My Horse Chicken
I was definitely not impressed the first time I met Chicken.
It was Spring 2013, and my aunt, J. J. Hampton, and I were at James Barton’s place in Bluff Dale, Texas, about 20 minutes from my house in Stephenville. If you were watching the National Finals Rodeo this past December, you probably saw J. J. raising a ruckus in the stands every time I won a round. My aunt is a seventeen-time Women’s Pro Rodeo Association Champion and one of my biggest supporters. It was because of her that I met Chicken. And it’s thanks to Chicken that I’m where I am today.
As I was saying, Aunt J. J. was looking for some breakaway-roping prospects, and she asked me to tag along. James, a roping-horse trainer, was known for the quality of his animals. I was struggling to find my way as a roper, so I hopped in the truck.
Part of what was holding me back was my horse.
He was a good horse, a big bay out of Florida with an important-sounding named: Saint. But Saint didn’t have the “it” factor—the talent and personality needed to compete day in and day out on the road. You don’t get to practice much on the road. Your horse has to be special enough to handle the all night drives and then get out of the trailer and work hard. You need a horse that’s on point all the time.
After putting J. J. on a horse, James showed me Chicken—the chunkiest sorrel gelding I’d ever seen. He looked like a sweet potato with legs. And then there was his name: Eatin’ With Rooster, or Chicken for short.
Chicken. Not exactly a name that inspires confidence.
Nothing about Chicken said “it” factor.
James insisted I give Chicken a try. The horse was only six years old at the time and inexperienced, but James thought he had talent.
“I’m not looking for a green horse,” I told him. “I need a seasoned horse, one I can load up and hit the rodeo road with.”
Problem was, I didn’t have the money for a seasoned horse. I’d been competing in junior rodeos since I was six but was green myself, still in my Pro Rodeo rookie year.
“Just try Chicken, and if you two click, we might be able to work something out,” James said.
Why not? I thought, watching my aunt run a couple of calves on the horse she was trying out.
By the time we’d finished warming up, Chicken was already soaked in sweat. When James told me to run a couple calves on him, I honestly debated it because Chicken was so winded. I thought, Oh heck, what do I have to lose?
We ran five or six calves. They were all a hot mess. We either had a bad stop, or Chicken didn’t score really well, or the calf was fighting me on the end of the rope. Chicken didn’t know when he wanted to stop or when he wanted to leave the box. We maybe had one semi-decent run all day.
Despite all that, I could tell that Chicken wanted to run and stop.
The next weekend I tried him again at a rodeo up in Mineral Wells, Texas. Chicken performed better. I thought, Maybe, just maybe, he could grow up and make a decent horse. I decided to take the risk and buy him. If things didn’t work out, I’d just sell him. Happens all the time. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself.
I only had a few months with Chicken before I headed out on my summer run with Saint. I spent that time trying to get him into shape, but, honestly, my focus wasn’t there. Chicken was still fat, immature and inconsistent. At the time, he was a project, but I didn’t have room to take a young, green horse with me. He’d be there when I got home. I figured I’d either make something of him, or I’d sell him and make a little money.
The summer run was awful. I was hoping to win some big checks, but when I got back to Texas, I felt really let down. I also hoped to find that Chicken had matured while I was gone, but he was still a pestering nuisance. I couldn’t get him to leave the box well. Chicken and I weren’t clicking. I decided to sell him and was debating selling Saint, too, so I could buy one decent rope horse. I offered Chicken to a friend, but he said my price was too steep.
I was kicking myself. I’d taken a chance on Chicken, paying as much as I had ever paid for a horse, but he wasn’t living up to my expectations. I thought he had potential. Had I been so wrong? I didn’t know what to do with Chicken.
Part of me wondered if I had what it took to keep rodeoing.
I told Aunt J. J. about my worries.
“Take Chicken over to Joe Beaver’s place,” she said. “If anybody can help you make that horse or sell that horse, it’s Joe.”
Joe, of course, is a legend, an eight-time PRCA World Champion cowboy in both tie-down roping and all-around. In his retirement he puts on roping clinics, does some TV announcing and also trains rope horses. My aunt knows her stuff, too, so I figured it would be in my best interest to take her advice and talk to Joe.
So we drove to Joe’s place in Huntsville, just north of Houston. I told Joe I was at the end of my rope. Chicken either had to get it together, or he had to go. I was having some serious buyer’s remorse.
The next day Joe called.
“You can’t sell that horse,” he said.
Huh? Did Joe mean we shouldn’t sell Chicken, or that we couldn’t sell him. I was kind of having an anxiety attack that it was the latter.
But, no, Joe had seen a raw potential in Chicken, and he said he could help set him straight.
“He’s the real deal,” Joe said. “Come on back out, and I’ll help you.”
When I asked what he meant, Joe said he couldn’t explain it, but he could feel it. Joe almost pleaded with me to give Chicken another chance. “Come run some calves on him, Marty. You’ll see.”
The next morning, I drove to Joe’s. I was skeptical but figured I needed to keep an open mind if Joe was so sure.
The first thing Joe did was he adjusted Chicken’s tie-down to a wire noseband. He also changed the bit I’d been using. He showed me how to get Chicken to direct his energy into stopping and working. Sure enough, Chicken was a different horse. He was scoring – better. He was stopping – hard. He was leaving the box smooth and fast and his focus was on the calf and doing his job. I couldn’t believe it. After only a couple days with Joe, Chicken and I were a different pair. It was like all the lights came on, and Joe had been the electrician.
I remember running a calf and looking up at Joe with a smile on my face. My future suddenly felt a lot brighter.
The very next weekend Chicken and I won a rodeo in Brenham and placed in Amarillo, earning $5,000. Over the next two weeks, I won an additional $10,000 on him in rodeos and jackpots. We weren’t winning everything, but we were continuously placing and getting faster and smoother on each run. As the winnings added up, I realized it was a good thing I hadn’t sold him.
My rookie year had been a disappointment. But in 2014, my career really came together. I won ten major rodeos on Chicken that year and stayed in the Top Fifteen nearly the whole time. All I did was get in the trailer, get out and rope. That’s about all I did!
Chicken for sure had the “it” factor.
That year, I qualified for my first National Finals Rodeo. I got there riding a horse that no one thought would turn out to be anything.
The first night, during Round One, I was so nervous before my first calf I couldn’t talk. They lined us up in the back tunnel so we were in order. I felt like I was waiting forever. Once they opened the gate and let me into the box, all my nervousness washed away. I felt confident on my horse. I knew what we’d done to get there. It was a calf just like any other calf.
I took a deep breath and nodded.
Chicken did his job, and so did I. We won the round in 7.4 seconds.
I missed half my calves during those ten rounds. Chicken and I were either smooth and fast or a mess. Still, I won around $70,000. And Chicken was named runner-up for Tie-Down Horse of the Year by the American Quarter Horse Association.
He was eight years old, and I was barely twenty. I felt like my whole life changed that year.
I felt great going into the 2015 season. I rode Chicken all the way up to RodeoHouston in March. That’s when I knew something wasn’t right. Chicken wasn’t working like himself. He was moving and pulling hard to the left, and it was getting worse. I would try to tie the calf, and he would drag the calf to the left. That wasn’t like him. He was acting gritty, like he was working in pain. He was never a horse to quit. He’d fight through pain to do his job.
Something was wrong, and I needed a veterinarian to figure out what it was.
I took Chicken to Marty Tanner over in Elgin, and he found significant damage to Chicken’s stifle, a joint in his hind legs. Rope horses use their stifles every run. They’re physically demanding on that joint. We also discovered some minor arthritis in his back but didn’t feel that was the main cause of his pain. Chicken needed rehab and rest—for months, not weeks.
Chicken was young. This was a shocking blow.
He and I went back to the NFR in 2015 and did really well. Chicken was not 100 percent, but he tried his heart out. He was still working differently, so I tried to adapt to that change. I didn’t feel as confident on any other horse. I needed Chicken in Vegas—it just didn’t feel right to not have him there.
The truth hit me in January of 2016—Chicken wouldn’t last much longer as a rope horse. He was in pain and kept trying to fight through it. He tried so hard I couldn’t tell how badly he was hurting. My heart sank. Would I ever have my horse back to normal? Would we ever have another season like 2014?
Chicken had torn the meniscus in his stifle. We tried to fix it with surgery, but his joint had already collapsed. There was nothing we could do.
Chicken had to be retired. His roping days were done. Now, he spends his time in the pasture. Chicken’s “easy-keeper” ways haven’t changed much. I swear if he looks at more than a half a scoop of feed and a flake of hay, he gets fat.
Every once in a while, though, I’ll see him in the pasture and think he looks great, like his lameness is gone, and wonder if I’ll be able to ride him again. Then, the next day he’ll take some funny steps, and I’ll know it’s a pipe dream. He’s not suffering by any means, but it still feels odd to leave him behind when I head out on the road.
Looking back, I can’t believe I got so much from that diamond in the rough. I thought I’d bought a green resale project, but instead I found a horse that launched my career. He let me know what I was capable of. Chicken helped me realize rodeoing was what I was meant to do.
There were plenty of times when I felt like the parent of a naughty toddler. Chicken was like a little kid pestering me or other horses. I tried to show him tough love so he would grow up, but in the end he had to come into his own in his own time. I had been trying to mold him into what I thought he needed to be, but he was who he was. At first, I tolerated his behavior. Then I started to like it. Now, he’s my little buddy and I love him to death.
Chicken became kind of famous. After I stopped taking him on the road, people would come up to me and ask, Where’s Chicken? Or, Is Chicken okay? I didn’t even know these people knew my horse’s name!
If it weren’t for Chicken, I wouldn’t be the calf roper I am today. I give him a lot of credit for getting me here today, for stepping up in a big way and giving me so much confidence. I had so much confidence in him.
Don't get me wrong: He’s the most annoying horse you’ve ever been around. He’s going to push on you. He loves treats, and if he thinks you have any, he’ll harass you until he gets them. But I wouldn’t be where I am without him.
I’d ride Chicken anywhere, any set up, for all the money in the world...if I could.