The Tough Years

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

What it takes to season a horse and why I do it.

by Mike Johnson

Last December, when Shane Hanchey roped on Bam Bam at the National Finals Rodeo, my phone lit up. Did you see Shane and that horse?

Heck, I got more calls than when I roped at the NFR! It felt good—gave me all kinds of bragging material. But those friends who were excited by that winning horse have no idea what it took to get Bam Bam to that point. They don’t know about the tough years.

Or why I let a horse like Bam Bam go.

I got my pro-rodeo card when I was eighteen years old. I’m fifty-four and have never missed a year of rodeoing. Early in my career, I made the NFR fifteen seasons straight. In 1998, my streak ended for two years—the time it took to season a new horse, a four-year-old gelding named Levi. Levi’s coat was yellow, but as a calf horse he was as green as they come. He would rear up in the box when I went to turn him around. Levi was so scared of crowds he would run off when I was tying my calves. Because he was my only horse, for two years I sacrificed winning to making Levi into an equine partner who would eventually help me win.

It worked. From 2000 to 2008, I made the NFR every year but one. In 2009, Levi was fourteen and still going strong when I bought Bam Bam. He was six years old and as green as Levi had once been. This time around, I planned to finish the green horse while still rodeoing on Levi. But life soon got complicated, as it tends to do.

One thing that happened was my mother’s health declined. Thankfully, my brother back home in Oklahoma was close at hand. Between rodeoing and running clinics, my wife, Sherrylynn, and I usually spend most of the year on the road, but when Mom got sick we went back and forth a lot in 2009 and 2010. That didn’t leave time to rodeo on Levi and finish Bam Bam. I knew I could have a great year or two on Levi or many years on Bam Bam if I got him seasoned. I made the long-term decision to sell Levi and put in the time to make Bam Bam into a champion, the kind who could take me back to the NFR.

My mother passed away in March of 2010. I sold Levi in April and started hauling Bam Bam right after that.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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Bam Bam was young and inexperienced. A friend of mine had started him as a breakaway horse. When I bought him, Bam Bam had maybe only had forty calves tied down on him in his life. When I started hauling him, in April of 2010, the rodeo season was heating up, but Bam Bam was far from ready.

It wasn’t one particular thing he did wrong. Green horses just don’t run as hard or work as good or help you as much as seasoned horses. They're inconsistent. And green horses, when you haul them, get tired and sore. An older, more experienced horse fights through it. That’s why there’s a premium on solid, finished calf horses. They’re just harder to find.

Deep down, I believed Bam Bam had all the talent and ability to do great things. Early on, in the practice arena, I saw that he stood in the box good, and he could really run. He was what tie-down ropers call “cowy” by nature. He’d pin his ears and follow a calf through a gopher hole. He could find the calf anywhere. Bam Bam had good timing, too, meaning he knew when to stop and let the calf roper off. I could feel his talent in the practice arena, but his skills didn’t transfer to the rodeos. Add the pressure of competition and noise and crowds, and green horses can come unraveled. At rodeos, Bam Bam would get so nervous I could feel his heart beating.

Seasoning a green horse takes time and effort. With Bam Bam, I spent a lot of extra hours at the rodeos sitting around letting him experience all the sites and sounds and smells. Sometimes there are extra calves that need roping after a rodeo is over. If that were ever the case, instead of driving to the next rodeo and going to bed or getting a two-hour head start, I’d stick around with Bam Bam and get in more roping. I volunteered to do things I didn’t want to do. And I was glad for the opportunity. Or, while on the road, I drove out of my way to find people who had calves that I could rope. You’re not practicing for you. You’re doing it for your horse.

When I still had Levi, I planned to season Bam Bam on my own terms. I didn’t mind giving up some smaller rodeos and jackpots to finish out a really good horse. But because Bam Bam was my only horse, I had to ride him at all the rodeos, big and small.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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We rodeoed through a lot of months without winning. We were competing against the best calf ropers riding the best horses at the top rodeos. All I could do was hang tough and finish him out. I needed to stay mentally strong and focused, to believe in myself and my horse. And that’s what I did—for two years.

I volunteered to do things I didn’t want to do. And I was glad for the opportunity.

Those were some of the toughest years of my life. But seasoning a rope horse is also one of the most rewarding experiences I know. It’s not just because a seasoned horse helps you win rodeos. There’s something special about the time spent doing it.

After two years, I could tell Bam Bam was getting good. He was ready to win. The problem was, I kept getting hurt.

In 2012, I turned forty-eight. I was still fast, but the aging body just doesn’t hold up as well. I tore my groin one year and had to sit out while it healed. I blew out my left knee and spent another nine months recovering. The year after that, Sherrylynn and I were at the rodeo in Red Bluff, California. The wind kept blowing our trailer door open. I slammed it without realizing my thumb was in the crack and chopped my thumb off behind the nail. It was my left hand, but you need both hands to rope calves. Tandy Freeman, medical director of the Justin Sportsmedicine team, was able to reattach part of the thumb, but the injury still set me back most of that summer.

Still, Bam Bam and I kept rodeoing. I was as determined to win as I had been at age twenty-two. Roping calves is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

In 2016, at the rodeo in Clovis, California, I was sitting on the fence with Shane. He complimented me on Bam Bam’s performance in the arena.

“You’re the perfect fit for that horse,” I told Shane. “There’s no doubt in my mind that you could win a lot on him.”

I honestly hadn’t thought about selling Bam Bam. I still hoped to make the NFR that year. But in that moment, it dawned on me that Bam Bam would fit Shane like a glove. I see a lot of myself in Shane’s demeanor and the way he ropes. On Day One, I thought, those two could start winning—and keep winning—without either one of them having to make any adjustments.

Two months later, in July, I saw Shane again at the rodeo in Spanish Fork, Utah. During my run, I went to get off Bam Bam, and my right groin—the same one I hurt before—ripped in two. I couldn’t even walk to my horse to get on him. Shane ended up winning that rodeo. I was out of commission. Again.

A few weeks later, I was recovering back home and decided to call Shane. If he was interested, I said, I would sell him Bam Bam.

He was.

Don't get me wrong, it was a difficult decision, but having Shane own Bam Bam felt like a win-win. I wouldn’t have sold that horse to just anyone. I want that understood. If Shane didn’t want him, I don’t know if I would have sold him at all.

Letting Bam Bam go became part of another complicated, long-term plan. I knew my recovery would slow me down. Rather than hold Bam Bam back, I decided to buy his full sister, Pam Pam, and start fresh in 2017. Fresh, but not from scratch. Pam Pam wasn’t green. She was nearly a finished calf horse, except for needing to be hauled to rodeos.

I asked Shane if he’d let me finish competing on Bam Bam as soon as my groin healed that fall. I wanted to try to make the California circuit finals and the All-American ProRodeo Series finals in Waco in October. He was totally fine with that.

When October rolled around, we each kept our word. Shane and I met up in Waco. I didn’t win anything during my set. Shane hauled Bam Bam home. When he returned to Waco for his set, he and Bam Bam won money. He’s never looked back. Just like I predicted.

I love getting those calls from friends when Shane does good on Bam Bam. I knew in my heart they’d make a great team. And it’s good to see the horse I seasoned reach his potential, especially when the cowboy riding him reminds me of myself.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


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