Things get strange in the race for the gold buckle.
So, thanks to our horse, Scooter, me and Kyle were headed to Las Vegas in December of 2017. It was the first year since we’d been traveling partners that both of us made the National Finals Rodeo. Our gamble on that pot-bellied gelding sure paid off.
Then, a few weeks shy of the NFR, we got thrown a curveball.
It was late November, and I was at Luke Branquinho’s ranch in California helping him teach a bulldogging clinic. Dakota Eldridge was there, too. Dakota’s phone rang. It was our buddy Ty Waquespack calling. He’s the traveling partner of Ty Erickson and Clayton Hass. They all rode a horse called Cadillac. Hass finished on the bubble in 16th place, but Erickson and Wag made the top fifteen and were headed to the NFR.
Wag was calling with tragic news. Cadillac fell during a practice run and tore bone from his leg tendon. Cadillac, who belongs to Mark Wallace, is one of the best bulldogging horses in pro rodeo. In 2016, Wag won the gold buckle on him.
Damn, I thought. And three weeks before the NFR. I wouldn’t wish that kind of luck on anybody.
My phone rang next. Waguespack’s number showed on the screen. I knew why he was calling. He needed a mount. I decided not to pick up.
I’ve known Ty Waguespack since he was little-little—we’re talking eight or nine years old. He started at Tom Carney’s Steer Wrestling School in Bernice, Louisiana, just like I did. His dad, Mike Waguespack, hazed for me and helped me throughout my career. I’ve watched Tyler Waguespack grow up from an aggravating kid to one hell of a talent.
After five or six rings, I answered. “Hey, Wag,” I said, giggling. “Me and Dakota thought it would be funny if we turned off our phones for the rest of the day, just to make you sweat.”
“Hilarious, Pearson,” he said.
“You bet you can ride Scooter,” I told him.
Man, we bulldoggers have to stick together. We haul together and haze for each other and ride the same horses. We’re all just wanting everybody to do good. When somebody smokes one, it makes us want to do that much better. Iron sharpens iron.
We’re on the road a lot. Now that I’ve got those two kids, it’s harder to stay gone. I’m at the point in my career that if I’m not happy on the road, I’m going home. If I’m out with a bunch of guys I enjoy being around, I can stay out and rodeo. Because as soon as I stop liking it, I’m telling you, I’m going home to play with my kids.
Irwin’s got a family, too, and for us rodeoing’s got to mean something. Me and him have a good relationship. If something’s bugging us, we just talk it out. He wants me to do as good as I want him to do. Irwin’s in my corner, and he knows I’m in his. Sure, he was broke once. There are a lot of broke-ass steer wrestlers. I’ve been there. But, man, ever since he won that National Circuit Finals, he’s been a beast. He’s just been winning!
Waguespack and Erickson, too. You can only let so many people ride your horse, but I hate turning anybody down. And I knew Scooter could handle it.
Loves to Win
Here’s the thing about Scooter: The more runs he has, the better he performs.
Irwin and I noticed as soon as we started competing on him in the ERA. We had four guys riding him. We always thought his first run was his worst. Run one, he does good. Run two, he does great. Run three, he’s breathing fire!
Some horses can’t take the pressure, but Scooter’s mind is just so good. He does great in big buildings and arenas. The pressure gets him running harder and harder. He’s just got the want-to. He’s gritty. Scooter’s one of those horses that gives their all every time. He gives you the ability to score. If you draw a decent steer, he gives you a chance to win first. But where Scooter’s special—you can draw a runner and still have a chance to place. He can haul ass, and he loves to go to them! Scooter came from the track. He had like twenty outs. Racing wasn’t really his deal, but he dang sure found his deal!
It’s kind of weird to say, but Scooter loves to win.
A few days later, Erickson flew in to practice on Scooter. Me and him met Waguespack at Tom Carney’s place. I took Scooter and Metallica, my white hazing horse. Rowdy Parrott, another bulldogger headed to the NFR, was there, too. We all practiced for a few days, and then Erickson came back to my house in Oklahoma, where Carissa and the kids and I moved after the flood, and we practiced for another straight week.
Ty Erickson is from Montana. I’ve known him for a while and have always admired him. He’s a serious competitor—extremely talented. After a week together at the house, we got along better and better. He flew home, and a few days later we both met up in Las Vegas for the NFR. There, for ten nights straight, I would be hazing for Erickson—and trying to win myself.
I would also be hazing for Irwin and Wag. I had a good hazing horse and a lot of experience in the hazer’s box at the Thomas & Mack Center. I asked Irwin to haze for me, even though he had never hazed at the NFR. Some guys might have called on somebody with more experience, but Irwin hazed for me all season. I wanted him beside me, because I trusted him to do the job.
And all four of us were riding Scooter.
That’s bulldogging. The standard deal, here in the U.S. at least, is that if you’re a bulldogger and you mount out, you pay twelve-and-a-half percent of anything you win to the horse’s owner. If he hazes for you, and he usually does, then you pay another twelve-and-a-half percent, or twenty-five percent in all. We don’t sign contracts. It’s based on trust, whether there’s a handshake or not. I’m sure there’s been friendships lost and fistfights over misunderstandings, but you don’t see that much.
Going into the NFR, Erickson was ranked first. Olin Hannum was second. I was third.
I was only two spots behind Erickson, but he was forty or fifty thousand dollars ahead of me in money earned. He set the season earnings record last year. Going into the NFR, I never once thought about the gold buckle, about winning first. After getting to the Finals in 2013 and then hurting my knee throwing practice steers, I was just glad to be back and healthy. I’d been through a lot in the past eighteen months, including a flood and a move to a new state. I wanted to soak up the experience and enjoy it.
This year, when the other guys threw them practice steers at the Thomas & Mack Center, I just sat on my horse and watched.
The Rounds Begin
I had a good run on the first night. I threw my steer in 3.9 seconds and placed second in the round. I placed second in Round Two. On the third night, I was 4.0 and placed third.
Night after night, I had good but not great runs. There are ten rounds in all. After eight, I had not won a single round, but I placed in five. Erickson also placed in five. The top six who place in each round earn money—from around $4,200 for sixth place up to $26,200 for first. In the World Championship race, it’s the average money that pushes so many guys over the top. After eight rounds, Erickson and I both had a good chance of placing high in the average. I intentionally didn’t do the math. It was too distracting.
In Round Nine, Erickson drew a runner. He was worried.
“Just get a good start, and you’ll do good,” I told him.
He did get a good start. At least that’s what I heard afterwards. When you’re hazing, you can’t watch. The bulldogger nods and kicks. You, the hazer, have to wait for the nod and react quickly. Then you’re playing catch-up.
The Thomas & Mack Center is the toughest arena for hazers. It’s a short space built for basketball games. The bucking chutes at the other end are only 140 feet away. They come up fast. Every year at the NFR, hazers hit the chutes or fall off to avoid hitting them. Last year, Matt Reeves was hazing, fell into a bucking chute and broke his arm.
When I’m hazing, I don’t watch the bulldogger. The run starts fast, and the back end comes up fast. In a flash, I’m pulling up my horse and bulldogger’s horse before we hit the chutes.
It’s a tough job. Nobody notices the hazer until he messes up.
So in Round Nine Erickson got a good start, but the steer slipped a horn. Erickson grabbed his tail and, through grit and determination, threw him in 26 seconds. Man, it was a tick of bad luck. I’m sure if he ran that steer 1000 more times, he’d place 999 times. But by throwing the steer in under 30 seconds, Erickson avoided a no-time, which would have ended his chance to place in the average.
I didn’t like my Round Nine steer, either. In the animal’s previous two rounds, nobody had placed on him. If I missed him, I’d lose my chance to place in the average.
Scooter gave me a great start. He let me get my feet on the ground and do my job. I threw the steer in 4.5 seconds. I didn’t place, but I held my ground in the average. For that reason, Round Nine may have been my best yet.
I felt totally bummed for Erickson. At the same time, a thought crept into my head. I have a chance to win the gold buckle.
Watching for the Nod
After that round, so many people called me I turned my phone off. I didn’t want them telling me what all had to happen in the last round for me to win the World Championship. I stayed focused on one thing—throwing my last steer.
We received the Round Ten lineup. I was scheduled to go near the back of the pack. Erickson would make the last of fifteen runs. There was one steer I wanted. I had been taking notes on him. He was a runner but good on the ground. Sure enough, I drew him in Round Ten. I had a chance.
My turn came. The stakes were high. I was nervous but tried to stay calm and focused.
I nodded. Scooter shot out of the box. I was behind in my start and ran the steer farther than I wanted to. I threw him in 5.2 seconds—who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t been on Scooter. I didn’t place. But I was still gonna win average money.
Erickson drew a very good steer, the same one I threw in 3.6 seconds in Round Seven.
The 2017 steer wrestling World Championship came down to this—the final run of the NFR. It was make or break for Erickson.
And he was counting on me to haze for him.
Having to haze for Erickson made me ten times more nervous than bulldogging my own final steer. This was maybe the most important run of the year for Erickson. All season, he had been laser-eyed on winning the gold buckle. Now, with a good steer, he had a chance. I wanted to do my best for him. I kept thinking, Man, if something happens, and I miss this haze, it’s all gonna be on me. If I screwed up, the world title was mine. But I didn’t want to win like that.
Part of me worried that I would try too hard. I thought about asking Erickson if he wanted somebody else to haze for him, but I decided against it. I didn’t want him second-guessing my ability.
I was backed in the box on Metallica, feeling nervous, trying to relax and watching for the nod. I thought, We’ll just go at it like we’ve been doing.
The steer wasn’t right. He kept fighting in the chute. Erickson waited. I couldn’t watch the steer, but I heard the chute rattling. I was staring at Erickson, trying not to blink. At one point, me and Metallica jumped. I thought I saw the nod. We had to back in and start over. I stared again, not blinking. The rattling stopped.
Erickson nodded. The steer took off, but Scooter caught him. Metallica ran after them and put me right where I needed to be.
I got them hooked up, and Erickson was off in a hurry and digging in his heels. I looked down to keep Metallica from ramming Scooter, then I pulled the horses up and swung back towards the box. Man, I was glad to be done with that run.
I looked up at the clock and saw 4.5 seconds. Later, watching the video, I saw that Erickson’s run started great—better than my 3.6-second run on the same steer. But the steer dog-fell. His butt kind of rolled and took longer to hit the ground. The clock doesn’t stop until you lay them down on their side. Erickson’s 4.5 earned him fourth place.
I rode back into the pens, and one of the other cowboys spoke to me.
“You just missed the gold buckle by two grand,” he said.
My first thought was, good for Erickson!
I was unbooting my horses, and Matt Reeves came up to me.
“Congratulations, Tyler,” he said.
“Yeah, the year’s over, and it was a good one,” I said.
“No,” he said. “You just won the World Championship!”
“Huh? I heard I missed it by two-thousand dollars.”
“You won it by two thousand,” Reeves said.
“Well, which of you two is right?”
Someone from the PRCA called. “Pearson, get down here for an interview. You just won the World!”
The first person I saw was Irwin. He jumped off his horse and gave me a bear hug. He teared-up and that got me teared-up, too. This was Irwin’s first time hazing at the Thomas & Mack, and he had already helped earn a gold buckle.
Somebody was dang sure looking down on me that night. It was one of them surreal moments. The stars just aligned. I hated it for Erickson, because he wanted it so bad, but at the same time, I’m going out there to do good myself. I was sure glad to get the win is what I’m trying to say.
I couldn’t have done it without Scooter. He ran four times a night for ten straight nights, running to those yellow chutes that are only 140 feet away. He ran as hard on the last go as he did the first. Maybe harder.
Scooter was named the 2017 Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year by the American Quarter Horse Association and the PRCA. If there any doubt, Scooter’s performance at the NFR proved he deserved the honor. It’s nice and all, but winning Horse of the Year has nothing to do with letting cowboys mount out on Scooter. We don’t do it so we can get a vote. We want to help out when we can. We may have to ask the same of them one day.
That’s the bond among bulldoggers. It’s amazing. If you’re down, you’ve always got somebody to slap you on the back and say, Hey buddy, keep your head up. When you win, everybody’s clapping for you.