Gettin’ After It
This Fourth of July, my ultimate goal is to win a gold buckle, but I have another little side goal.
I’ve heard it said for years and years that the rodeo season really doesn’t start until Reno, and that everything you win in the wintertime is a bonus. That’s what the old-timers used to tell me, and by this point in my career, I agree.
The most important week is the Fourth of July run. Cowboy Christmas. I’ve rodeoed through sixteen Fourth weeks. A couple years I didn’t have good horses and maybe wasn’t all in. But fourteen of those sixteen years I was gettin’ after it.
You make the National Finals Rodeo and win gold buckles starting in summer. You can show up with hardly any money at all and have the finals made by the end of August.
It can go the other way, too. (Read “My Worst Fourth of July Ever”)
What’s At Stake
Unfortunately, for me this year, wintertime was one of the worst one of my career.
My winters aren’t always spectacular, but I always seem to piece together twelve or fifteen thousand by the end of February. This year, my heart wasn’t in it. I came home from the 2017 NFR, and I bought a hundred acres. I put some cows out there, and we’re trying to build a house now. My wife, Sarah, is pregnant. We have a baby boy on the way. Man, this winter was the first time in my career that I felt like all the years and all the miles had caught up with me. I don’t want to sound like I’m not a tough guy, but my best horse, Floyd Money, was hurt, and I just kept telling myself, It’s going to be great when Floyd gets back.
I’m coming off the best NFR I’ve ever had. I had as much fun roping calves last December at the NFR than I ever have in my life. Any time you win, it’s fun, and I placed in eight out of ten go-rounds.
That’s part of the reason why my heart wasn’t in it over the winter. We left the National Finals on December 17th. I came home and had maybe a week off before I had to go to my circuit finals. We closed on our 100 acres on December 28th. I signed the papers that morning and roped at the circuit finals that night. I didn’t even get to go over there and drive on my new place. And from my circuit finals, I had to go straight to Odessa. And from Odessa, I had to go straight to Denver. I had no time to sit back and soak it in and go, You know what? You did pretty good. It was back to the grind.
When you don’t feel like going, and you’re not riding the horse you want to be riding—not that the ones I was riding weren’t good—your heart’s not in it. And if your heart’s not in it, these kids nowadays will take all your money.
From 2014 until 2017, I’ve left home for Reno with eighteen- to twenty-six thousand won. This year, May rolled around, and I only had ten-thousand won. I didn’t want to show up at Reno and not be rodeo sharp, so I entered a bunch of rodeos that I don’t ever go to at the end of May. I put in the effort and now, heading into the heart of the Fourth of July run, I have about twenty-five thousand won.
And Floyd Money’s back.
I’m not an arrogant person, but you run the right calves in for me over the Fourth of July at the rodeos I’m entering with the horse power that I got, and I feel like I can almost have the NFR made.
These days, if you ask me about the Fourth of July, my first thought is, I hope my card hits so I can go to the rodeos I want when I want. Ten years ago, I would have just said, Excitement.
I still love everything about what I do, but when you know the ins and outs as well as I do, the number one goal for the Fourth is to enter the best rodeos and then get to as many of the other ones as you can.
Entering rodeos is what we do every day. It’s a crucial part of our job, and it’s on my mind all the time. I take a lot of pride in my entering.
For most of the rodeos during the Fourth, the books open in early June. The big rodeos might stay open for three or four days. The smaller rodeos may only be open for twenty-four hours. You call up and ask for a certain performance on a certain day. Then you give a second preference, based on your backup plan. When the books close, the rodeo organizers use a lottery system to randomly put the cards into a priority list. You get a callback letting you know how things shook out. Even if you’re standing first in the world, you don't get special preference. We’re all supposedly equal. But if you get lucky and end up first on the priority list, you get your top preference.
You need a good plan to start entering. I’ve been doing this for so long, I can pretty much tell you when the rodeos are gonna start, when all the slacks are gonna be, how far it is from here to there, and whether you can catch a flight out of this place to get to that place on time.
Once you start entering and getting callbacks, your plan is liable to change on a daily basis. If you don't get in exactly what you entered, it'll change everything. You'll have to go to your Plan B or Plan C. By the end of the Fourth, your plan might have changed ten times.
My ultimate goal is to win a gold buckle, but I have another little side goal. I do not want my wife to be eight months pregnant while I’m up in Oregon and Washington next fall hustling to qualify for the NFR. I’m putting out the effort—more than I ever have—to try to have National Finals made by the middle of August.
I used to tell people my summer schedule, and they’d say, “When are you gonna sleep?” I’d always tell ’em, “I’ll sleep in October.” Because I’d do whatever it takes. I can’t say that anymore, because my wife’s having a baby in October. I don’t know when I’m gonna sleep, but I’ll figure it out.
My travel partner is Stetson Vest. He and I have been talking about the Fourth of July since probably February. Our original plan, after Reno, had us starting in Springdale, Arkansas, on June 26, going to Greeley, Colorado, the next morning and down to Pecos, Texas, on the 28th. Then we were gonna drive all night back to the Dallas-Forth Worth airport and get on a 6:00 a.m. flight on the 29th and go to Williams Lake, in British Columbia, where there’s a good one-header. From there, we were gonna drive all night to Ponoka, Alberta, for a morning slack on the 30th. Ponoka’s one of the best paying rodeos over the Fourth. So is Pecos. A guy can win six or seven thousand in Pecos and more than twice that at Ponoka.
I call all the big ones my priority rodeos. The other ones, you work them in as you can. I’ve only been to Ponoka once about ten years ago, but I wanted to make Ponoka a priority rodeo this year.
Unfortunately, the books at Ponoka and Pecos closed on the same day. We didn'’t know when we were up at Ponoka before the books closed at Pecos. Entering two rodeos that close the same day, you’re shooting in the dark and hoping you hit.
Stetson and I entered for Pecos on June 28 and Ponoka, Alberta, on the 30th. I remember him calling me with the news. I was at Woodward, Oklahoma, on a Wednesday, and I had just roped. My calf kicked for about twelve seconds, and I didn’t win nothing.
“We didn’t get the 30th at Ponoka,” Stetson told me. “We got the 29th.”
The first thing I thought was, This is why I don’t go to Canada. One day off from our top preference, and our whole deal got fouled up. We were entered at Pecos on the 28th. There’s not an airport close enough to Pecos that’s big enough to have a flight late enough to get you anywhere close to Canada. Chartering a flight costs about twenty-five-thousand dollars, and we didn’t have that much. Something like that, if you allow it, will ruin your day. But as an old veteran, I know not to hit the panic button.
My next thought was, We gotta get a trade. We looked at the trades list and started hunting. We called everybody that was up in Ponoka on the 30th, but when there’s that many guys asking for the day that you need, the odds of getting a trade are slim to none.
For two weeks, we tried to get traded in Ponoka. The whole time, we were also deciding how to enter the next rodeo. Do you enter it like you got a trade? Or do you enter it like you didn’t get a trade? We went ahead and entered Williams Lake like we were gonna get traded, but our card didn’t hit there, either.
In the end, we could not get a trade at Ponoka. We decided to turn out at Pecos, even though I win money at Pecos almost every year. There’s more money to win at Ponoka, so that’s where I’m headed.
During the Fourth week, I refuse to sit still for even a day. Instead of taking the 30th off, I opened up the business journal and entered Dickinson, North Dakota, on that day. I’ll drive from Ponoka and Airdrie on the 29th to Dickinson, North Dakota, and then over to Cody, Wyoming.
In all, I’m entered to compete at thirteen rodeos, unless we make any short rounds, which we will. Then we’ll have to draw out of a bunch of rodeos. The short round is where you win your average money. That’s where the big money is. For example, if we make the short round at Ponoka, the PRCA will move us to the next day, which would be July 3rd. But we’re up at Red Lodge, Montana, and Prescott, Arizona, on the 2nd.
You got to use your head. If I make the short round at Ponoka in the twelfth position, I might go on and go to Red Lodge and Prescott. It also depends on how tight the times are. If I’m seventeen seconds flat on two at Ponoka and sixteen seconds flat is winning first, I’m going to the short round. But if I’m three seconds behind fourth, I’m probably not going to go back. Best case scenario, you move up to fifth in the average. Well, that’s not going to pay what you can win at Red Lodge and Prescott that day.
It’s like a row of dominoes. If you tap one over, they start falling. If you don’t know what you're doing, the whole stack’ll go, and you’ll be in a bind.
That’s where the years of experience come in. At this point in my career, I can play the game as good as ever.
I’ve got my good horse back, too. I’m so excited about what’s fixing to take place. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be good. I don’t ever want to come across as arrogant, but a guy’s got to be confident, or it’s not going to go good. I’m fresh. I feel good. I’m not hurting right now. With my horse power, I have greater expectations for this Fourth of July than I’ve ever had in my career. I feel like, at thirty-five years old, I’ve got the best horses I’ve ever had in my possession, and I am roping better than I ever have. This is big time, man! I’m getting excited thinking about it.
A guy makes the National Finals by winning consistently. Every time you have a chance to win, you win, and that’s how you pull it off. Come December, some roper’s going to win the gold buckle. Why not me? Shoot, I’ve put the effort out. I’ve put the work in. I think you could ask anybody out here, and they’d tell you that I may not have always had the talent, but my work ethic is strong. I’m all in. That’s why my hips hurt. That’s why I can’t get around very good. All my buddies laugh at me when we’ve been in the truck for a few hours, and I get out and I’m hobbling around, but man, I’m proud of it. My dad and I, we started this deal when I was twelve years old. He quit roping and give it all to me, and we taught each other everything we know. And maybe I didn’t do it all perfect when I was a kid. Maybe I don’t do it perfect it now, but my mindset is, Why not me?
This year, for the first time ever, it's about more than me. Or me and my wife. I’m roping for my boy now, to provide for him, and that excites me.
Keep up with all the action during the Fourth of July run. Follow #theCjHASE