite being five-foot-five and maybe 120 pounds soaking wet. I’m from Louisiana, where the pull of sports, like baseball, is strong. But my love and admiration for my older brother, Jason, a skilled roper and horseman, was stronger. I came into this world as a left-hander, but Jason, 13 years older, steered me to rope with my right hand, for which I’m grateful. He was demanding, patient, dedicated. I may have had spunk, but he taught me most everything else.

You know coaches. They preach work ethic and commitment. Maybe he figured I was a quitter. But I had found something else—a great horse.

And then one morning, Jason told me he was moving to Florida.

This was back in August of 2005, when I was 15. He said he got a job training horses for a rancher in Okeechobee. I won’t lie. I bawled like a baby. The news left me heartbroken and lost. With high school and the rest of my life bearing down, I felt like if I didn’t commit to baseball or roping, I’d end up doing shift work in the refineries. A perfectly respectable future, just not the one I dreamed about.

After Jason left, baseball tugged harder. I almost gave up roping.

Almost.

Six months later, my brother invited me to Florida for a five-head jackpot roping.

Jason bought me a plane ticket—the first time I ever flew—paid my entry fee and put me on a green, six-year-old gelding named Reata. I was too young to realize it, but he saw something special in that horse. Maybe in me, too. Still, I was the trainer’s kid brother, a ball player barely out of Little Britches Rodeo, and Reata was unproven. We were up against the big boys, including some pros. There was real money at stake. Reata and I didn’t have a chance.

But dang if we didn’t win!

Man, I can’t describe the feeling. Riding Reata filled me with a confidence I’d never experienced. It was like a light switch went off.

“If you can find a way to get that horse back to Sulphur,” Jason’s boss, ranch owner Buck Daniel, told me. “He’s yours.”

“If I can get him on the plane, I’ll give him my return ticket!” I said.

We found Reata trailer space back to Louisiana. A week later, I walked into the high school baseball coach’s office and turned in my gear bag.

“I’m gonna focus on rodeoing,” I told him. “I want to make a living roping calves.”

“Shane,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

You know coaches. They preach work ethic and commitment. Maybe he figured I was a quitter. But I had found something else—a great horse.

With Reata, I told myself, the sky’s the limit. This could be special if you don’t get in the way of it.

 Photo by Terry Daniel / Cowboy Journal

Photo by Terry Daniel / Cowboy Journal

It’s been more than a decade since that fateful Florida jackpot, and, yes, Reata and I had a fine run. Rookie of the Year, eight trips to the National Finals Rodeo, a World Championship belt buckle. But the prize buckles and saddles and money are only objects. Reata brought me so much more. He molded me into who I am today, inside and outside the arena.

Sure, he’s smart and fast, but what makes Reata special is his spirit. He never gives up. You wouldn’t believe the hardships he has bounced back from. There were times when he should have been done. Done!

The first happened back in 2006, three weeks before my first National High School Finals Rodeo. Reata cut his hind leg on a culvert behind our barn in Sulphur. I was young and didn’t think it was a big deal. I doctored it the way my brother and Uncle Butch told me to. A few days before the finals in Illinois, Reata was still acting lame. We took him to a vet, who said Reata nicked his tendon sheath. Any deeper, and he may never have recovered.

Needless to say, I didn’t ride him at the finals. He was out for three months. You can still see the scar six inches above his hoof.

In 2009, during the Cowboy Christmas run of my PRCA rookie year, Reata and I drove all night from Prescott, Arizona, to St. Paul, Oregon. When we left Arizona, the temperature was 95 degrees. When we woke in Oregon, it had dropped to 38 degrees. Reata was dragging. His nose was running, so I took his temperature. Sure enough, he was running a fever.

I wanted him to see our vet in Louisiana. I stayed and mounted out, while my cousin Kyle, who had come along to help, loaded Reata and drove home, 2,400 miles east and south across the Rockies, stopping every so often to make sure Reata was still living.

Sending him home was the right decision. Reata had pleuropneumonia, which afflicts the lungs and membranes surrounding the lungs. The vet told us that maybe one in four horses survives a serious bout of pleuropneumonia, and even then, they’re little more than pasture ornaments. I was 19 and finally gaining confidence, thanks to Reata. I even dared to dream of making the NFR that year. Then Reata got sick.

I had some low moments and fought to keep out the darkest thoughts. Without Reata, what would I do with my life? I just prayed he would get better.

The vet pumped Reata full of antibiotics. His fever didn’t break for a week. You could look in his eyes and see he was in pain. It was touch and go.

Reata’s always been a cribber—a bad habit, but it’s who he is. When you take his cribbing collar off, that’s his tell. If he doesn’t feel like biting wood, you know something’s wrong. That summer, as Reata was recovering, he didn’t crib for a month.

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Without a horse, I mounted out the rest of the 2009 season. I didn’t make the NFR, but I won Rookie of the Year thanks to Justin Macha and Clint Cooper. What made me even happier was seeing the spark return to Reata’s eyes that fall.

Reata came back strong the next year, helping me qualify for my first NFR. In Las Vegas, we placed in six out of ten rounds, won the seventh and finished third in the average and third in the world standings. We had another good year in 2011, with a round-nine win at the NFR and an 11th place finish in the world standings. The next year was even better. As 2012 drew to a close, Reata and I had a serious shot at winning the World Championship. And, in my opinion, he deserved to win Horse of the Year.

That November, I was in Miami for the Southeastern Circuit Finals Rodeo. Reata was on his way to Edmonton, Alberta, for the Canadian Finals Rodeo. I had done great in Canada that year. My plan was to rope on Speck, one of my brother’s horses in Florida, and then fly up to Canada and rope on Reata before heading to the NFR in December. That’s when I got a call that changed everything.

It was my buddy, Drew, who was hauling Reata to Canada. He sounded scared.

Drew said he had pulled off to walk Reata, but Reata was acting strange, picking at his belly, like he was colicking.

“Don’t panic,” I told Drew. “Just give him some Banamine. He’ll get better.”

He didn’t.

They were north of Denver. I called my vet, Josh Harvey of Outlaw Equine in Decatur, Texas. He suggested Drew head for the College of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins.

After Drew arrived, he and I connected the Colorado State folks with Dr. Harvey. I let my vet make the final call. They decided to operate. Immediately.

I got on the phone with one of the Colorado State vets. I think she was a student intern.

“Mr. Hanchey, is your horse insured?” she asked.

“What do you mean is Reata insured?”

“In case he doesn’t survive the surgery.”

“Y’all can’t let that happen!” I said. “Please do everything you can. That horse means the world to me. Don’t let Reata die on that table.”

By then, it was after midnight in Florida. I was tired and scared. I didn’t sleep all night. I have a habit of thinking the worst in bad situations, and I couldn’t shake the image of a bunch of students operating on Reata.

When they laid Reata down and cut him open, they found he had a displaced colon. Nothing life-threatening, which was a relief. But he’d be out for at least four months. The 2012 NFR was three weeks away.

Back in Florida, roping on zero sleep, I won the circuit finals average, but it didn’t do much to lift my spirits. Reata was my only horse. And the finals were just around the corner.

That year in Las Vegas, I mounted out on two different horses, one owned by Trevor Brazile and the other by Clint Cooper. It was strange: I had never roped at the NFR except on Reata. But they were great horses, and I ended up third in the average and third in the world standings for the year.

My plan was to have Reata rested and ready—with the help of the folks at Outlaw Equine—in time for the big Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show in March of 2013. But early in the rehab, Reata’s back left leg started acting up. The vets decided it had something to do with him getting on and off the surgery table. Whatever the cause, we missed Houston. I didn’t ride Reata until May, almost six months after his surgery.

I rode him through the first part of July, and then he re-aggravated his leg. I still hadn’t made the 2013 NFR. Once again, I was without my horse.

I mounted out the rest of that summer. During the final weeks of the season, I was on the bubble, hustling to make the Finals, which I did. But would Reata be ready?

By the end of November, I still wasn’t sure. I hadn’t ridden him for months. A week before leaving for Las Vegas, I trailered Reata to Trevor’s house in Decatur. I wanted to rope calves on Reata, and I wanted Trevor to watch. He’s a heck of a horseman, and I wanted his opinion.

All morning, I’d had my eye on this black, bald-face calf. When it was my turn, that’s the one they loaded in the chute. It felt good to be backing into the box on Reata. He seemed strong and focused and glad to be working again.

I glanced at Trevor. “How many calves do you think I should run?” I asked.

He shrugged.

I nodded. The chute opened. Reata knew just what to do. Man, it felt like old times!

I tied that calf in less than eight seconds and looked back at Trevor.

“That’s one more than you needed to run,” he said. “I’d say put him up.”

A week later, at the 2013 National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Reata and I won round one in 7.6 seconds and round nine in 7.4. We placed in five other rounds and won the average with 80.1 seconds, an NFR record that stands to this day.

And that year, we took home the Gold Buckle. To this day, I wear it proudly. Sometimes, I wish Reata could wear it, too.

 Photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

Photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

Reata was born on a ranch in Okeechobee, Florida. My brother trained him from scratch, and Reata’s been with me ever since. Jason manages that ranch now. I’d like for him to go home again. I have two nieces, Ryleigh Kaye and Kaycee Raye, who will surely benefit from a horse with such fine character. They will, no doubt, have the best junior rodeo horse of all time

As for me, Reata has given and given and given until it hurts. He doesn’t owe me a thing. From now on, I won’t be the kid on the great bald-face horse. I’ll be the guy who the bald-face horse made a champion.

 
 
 
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