All in at Any Cost (Part 2)

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

I don’t pray for anything selfish anymore. I never pray for a good bucking horse. The only thing halfway selfish I pray for is safety. That and contentment.

by Joey Sonnier

Our 2018 National Finals Rodeo countdown continues with the final part of Joey’s epic story of rodeo dreams, darkness and redemption. Part One is available here. And don’t miss The Chase for the Gold Buckle starting Thursday, December 6. Follow #theCjHASEnfr

Three tiny crystals. They looked like grains of rice. That’s how this all started. I took the one to get me from Colorado to Minnesota and tossed the other two in the glovebox of my pickup truck and forgot about them.

After the Fourth of July run of 2000, I kept rodeoing. My luck soured a bit. Three weeks into July, I was broke. Worse than broke. I owed money to the PRCA. Back then, you could enter and compete, and you didn’t have to pay your fees until the Monday after the final perf. We didn’t have direct deposit, so my rodeo checks got mailed home. That summer my parents were in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, so I didn’t have anybody in Louisiana to deposit them. I placed in the first round at Cheyenne and collected four-hundred bucks cash from the secretary of the rodeo. I used that money to get home.

Back in Louisiana, I found checks for about fifteen-hundred dollars, but I owed the PRCA twenty-five hundred bucks. And I had other responsibilities, including helping raise a kid. Pretty soon that fifteen-hundred was gone, and I still owed the PRCA, which meant I couldn’t enter rodeos. I thought, Well, I’ll get to work.

I went back to shoeing horses. All of a sudden, my rookie year was over. Reality started to set in. My family was on my butt. I got down on myself for not accomplishing my goal. The pressure started getting to me.

One weekend, I went out with friends, and they were doing meth. I’ve done that before, I thought. This time, I didn’t hesitate.

That fall, I enrolled in classes at McNeese State University and joined the rodeo team. At my first college rodeo, in Huntsville, Texas, a horse threw me after the whistle, and I dislocated my shoulder. This was a Thursday night. I won that round and went to the hospital to have my shoulder joint put back. I came back Saturday and won the rodeo.

I won a bunch of college rodeos and amateur rodeos that fall. Every once in a while, my shoulder would come out again, and I would have to get it fixed. I had just turned twenty-one and was busier than I’d ever been, driving ninety miles to school and back on Tuesdays and Thursdays, shoeing horses on Mondays and Wednesdays and rodeoing on the weekends. There didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. I started doing meth on the weekends to ease the stress. Meth fit my personality. I’m always on the go. I don’t like to sit home and relax. I like to be out there doing stuff. That’s what the drug did for me. I never did feel high. I just felt good. And I was never tired.

One Monday morning, after driving all night, I woke up feeling like crap and knowing I had to shoe a bunch of horses. I snorted a little meth to wake me up, and that day I shod more horses than I ever had.

During this time, my shoulder started coming out more often. The pain was excruciating. I’m allergic to opioid painkillers, thank God, so I got by on anti-inflammatory medicine. Just looking at hydrocodone and Percocet made me sick to my stomach. Otherwise, I might not be alive today.

My shoulder probably came out sixteen times that year. I finally went to see Dr. Tandy Freeman in Dallas. I had waited so long, he said, that my bicep tendon and labrum were completely torn. I had to go back four months later for a second surgery.

Things got really bad during recovery. Eight long months, and I couldn’t ride broncs or shoe horses. My friends were going off rodeoing every weekend. I didn’t want to go to a rodeo if I wasn’t entered. A good friend of mine, Ken Bacque, who owned a big western store called Cowboys near Lafayette, gave me a job driving a one-ton truck to pick up and deliver horse trailers. I’d go to Oklahoma and Texas and all over Louisiana. I was on the road five days a week. I justified doing meth to stay awake. I was making a hundred dollars a day driving and spending forty a day on drugs.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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After my recovery, I got on bucking horses at about ten amateur rodeos, and then I quit. I decided I didn’t want to be a guy going to amateur rodeos, but I still owed the PRCA money. I’ll quit for a while and go back to work, I thought. When I earn enough to pay off my fines, I’ll go back to rodeoing. In truth, the drugs consumed me so much that bronc riding meant nothing.

I got back to shoeing horses. I learned that the most successful farriers made their money working the racetracks. There are a handful of tracks around the state, places like Delta Downs near Lake Charles and Louisiana Downs in Shreveport. I’d stay for a week at a time during racing season. I could make twelve to fifteen-hundred dollars a day, which helped me justify doing meth. Man, I thought, I’m doing the best I’ve ever done in my life.

A girl I was dating found out about the drugs and told my parents, who tried to send me to rehab. I talked them into sending me to a psychologist instead. When he asked why I did drugs, I told him it was stress. No big deal. Nothing changed, except that girl stopped seeing me. Deep down I knew that if I ever wanted to keep good woman in my life, I needed to quit doing drugs.

In 2005, I reconnected with a girl I’d known since grade school. Her name was Michelle. Our parents were friends. Me and her step-brother roped calves together in high school. For the first time in a while, we were both single, so I asked her out for dinner and a movie. A few dates in, she asked me if I was into drugs. I denied it to her like I did everybody else. I doubt she believed me, but for some reason Michelle kept seeing me. Over the next weeks, a thought started creeping into my head: It’s time to quit.

I did quit—cold turkey. Michelle and I got married in 2007. We bought some property and a house. We put up fence and built a barn. Life was going good, so I didn’t feel the urge to do drugs. But I was scared of using again, so I didn’t go to any more rodeos, since that’s where it all started for me. In 2009, we had a daughter, Kenley. I was working in Shreveport at Louisiana Downs three or four days every week, but I wanted to be home with my wife and girl.

I was at the racetrack shoeing horses one weekend, when a guy I knew offered me some meth. I turned him down. I hadn’t done drugs for more than two years. But for some reason, a half-hour later, I was like, Aw, crap, I’ll do a little bit.

That’s all it took.

Worse Than Ever

These drugs were different. It was still methamphetamine, but it was this stuff from Mexico. I didn’t just feel happy and awake. I felt euphoric. Within three days of using again, I was off again on a daily habit. I mean, literally, every single day. But this time it was worse than ever. I’d stay gone for days at a time. I remember leaving the house one day and telling my wife I was going to get can of Copenhagen. I stayed gone for a week. When I would disappear like that, I usually went to a drug friend’s house or to the track and stayed high the whole time. Michelle would call me every morning when she woke up and every night before she went to bed and leave the same message: I love you. I miss you. I wish you’d come home.

When I finally dragged myself home, she would cry, and it made me feel terrible. I would tell her how sorry I was and that I wouldn’t leave home like that again. And I wouldn’t for a month or two. But then something would trigger me, and I was off. Somehow, things got even worse.

Every one of them racetracks I worked at has a casino tied to it. I would stay up all night doing meth and didn’t have much else to do other than gamble. I gambled more and more and lost more and more money. You know those players cards they give you at the casino? I hid those in my truck so my wife didn’t see them. One day in 2012, I totaled everything up and realized I had lost $57,000 in casinos that year, which was probably more like $80,000 since I didn’t always use my cards. You stupid son of a gun, I thought. I only owed $23,000 on our home mortgage. Just think of all the stuff you could have done with that money.

That really scared me, so I went to the gaming commission and completely signed myself out of the casinos. If they caught me gambling, they could send me to jail. I also gave up shoeing horses so I didn’t have to go back to the track. I bought a second-hand pressure washing machine and started a house-cleaning business.

By now, it was 2013, and I’d been using drugs daily for nearly four years since the time I quit. I started thinking it was time to quit again.

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On the Run

Around the middle of May that year, I got home one day and found a card on the door from the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s office. I called the number on the card and was told there was a warrant out for my arrest. I automatically ran. I holed up with a guy I knew in a different parish and started trying to figure out what the deal was. I called a lawyer who told me the police found a stolen lawn mower in my barn.

I always had plenty of cash from shoeing horses, and I bought a lot of stuff second-hand from guys I knew. I bought guns and that lawnmower. I’m not one-hundred-percent sure my pressure washer wasn’t stolen.

I’m grateful for my wife and children. Sometimes when I look at Kylie, I think how if God had not intervened on that dark day she might not be here either.

The guy I was staying with was a drug dealer, and for six weeks I binged hard. I sank so low. Eventually, my lawyer worked a deal with the sheriff. I turned myself in, and they let me bond out so I could fight my case and prove that I didn’t steal the lawnmower.

That’s why I was so surprised to see three cop cars pull up to the house on July 10 of 2013. I was next door. I watched them knock. I called my lawyer. What’s the deal? No bonding out this time, he said. And I was looking at ten years in jail.

I went to my barn and grabbed a rope and started swinging it, trying to pick out a rafter.

God, what have I done?

Everything will be better if I wasn’t here.

I feel so alone.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and Michelle didn’t get off work until 5:30. I bent my head and prayed. God, forgive me for what I’m fixing to do.

I was in so much anguish. I thought of my wife and my daughter and my son. How could I leave them? What are people gonna think? Just give me some direction, God.

I lifted my head and looked out of the barn at our driveway. I saw a car approaching. My wife’s car. She was home from work an hour early. At that moment, everything stood still. I had this vision. I can still see it. I was where she was looking into our barn, and I could see myself hanging from a rope.

The visions faded, and I saw Michelle, and she had our daughter with her, and right then I knew that hanging myself is not what God wanted.

The next day, I turned myself into the sheriff.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

A Kind of Baptism

The first four or five days in jail were pretty tough. I’d been to jail a couple times before, once for not paying tickets and another time for missing child support payments. Just not taking care of business. It never stopped me from using drugs. This time, I promised my Mom and wife to go to rehab if they would help me get out.

Every day I called them to ask if they had heard from my lawyer. I lay in bed all day and thought about who my family knew that could help me. I was trying to manipulate the system to get out of a situation I caused for myself. My Mom kept telling me the lawyer was trying to get my bond reduced, but in my mind they weren’t really trying. In my mind, they wanted to keep me in jail and away from drugs.

The jail was a big dorm with thirty-six bunk beds. One day about three weeks in, I was playing cards at this big table, when these two black guys went to fighting. One of the guys was in for a traffic ticket. This was a Friday, and he was getting out Monday. He tripped over something, hit his head and died. Thirty minutes after the ambulance took him away, I called my wife and Mom.

“Y’all gotta get me out of here,” I told them. “Somebody just died in my cell block.”

That’s how selfish I was at that time. I didn’t care about the guy who died. All I cared about was me.

A couple weeks later, I started talking to this older prisoner. He led a little Bible study group in the evenings. I saw how much peace he was in. I started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in jail. I started praying to God to give me some answers.

I went into the shower one day, and I just got to crying. I asked God right then for help with my problem, for him to help me deal with this situation I had created. Please just give me a little bit of contentment and let me to find some good out of all the bad that’s happened.

I don’t know how long I was in the shower, but when I stepped out, I felt like a new person. I felt a washing away of all of it. I still can’t explain it. When you get saved, does it have to be a baptism in front of people, or can it be a private thing?

I got dressed and walked to my bunk. The old guy looked at me.

“What happened?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you with this kind of peace about you since you got in here.”

“Something happened,” I told him. I explained, and he gave me some Bible verses to read. For the first time, I felt like everything was going to be okay. If I had to do five years or whatever, it was all going to be okay. My wife wasn’t going to leave me. Who cared what people thought? After that day, I never again called my wife or Mom to ask when I was getting out. I started asking them more about what was going on with them.

A couple weeks later, I was talking to Michelle on the phone.

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” she said. “Which do you want first?”

I told her it didn’t matter.

“The good news is we’ll be there in a week to pick you up. The bad news is you’re not coming home.”

That was fine by me. I just want to get out of there, and I trusted that God would put me in the right place. They picked me up, and we had lunch. It was the first time I’d seen my daughter, Kenley, in eight weeks. She was four at the time. I wouldn’t let Michelle bring her to jail visits. I didn’t want her to see me there. When they dropped me off at the treatment center, she asked, “Where are you going, Daddy?” Michelle told her I had to go to school, but they could come see me every Sunday.

I went to a good place—the Hope Center in Marksville. I stayed for twenty-eight days, and then I stayed another month by choice. I got in there with some good people, some other guys who were serious about wanting to get clean and sober and have a different life. I learned so much stuff about myself, so much about my spirituality and how to build a relationship with God. I had never been able to talk to people about personal things, and I definitely didn’t want to hear about things like that from other people. But after I cleaned up, I started helping guys who were just starting treatment. I grew to love the program and to find reward in helping others.

I went back home and stayed involve with AA and helping others. I didn’t have a job or a vehicle, since my truck got repossessed. I’ve always been real handy, so I found a job helping remodel houses. Michelle dropped me at work every morning. After a few months, I saved enough to buy a beat-up truck.

Second Chances

In January of 2014, Michelle said my brother and his wife were taking their kids to the Lafayette Rodeo, my hometown pro rodeo, and did we want to join them. My first thought was, I ain’t going.

One of the things I learned in AA was to inventory my decision-making process. So I asked myself, Why don’t you want to go? I had to admit to myself that I was worried about what people would think. I had just gotten out of jail, and I was fat, about 225 pounds. I hadn’t been to a rodeo in ten years.

But not going wouldn’t be fair to my family. Besides, I couldn’t hide from people the rest of my life.

We went to the Sunday performance. At first I was uncomfortable, but I ran into some people I knew and most of them said stuff like, Hey, I hear you’re doing good, or I’m happy for you. I’m sure some talked behind my back, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

It was a Stace Smith rodeo. His opening act was a saddle-bronc horse. I was up in the stands, and they lowered the lights and shined a spotlight on the bronc. A voice boomed out over the loudspeaker talking about the cowboy way of life and the dreams we dream, and, Man, I just started crying. I couldn’t stop. How did I give up something I was good at? How did I trade my dreams for bullshit?

I decided that day I had to get back on some broncs. It didn’t matter where, even a few amateur rodeos would be enough.

But first, I needed to lose weight. I went on an extensive diet. I ate like a bird—boiled eggs, chicken breast, fish and salad—for five months. When I dropped to 190 pounds, I entered my first rodeo. It was on July 4, 2014, in a little town in Mississippi. I hadn’t been on a bronc in ten years. I got bucked off. I entered another rodeo the next weekend and got bucked off again. I was starting to rethink things. Maybe I am too old and fat. But I didn’t give up, and I didn’t go back to using drugs. Instead, I worked harder at jumping rope, jogging and running sprints.

I also discovered that the tree in my bronc saddle was broken. I borrowed another saddle and drove with my buddy Polo Bacque, Ken’s younger brother, to three rodeos in Georgia and Alabama. I won second at all three and came home with fifteen hundred dollars. These were all Professional Cowboy Association, or PCA, rodeos. Things started to click, and the next thing I knew I made the PCA Finals in January of 2015. I won a couple rounds, placed in every round and won the average. I took home nearly ten thousand dollars.

Our family needed that money. Between lawyer fees and treatment costs, I probably owed twenty grand. And I was making amends with people and working to pay off my debts. Luckily, through all the bad times, Michelle was putting up some of my shoeing checks, so we never lost our house. I was a little sheepish when I told her I wanted to pay back the PRCA and try to enter some circuit rodeos.

“You take as much of that money as you need, Joey,” she said. This woman, who I put through hell for years, was still by my side. She knew how much rodeoing meant to me. Somehow, my wife still believed in me.

I called the PRCA and told them I wanted to clear up my decade-old debts and fines. I paid half and set up a payment plan for the rest of the year. Then I started entering PRCA rodeos. They were definitely tougher, but I notched up my workouts.

In 2015, I made the circuit finals and won two rounds at the finals. In 2016, I entered Fort Worth and qualified for San Antonio. All of a sudden, I was in the top fifteen early in the year. The biggest blessing I received that year, though, was a new daughter, Kylie. I asked Michelle how she felt about me going to some of the summer rodeos, especially with our baby girl at home. She was fine with it. I was shoeing again, and my clients supported my decision, too. I finished 2016 ranked in the top fifty in the world. That was a good year.

Equipment Issues

Even though it was a good year, I was still fighting equipment issues. I never could find a bronc saddle I liked. I might like the swells on one but not the cantle. I might like the way another saddle pulled but not its swells. Besides, with all the breeding programs, broncs have changed over the past twenty years. I decided to build my own saddle. I’d never built one, but I’d done some saddle work. The rest I learned on YouTube.

Throughout the summer of 2016, I was jotting down notes of what I wanted in a saddle. I gathered up some scrap D-rings and other hardware, bought a side of leather and an old saddle with a tree I liked and got to work during the week after Christmas. The Bacques let me use the leather shop at their store. I started on a Monday and hardly looked up for four days. I can’t say my creation was a thing of beauty. The workmanship was terrible. My cuts and edges were rough. But it was a saddle, made to my specs. Would it work? I would soon find out.

I entered a New Year’s Eve rodeo in Amarillo, Texas. On my first horse, the flank fell off so I got a reride. My reride was good. After the whistle blew, my first thought was, I’ll never ride anything else ever in my life. Why? For one thing, the saddle stayed in the spot where I pulled it. That was true for both horses, even though one weighed nine-hundred pounds and the other weighed thirteen-hundred. That was the second thing: I didn’t have to adjust anything on the saddle to fit two completely different horses. The third thing: My feet felt free up front. Some saddles bind your stirrup leathers and your feet, but not this one. I couldn’t believe it. This saddle had all three things I was aiming for. For the first time in my life, I sat in a bronc saddle that felt like it was made for me, because it was. At that rodeo, I placed second in the first round and won the second round.

After that, I started making my own trees out of fiberglass. And I got some really good advice from the guys who make saddles for the top calf ropers. A tie-down roper who rides a $150,000 horse will ride the very best saddle in the world. For the primary tool—their horse—to perform its best, their saddle has to perform the best, too. I used those same principles in my saddles.

In 2017, I rodeoed on saddles I made. And I started traveling with Bradley Harter. He helped me out so much. Bradley knows how to enter. He kept me confident. At low times he picked me back up. That’s what good traveling partners do. They tell each other the truth about what’s going on, but they don’t try to bring you down doing it. When Bradley asked me to make him a saddle, I did. Then Cody DeMoss wanted one. I got so many orders that I couldn’t fill them all. I talked to Michelle, and we agreed that I should stop shoeing and use that time to build saddles. I could make a living at it while staying close to home when I wasn’t rodeoing. I probably built and sold twenty saddles in 2017.

In 2017, I had another good winter rodeoing. Going into the Fourth of July week, I tore my groin, which set me back some, but I still managed to finish in the top fifty.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

Finding Contentment

In 2017, I got a little complacent with the rodeo thing. Tearing my groin disappointed me. And I got frustrated any time I drew a bad bronc. It wasn’t a pity-party type deal. But I got a little too focused on being the best, instead of being grateful for the opportunity to compete in the PRCA again. I’ve learned the risks of going all in at any cost. So I set out in 2018 with a different attitude.

The biggest change I made in 2018 is that I gave up control of things that weren’t in my control and worked on the things that were in my control. I went to the gym every day and ate better. I quit worrying about not drawing the best horse. I don’t pray for anything selfish anymore. I never pray for a good bucking horse. The only thing halfway selfish I pray for is safety. That and contentment. I turned out fewer horses this year than I ever turned out. I knew no matter how this year shook out, whether I made the NFR or not, I was going to be content. How funny that this was my year to make it.

I’ve had a blast this year. Just to have the chance after all the stuff that’s happened. I’m grateful for every minute of it. I’m grateful for my wife and children. Sometimes when I look at Kylie, I think how if God had not intervened on that dark day she might not be here either. I’m grateful that my family gets to come to Las Vegas for two weeks and experience the NFR with me. Evidently, Michelle had some unbelievable amount of faith in me from day one. More than I had in myself. You know what she says about all this? She says, We have the life I always knew we would.

In the past, I made a lot of deals with God. Whether I was looking at my gambling losses or sitting in the back of a cop car or sitting in jail, I would promise that if God just fixed things this time, I’d never mess up again. But I never kept those promises, at least not until that day in the shower.

I made one other promise to God—that I would never turn down the opportunity to share what He’s done in my life. The only way I’m sharing this story is through His grace and mercy.

The 2018 National Finals Rodeo begins this week. I’m thirty-nine years old, and after everything I’ve been through, I’m treating this experience like it’s my first and last. I don’t know if it will be my last. That’s for God to decide.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

Don’t miss The Chase for the Gold Buckle starting December 6. Follow #theCjHASEnfr


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