Losing Nikko

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

That horse gave me so much—our ranch, a world championship, countless wins and never-ending try. I will always miss him.

by Tyson Durfey

On November 16, 2018, my good horse started acting funny. This was Nikko, the horse I’d ridden three times at the National Finals Rodeo, the horse who helped me win a gold buckle in the tie-down roping in 2016 and the horse I was counting on riding at the 2018 NFR in less than three weeks. Nikko and I had pretty much been inseparable since he came into my life and we started competing in 2015.

Around 8:30 that morning, Nikko rolled in the grass a couple of times. I thought he was tying-up, something that is common in barrel horses. It’s basically muscle stiffness that causes severe pain. I administered some Banamine, a pain medicine, and he seemed better. Man, close call, I thought.

By lunchtime Nikko was down and rolling again. I knew something wasn’t right. The Banamine should have been working. I figured I’d better get him to the vet and make sure we weren’t missing something. Colic is pretty common in Texas due to our sandy soil, so I just tried to stay calm and told myself we’d caught it early. We loaded Nikko and headed to Equine Sports Medicine & Surgery in Weatherford. After examining him, the vet and techs thought Nikko was colicking and needed fluids. They hooked him up to an IV around 1:00 p.m. We hoped all the fluids would help loosen any gastrointestinal blockage—step one when dealing with that kind of colic. I took a few deep breaths and prayed.

By 6:30 that evening, Nikko was worse. That was the first time I felt fear—fear that I wasn’t going to ride him at the NFR. I honestly didn’t have a Plan B.

Losing him never crossed my mind.

The vet and techs seemed calm, almost nonchalant. No big deal. It might require surgery, but Nikko would only be out four or five months. We decided on the surgery, even though it meant no Nikko at the NFR.

Turns out, Nikko had a displaced colon. His colon was in the shape of a pretzel. Nothing was able to pass. That kind of thing can just happen. Surgery was the only answer. The surgery went well, and Nikko was on the path to recovery. The very next day he looked amazing—bright and alert. He looked like I could go rope off him. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Knowing I wouldn’t have Nikko at the NFR was hard, but at least he’d be okay. There was always next year.

I began working through what I would do about the NFR. I needed a Plan B. I had a horse called Mitch who was relatively green. He wasn’t prepared for the NFR but could use the experience. If I wanted to win, I needed another horse. In 2014, I rode Curtis Cassidy’s horse, Stick, for half the NFR when my horse Bailey was out of commission. I decided to call Curtis. I felt anxious but knew Curtis would probably be open to the idea.

On November 23 I spent a couple hours with Nikko at the vet clinic. He was recovering nicely, and I hoped he could come home soon.

After that, I ran to town to get something to eat and drop by the cell-phone store. My phone rang. It was the vet. Tyson, we have a problem. I rushed back to the clinic.

Nikko had a fever—a high fever. At first they thought it was an infection from the surgery or maybe E. coli. Whatever the cause, Nikko was going downhill fast. Something was very, very wrong. The vets scrambled, pulling blood, swabbing his stitches for bacterial cultures, administering pain medication. I looked at Nikko and the chaos swirling around me. Was this really happening?

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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Flashy Little Horse

I first saw Nikko in 2012 at a little rodeo. I don’t even remember where. I thought, Dang, that’s a cool little horse. I really liked the way he worked. He had great speed and timing. I liked the way he stopped and the way he worked. He had a thick mane and tail and carried himself with confidence. He was such a flashy little horse. He caught your eye no matter what.

Seth Emerson was competing on Nikko at the time. I told Seth that if he ever wanted to sell Nikko, I was interested. A while later, Seth sold Nikko to roper Justin Maass. I was bummed, because I hadn’t gotten the call to buy him, but I figured it wasn’t meant to be.

Justin had Nikko for a couple years, even rode him at the NFR on a couple occasions. Long story short, they didn’t click. Justin knew I’d wanted Nikko when Seth had him, so he offered the horse to me. I decided to spend what felt like a small fortune on Nikko. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t know horses, but Nikko was special. You could just look at him and tell. Justin wouldn’t let me take Nikko to a rodeo before I bought him. I don’t even remember why. I just tried him in the practice pen and bought him, which is pretty abnormal for a high-dollar horse. I knew his potential was through the roof. I thought he could be something super amazing.

At our first rodeo, Nikko cheated me in the box. He was hard to score on. Apparently you had to push just the right buttons, and I didn’t know where they were. I was upset because of all the money I’d spent to buy him.

Nikko was weird in the box. You had to score him the right way to get by it. It always took a little bit to get with him in the corner. For as flashy as he was, he was also sensitive. I was feeling buyer’s remorse but took him home to practice. In about three weeks we started clicking and winning. I was finally figuring out how Nikko needed to be ridden to perform his best. I was recognizing what he needed to make a good run, and he was recognizing what I wanted. We got better together—and better and better. It’s a good thing Justin didn’t let me take him to a rodeo first, though, because I honestly wouldn’t have bought him.

Nikko took my career to another level. In our time together, we won over $700,000. He helped pay for my ranch. In 2016 I won second on him at The American in Fort Worth. The next week we went to Rodeo Houston, and I won that. Later that year I won the world championship on him. It was an electric year. Once Nikko and I figured each other out, there was no turning back.

The day after Nikko died, my little girl, Praise, looked at me and said, “Daddy, I want to ride Nikko.” I couldn’t talk. The lump in my throat made me feel like there was no air in the truck.

Sadness and Loss

Back at the clinic, I learned Nikko’s colon had ruptured. His waste was literally spilling back into his body. He had sepsis. When I found that out, I honestly didn’t think he would die, even after the vet told me there was nothing they could do. I called a second vet who’s a good friend of mine. Same story: “Tyson, there’s nothing you can do.” I didn’t believe him either. I called a third vet, another close friend.

“What are the odds?” I asked. I’d faced long odds before.

“Tyson,” this third vet said, “in my thirty years of practice, I’ve never seen a septic horse like this make it.”

My denial fell away. I began to accept this life-changing outcome. There was nothing they could do. We had to euthanize Nikko. He was only fourteen years old.

I felt a deep sense of sadness and loss. It’s like losing a family member or your best friend. I felt afraid, empty and full of regret.

The day after Nikko died, my little girl, Praise, looked at me and said, “Daddy, I want to ride Nikko.” I couldn’t talk. The lump in my throat made me feel like there was no air in the truck. Not only was the loss of Nikko impacting me, but it was going to affect my child as well. That was such a pivotal moment—not only a testament to what a great horse Nikko was for me but also what he meant to my family.

Two Horses for a Reason

Mitch came into my life in 2018. I got Mitch from a guy named Tim Bagnell, owner of B Bar Heart Performance Horses in Montana. I bought Mitch because he reminded me of Nikko. The way he ran and scored was very similar. I didn’t think he was quite as special, but for a backup horse he’d be great.

I’d owned him less than a year when I lost Nikko. I didn’t feel we’d gotten in a great rhythm yet. Mitch was still green. He wasn’t a solid roping horse like Nikko, but I didn’t have any other options in my barn.

I was riding Mitch around the arena after losing Nikko and kept hearing this voice, I gave you two horses for a reason. I don’t know where it came from. As I loped circles around the arena I kept hearing it play through my head. I gave you two horses for a reason.

So I took a leap of faith and took Mitch to the NFR. The first three rounds were awful. It was all green-horse things. For instance, I’d drop him to leave, and he wouldn’t go. He wasn’t pushing out of the box. There was a second between asking and going. In roping, those are precious seconds. These were all issues that I figured would come up. I began to doubt my decision to bring Mitch. He was too inexperienced for this. Heck, I’d only ridden him in maybe seven rodeos.

As I backed into the box for Round Four of the 2018 Wrangler National Finals, I shook my head. This was no time to focus on anything else. I nodded my head for my calf and tied him in 9.9 seconds. I finished fourteenth out of fifteen in the round. Even my best game face couldn’t hide the disappointment I was feeling. I asked my friend Curtis Cassidy if I could ride his horse Stick in Round Five. He told me, “Yeah, sure. You betcha.”

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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The next night, Round Five, I felt weird on Stick from the start. It wasn’t anything specific. Stick was warming up great, but things felt all blurry versus being sharp. That’s the only way I know to describe it. I’m not usually a superstitious person. I’m a man of faith. But that night I should have listened to that little voice that was saying maybe I’d made a mistake in riding Stick. I nodded my head, and the calf immediately ducked to the left. I missed and then struggled to get my second loop going. I missed the second time. With spirits low, I left the arena questioning everything that happened over the past few weeks.

The voice played through my head again: I gave you two horses for a reason. I knew the Lord had a plan for me, so I went back to Mitch during Round Six. But I was only 11.5 that night. This was not how I’d expected my NFR to go.

As a man of faith, I was trying to trust in the Lord’s plan, but the accumulation of ups and downs were testing me.

During Round Seven, I backed into the box on Mitch. I wasn’t expecting a miracle. I just wanted a good, clean run. I dropped to leave, and Mitch flew out of the box. I swung my rope four times and let it fly. My time was 7.2, good enough to win the round.

The next night, I split second in Round Eight. In Round Nine, I was fifth. By some miracle, by Round Ten, I had a chance to win the world championship. In Round Ten, I finished just outside the top five. I missed out on the gold buckle, but Mitch had come through. In the last four rounds I won over $50,000 on a horse that had only been to seven rodeos with me and fourteen rodeos overall.

Losing Nikko was easily one of the hardest things that ever happened to me. It has been a different kind of grief to process. I still feel that pain, loss, regret and emptiness. Nikko was my partner. I knew what every ear-twitch meant. He knew what a slight shift in my seat indicated. It’s a bond that takes a lot of time to build, the kind of bond that’s priceless. Any good roper will tell you about that one horse that made all their runs feel perfect. Even when they miss or don’t do well, they’re thankful for the horse, their partner. Nikko was that horse to me.

Mitch has really come into his own. I knew he was going to be good, but sometimes you don’t know how good your horse is until you need to know. Mitch has carried me to a lot of wins this year at a lot of rodeos. He’s super consistent. This is his first year of really being on the road and competing, and he just keeps getting better and better. I’m super proud of him. He reminds me a lot of Nikko in how he works, but I know the void Nikko left will never truly be filled.

We brought Nikko home to the ranch. He’s buried down alongside our river. It’s a spot I pass every day. Losing Nikko wasn’t just losing a horse. I lost my best friend and family member and teammate. Nikko gave me so much—our ranch, a world championship, countless wins and never-ending try. I will always miss him.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen


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