Never Let Up
Every summer, when the season picks up, I hear guys complaining that if they only had this or that—the right sponsor, bigger trailer, more diesel money—they could win a world title. Money helps, but it’s not what matters most. If it were, I would have never made it as a rodeo cowboy.
I credit my humble beginnings for much of my success. And for keeping me from flaming out early.
I spent the first seven years of my life in the Texas Panhandle, a dozen miles south of Oklahoma. My Dad managed a feedlot near the town of Gruver. It was flat, dusty country. Hardly a shade tree in site. We lost a lot of horses and cattle to lightning.
We lived at the feedlot in a little brick house. Even blindfolded, you couldn’t mistake the smell of a couple thousand steers. And their constant bawling sounded like a swarm of bees. Heck, to me, town smelled funny.
When Dad was doctoring cattle, I begged him to wake me up at 5:00 a.m. so I could help out. If I happened to be up, he let me tag along, even though it made his day longer. We may not have had much money, but Mom and Dad were always willing to invest their time in me.
Cowboying was all I ever wanted. My folks say that even as a two-year-old I carried around a calf rope instead of a baby blanket. After my first day of kindergarten, I said I wasn’t going back. “There’s nothing to rope,” I told my dad. He offered to talk to the teachers about a fix, as long as I agreed to attend school. Shortly thereafter, Dad backed his trailer into the school playground and off-loaded a metal roping dummy and big metal horse, the ones Grandpa made for me in his welding shop. There they sat beside the swing set and slide for the duration of the school year. Every day at recess, while other kids played, I practiced roping.
Dad rodeoed on weekends, but he always had to get back to his job. He’d trailer up to Cheyenne or Pecos and back. Every so often, I went with him. I knew the cowboys, watched them rope. I was a sponge, soaking it all up. Other boys and me would set up dummies behind the arena and pair off for match roping. I’d round up a stake of dollars and quarters and match for concession-stand money.
When I was seven, we left the feedlot and moved to Krum, north of Dallas. Mom picked up another teaching job. Dad worked at the Peterbilt plant in Denton. He still got out to a few rodeos. He was primarily a steer roper by that point, not roping as many calves. He made the National Finals Rodeo five times and finished as high as second. For a lefthander, that’s doing something. I may have been born left-handed, but I never knew for sure, because from day one, Dad never let me stick a rope or anything in my left hand. That’s another advantage he gave me that had nothing to do with money.
In Krum, the smell and drone of the cattle were gone and so was the dust, mostly. Money was still tight, but my folks did all they could to support my passion for horses and roping. I remember stretching the hay until we could afford feed for the horses. I didn’t have an arena to practice in. Dad leased a barn with an indoor round pen, breaking outside two-year-old horses to help pay the rent. For me, it was never, Well, I don’t have an arena, I don’t have the perfect environment, I’ll just wait until I do. That kind of thinking never entered my mind. I roped dummies. I roped goats. I could always get better doing something.
Smith Brothers, the rodeo supplier, had a big store near Krum. They also ran a steer-leasing operation. Any time clients brought the practice cattle back, Jimmy Smith would call me to separate slow from fast before leasing them back out. I’d rope through the steers with a breakaway rope. That was my chance to practice in an arena with someone opening the chute. I gladly took advantage of that, starting around when I was nine years old and keeping it up as long as I could.
These days, four- and five-year-old kids compete in junior rodeos, which is great. Everything is elevated in competition now, whether it’s rodeo, baseball or basketball. The opportunity to learn is there, if you’re willing to take advantage of it.
Things were different for me. Back when I was four or five, Dad would come back from a rodeo, and he’d say, “Son, have you been practicing? Because those kids in Oklahoma can rope.” He’d pull into town after another trip and say, “I thought them Oklahoma boys could rope, but over in Kansas that’s all they do!”
Dad’s tall tales made me push myself. I felt like David preparing to face Goliath. Man, my hands were always blistered.
I didn’t start competing until I was 11, which was a blessing in disguise. If you throw together a bunch of ball-playing kids, it won’t take long for them to figure out who’s the best. In my experience, the best player suffers the most. He brings everybody else up, but nobody pushes him to be better.
I went that whole first year and never missed a calf. After every rodeo, I thought, I’m doing great, but I can never let up.
From an early age, I applied the work ethic that made me a good roper to the business side of rodeo. My Dad only paid the fees at my first junior rodeo. I’ve paid my way ever since. One way was learning to break and train horses.
During my junior-rodeo years, I learned that roping horses didn’t bring half as much money as barrel horses. By training and selling barrel horses, I could afford better roping horses. But barrel racing wasn’t the sport I was passionate about. I did it anyway. After roping practice, my parents made me cool down my horse by walking him around the barrels to show him the pattern. I did it out of respect—and so they didn’t whip my ass. Today, I’m glad, because it paid dividends in and out of the arena, improving my horsemanship and making me a better all-around cowboy. Besides, we doubled our money when we sold the horses.
And rodeoing, as I learned at a young age, is an expensive pursuit.
Horsemanship has been really important for my career. My grandpa would buy a $50 Welsh pony at a sale, and I’d break, train and sell it for a healthy profit as a starter pony to some happy family, investing those profits in my rodeo future. As a high-schooler, I worked for a horse trainer, helping him break two-year-olds with a snubbing horse. He’d put me out on a lunge line with first rides. I cleaned stalls and pens, too. After the work was done, I’d saddle up my own horse and practice roping in his arena.
I was eleven years old when we finally got an arena and twelve when I lost it. That was when my parents divorced and moved away.
Dad settled in Decatur, Texas. Five years later, we built another arena from scratch at his place. He bought the pipe and cable. I dug postholes, testing a lot of friendships along the way.
By high school, I was all in. Rodeo was never a hobby for me. Deep down, I always dreamed that if I did everything right—roping, horsemanship, managing money—then I might make a living as a roper. I respected my dad for working to support his family, but I knew his jobs kept him from rodeoing full-time.
I needed practice calves, so I took out a loan to buy four or five. I had to pay off that bank note, so I made dang sure I didn’t lose money when I sold them. I fed and doctored them, learned to keep them steadily gaining weight.
I learned to view horses the same way. To this day, I always work to improve my horses’ health and performance. You invest a lot in these animals. Taking care of them just makes sense.
Money’s a funny thing. When I was throwing loops at a dummy on the kindergarten playground or blistering my hands thinking of those Goliaths from Kansas and Oklahoma, money never crossed my mind. Only later, when I connected money—for horses, tack, entry fees—with my dream of rodeoing, did I get serious about making it. Because, if I was out of money, I was out of money. Borrowing from Grandpa was never an option. If I got into money trouble and had to sell my horses, I was done. No mulligans. It was produce, or do something else.
For example, I bought a living-quarters trailer with money I made selling prize saddles I won in the high-school rodeos. I probably sold 70 or 80 saddles. I hated to let them go and would love to have those saddles today as keepsakes, but at the time I couldn’t afford to be sentimental. The money they brought took me to the next level. I’m just grateful I had the option.
Making money was never the dream, only horses and roping. If somebody had told me I’d never win a world championship but could make a decent living doing what I love, that would have been good enough for me. But I did win. A lot. I’ve earned more money than I ever imagined, and I’m grateful for every penny.
Everybody’s always asking me what it takes to be successful. They think getting there is all it takes. But once you’re on top, staying on top is just as hard. It’s remembering that nobody owes you nothing. You gotta earn it.
Just like you did on the way up.