Flanking and Tying Loose Ends (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

When we made my video, Flanking & Tying, the guys in the studio inserted some of my NFR runs for demonstration. As I watched it for the first time, I was filled with relief when I saw myself practice what I preached.

This month I walked across the stage and received my college diploma. The end of my last semester of college those many years ago now, happened to be the same time as my first NFR qualification. I missed one test with every intention of making it up. For one reason or another I never did take the test and that one test kept me from graduating.

When I had to undergo surgery on my shoulder it seemed like the perfect time to tie up that loose end and practice what I preach, “Education, education, education,” and  “Always finish what you start.”

This wasn’t as much for me as it was for my boys. Even though they are toddlers now, I know they will hear those very words adamantly from me in the future. I need to be able to say them with a clear conscience, because you cannot ask your kids, or anyone else for that matter, to do something you would not do yourself.

It had been so long since I was in school that the degree I had worked towards didn’t even exist anymore and I had to change it to a General Studies degree. I took two classes, Art Appreciation and Psychology. I’m sure my Psychology teacher hadn’t ever anticipated a thirty-six year old who rodeos for a living. I drove all night to walk across that stage, so my kids will know that I’m the real deal.

Will this degree improve my annual salary, I doubt it. I may or may not need it in time to come, but it’s an accomplishment I finished and am very proud of.

I would like to thank everyone for the kind and compassionate comments about Topper. The response was unbelievable. It may have been a kind word as I rode in the box, or walking through an airport, someone I’d never seen before might say, “Man, I’m sorry about your horse.”

I’ve always said that people in the western industry are the best in the world – and they just keep proving it to me again and again.


Tribute to Topper (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Without a doubt this is the hardest article I have ever written, much harder than when I hurt my shoulder. I really didn’t want to talk about what happened to Topper, but there have been so many questions and rumors that I want to tell it just once.

We were out of town and Topper was home in the same pen he’s lived in for fifteen years. He opened the gate and let himself out, which in itself is not a big deal since I let him roam the place like a pet dog at times. But this time, for some reason, he went out to the highway and apparently stepped over the white line and was hit by a truck, which never even stopped. Besides a human being injured, I can’t imagine anything more devastating happening to a friend.

I wasn’t going to talk about it, but there’s been such an outcry from the industry that I felt they deserve to know and I want to thank everyone for the calls and the cards.

The only thing worse than losing Topper, is anyone feeling responsible for it. This accident was the fault of no one.

I want this article to be a tribute to one of, if not the best, athletes I’ve ever known. It’s easy to research Topper’s accomplishments in the arena so I would like to tell you some things about Topper that most people didn’t know.

What I’ll miss the most is having my friend. He spoke English and the only reason he didn’t speak Spanish is because I don’t speak it. I could whistle to him in the pasture and he would run to me, even trot past me and find the gate I’d left open for him in the barn. He would know exactly where to go and I seldom took a halter when catching him.

Topper had an incorrigible sweet tooth and his favorite treats were bread and the donuts they saved for him at Timber Creek Vet. Once when Trent had him, he was leading him down the midway during the fair at a rodeo and passed a kid with a hot dog in his hand. Topper just reached down and got a bite as he passed by.

His very favorite treat was peppermints. Anytime my dad passed a bowl of peppermints in a restaurant he would stock up. Topper would run through fire for a peppermint but would never bite. You could put a peppermint in your fist and he would take his lips and get your fist open to get the peppermint, but absolutely would not chew until your hand was completely out of his mouth.

When Stone was born several years ago, on the way home from the hospital I stopped at the barn on the way to the house. I put my two-day old son on Topper’s back and said, “Partner, it’s nothing but downhill for you from here,” and laughed.

What most people didn’t know about Topper was how smart he was and what a personality he had. It’s like losing a member of our family and it’s going to hurt every time I walk in the barn and he’s not standing there. I’m blessed to have owned an animal of that caliber and while he was with me he had the life of Riley. He was never abused, hauled too much, or ridden too hard. I never tried to “get one more run” out of him like happens with many older horses.

Though he didn’t deserve this death, he was twenty-five and didn’t suffer and I never had to make any tough decisions while watching him deteriorate. I’ve never had this kind of connection or respect with another horse. I wouldn’t have sold him for any amount of money. I felt like if I had sold him, I’d be selling part of me – so no he wasn’t for sale.

My dad owns the land across the highway from me and that’s where we buried him. At the top of the hill, standing up – because he never laid down on anyone.

He made my job easy and fun and seldom made a mistake. If he did, I didn’t scold him – how do you scold Michael Jordan?


The Green Light (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Following my shoulder surgery in December, Dr. Tandy has given me the green light to start practicing. I’ve been coming back slowly and am not at 100% by any means. My range of motion and flexibility is somewhat restricted and when I rope I feel like I’m wearing a sport coat about two sizes too small. I can do it; it just doesn’t feel very good.

Being out of commission has given me time to be at home with my family and do the things I normally don’t have time for. In the last month or so I’ve been the guest speaker at three churches, put on several schools and been handyman extraordinaire around the house. I’ve put in a driveway, cut down trees, moved fence and hauled off half a pasture of scrap iron.

It doesn’t sound like much of a break, but I tell myself it’s physical rehabilitation. For the first time that I can remember, my right arm is as strong as my left. My left arm has always been strong from flanking, holding slack, etc. After two to four hours a day, three times a week, in rehab, my right arm has finally caught up.

This has been a nice break for my horses, Topper and Piggy Bank. From November to January they’ve been turned out and exercised themselves. I’ve been bringing them back slowly without any roping. The other day I roped an unheard of four calves on Topper and at twenty-five years of age, he feels as good to me as he ever has.

My roping has undergone a style change due to losing my range of motion. On the up side, this has made me go back to boot camp and do things right. It’s easy after Las Vegas to keep reaching even though the catching percentage isn’t as high as you’d like. I can’t do that now (I’ve tried already). Where before when I’d reach I could catch ninety percent, I’m now at fifty to sixty percent. That means I’m packing a couple of coils with a smaller loop and not taking as many risks. Not altogether a bad thing since it makes me revisit the basics of roping, something we should all do from time to time.

Initially Dr. Tandy said I wouldn’t be back until May and here I’m entered in March. I love to rope, I’m glad to be back – how good does it get?


Horse Shopping (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Some friends were shopping for a barrel horse the other day and I asked each of them the one quality they were looking for. My friend had one answer, his girlfriend another and her parents another. Whether it’s a calf horse, barrel horse or race horse, if you’re buying a horse for competition – you need a winner.

How do you know if he’s a winner? Find out what’s been won on him. And what’s more important is can I win on him. When a horse is a proven winner that’s when they start asking astronomical prices and getting them. Just because they ask it and someone gives it, that doesn’t mean the horse is worth it. But if you can win on them, then they’re worth whatever you have to pay for them – to a point.

This is where the business side of me has to over rule my emotional side. I use a mount money formula to determine whether a horse is practically priced for me. For example let’s say a horse costs $100,000 and I want to have him paid for in two years. That means I would have to win $200,000 on him each year, for two years in a row.

So if you’re not sure how much to pay for a horse, figure up how much you normally win in a year. If you normally win $5,000 and you’re looking at a horse that costs $25,000 – that doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’re progressing in your roping and expect to increase your winnings.

There are many theories about what’s fair when trying a horse. Personally I don’t need to haul a horse home because I don’t really care how good he is in the practice pen. At this point in my career what’s important to me is how he performs in the arena, under the lights for the big bucks and how much has been won on him in these conditions.

Now if he hasn’t been anywhere, I still want to know what he’s going to do when he gets there. I might try him at their house and ask them to take him to one or two rodeos where I can see how he’ll do.

That’s how you find out who the winners are. Every good horse I’ve ever had is his best at the rodeos. The great horses are great every time anywhere. Ronnie Williams used to have a horse named “Carry,” because he’d carry you to the pay window.


Turning Adversity Around (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Last month when I wrote about my injury, I made the statement that it’s not my place to ask why it happened, but what could I gain from the experience. After riding out of the arena at Kansas City, back at the trailer, it all hit me. Not only would I not qualify for the NFR, I nearly tore my arm off my body. I couldn’t move my right arm and there are very few things worse for a roper. Rather than crying, like I felt like doing, I realized it was a pivotal time in my life and thought, “Lord, thank you for this. When I can’t make sense of something, I know it’s because you have a bigger plan in store for me, so thank you.”

Many people might have trouble understanding my faith and outlook. But now, thirty days later, let me tell you about the last month.

In Las Vegas Jennifer and I had the opportunity to meet Paula White who has one of the largest television ministries in the world. We felt an immediate connection and Paula and I both agree our meeting was a divine appointment. Paula said she felt it was her place to introduce me to her personal trainer, Dodd Romero.

His clients include Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees, Steve Nash, Denzel Washington, Lenny Kravitz, Nicole Kidman and Paula White – period. The only way he accepts new clients is if he feels it’s by divine appointment. After spending two days with Dodd so he could review my medical records, he hugged and kissed me and said he felt like we were brothers. He’s excited to have the opportunity to deal with someone who rodeo’s.

I’ve never met anyone like Dodd before. He’s close to six feet tall and weighs 245 pounds with less than three percent body fat. It’s given me a glimpse of what professional athletes experience with their trainers. He is like a highly tuned racecar.

Dodd has told me to take a month to let my mind and body relax and heal. Afterwards I’ll probably make a temporary home in Florida, where he lives. He’s not just a personal trainer – he leaves absolutely nothing to chance. He will either cook my meals or have them prepared to his specifications, regulate my sleep, and has two or three doctors he works with on a regular basis. His training takes control of every situation.

I don’t know how long it will take me to become physically competitive and neither does he. His answer is, “We’ll see what your body says. Your body will talk to me and tell me exactly how it’s doing.”

This is the opportunity and bigger plan I was talking about. At the age of thirty-six I felt I had peaked physically. Now I have an excellent chance to get in the best shape of my life. Had this opportunity arisen while I was rodeoing hard, more than likely I wouldn’t have seen the bigger picture or felt like I had the time to make life altering changes.

What appeared as a totally devastating blow in Kansas City has become the opportunity of a lifetime. But then again, I knew that when it happened.


A Race for the Finals (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

For the last two years, during the NFR, I was winning the world until the last calf was roped. This year I’m sitting fifteenth and flying to rodeos across the United States, back and forth, trying to qualify.

My main priority right now is to stay focused and not get in my own way. In the last two weeks I’ve been to California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, back to California and Texas. Right now I’m headed to Montana and afterwards will go to Kansas City, Missouri, then South Dakota, back to Missouri, then to California again. In a month’s time I’ve been 10,000 miles, the same amount of traveling I normally do over the fourth of July – but to rodeos that don’t pay nearly as well.

The cool part is that I don’t know how it will turn out. If you listen to a sports commentator after he’s watched a game, he sounds like the smartest guy in the world. On the other hand, I don’t know how this will turn out. I have confidence in the outcome, just like I did with my heart surgery – but I don’t know it for sure.

As tough as it sounds, I’m not going to let it keep me from enjoying the experience. I welcome this opportunity and will use it to help make me stronger when I’m under the gun. This is the second time in my career to go through this; the first time I made the finals by $14.

Hopefully, this year I’ll emerge without cutting it that close, but I’ve come to realize that they’ll have this event with or without me. Whether I make the NFR or not will not affect world peace and if I don’t make the finals, no one’s going to eat me – it’s not the end of the world. My philosophy is to enjoy the experience no matter what. Thankfully I enjoy roping under pressure. Is my situation bad? Not really, I only have to be slightly observant to notice others who have it a whole lot worse.

Here’s the real deal – I’ve got two little boys sitting in the back seat watching me and learning from how I react in every situation. What’s really important is for them to honestly be able to say, “Win or lose, my dad was the truest guy I know.”

If I can accomplish that, I’ve won the world, with or without a gold buckle.


Finishing Strong When it Matters (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Who comes to mind when you think of the great players in professional football or basketball? Names like Michael Jordan, John Elway, Roger Staubach and Kobe Bryant come to my mind because of one trait they all have in common.

Sure, they’re great players throughout the game, but where they really shine is in the last few minutes of play. They’re the closers and finishers. Anyone can start anything, but not everyone can finish strong. Who I want on my team and who I want to be is a finisher.

Near the end when everyone’s tired, it’s easy to make excuses. But crunch time is exactly when it’s important to give your very best.

This starts in the practice pen where you need to always finish your practices strong. Never say quit, never say die and let yourself know you are not quitting on yourself no matter what the circumstances.

As this becomes a habit, you will start to change. You’ll be more confident and discover it’s easier to come through in the clutch. Everyone wants to be in those situations, but what’s more important is to thrive in those situations.

How do you handle it when your back is against the wall and you need to be seven or eight seconds? Maybe you don’t have a chance to win much, or anything at all, but you should always finish as strong as you possibly can.

Make this a habit and watch it change your competition. Always demand the best from yourself, especially at the end.


Horsemanship (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

My granddad once said, “The trouble with the modern calf roper is most of them couldn’t pen their calves unless they had a return alley.”

My friend, Shay Good, once made the comment, “I might not be the best cowboy that’s ever roped, but I promise I’ve been in the same pasture with them.” Fortunately for us, Shay and I both were born into it. I didn’t start roping until I was sixteen but being raised on a ranch, I’d been riding since I was two. I can remember being about eight or ten and riding a big horse we had that my parents were sure wouldn’t run off with me. When riding got a little boring I would get my horse into a lope and get off while he was loping. Soon I was bored with that and next we started jumping mesquite trees where I would get off while my horse was in the air. So when roping calves, getting off was always the easy part for me.

There’s a saying that one must learn to ride before they can learn to rope. There are a lot of people who are trying to learn three things at one time: riding, roping and how to be a calf roper.

To be a successful calf roper you have to be a horseman, and a good horseman never really quits learning. The mechanics of what makes a horse work is basically the same in reiners, calf horses, barrel horses and so on. It’s been a tremendous help to me to ride and watch horses and their trainers in other disciplines. I assure you all good horses are broke the right way.

Besides being able to ride, a big part of horsemanship, is taking care of and being in tune with your horse. The guy that’s winning the most isn’t necessarily the one that ropes the best – it’s the guy who is the best team with his horse. I use the analogy of a rope; a five-ply rope is much stronger than a two-ply rope.

I guarantee I spend five times more time on Topper’s well being than my own. When it comes time to eat, without question he eats first. Whatever it takes for him to be healthy and in shape is what we do. Treating a horse like a partner, with that kind of importance, is essential to win and be competitive.

Believe it or not, a horse knows when you have confidence in him. I’ve had horses that weren’t necessarily the best I’ve owned, but when I stepped up on them I felt like Superman. Horses sense that confidence and it makes a difference.

It’s easy to feel like Superman when I’m riding Topper but I have to be careful because he’s twenty-four years old. Even though he gives me that confidence, my business side has to override my emotions. It’s not the three runs I want to make on him that concern me – it’s the eighteen hours in the trailer necessary to make those runs.

Treating your horse well and taking good care of him is an attitude that’s easy to have when he helps make your living. But even if that’s not the case and you rope as a hobby, your horse is still your only partner and you can’t rope or win without him.

For those who didn’t grow up horseback and need to improve your riding, put your rope down and work on it. Spend some time riding your horse and get some wet saddle blankets. Real cowboys are horseback all day and constantly doing something. If you don’t have room to ride, haul your horse somewhere where you can ride through gates and even gather cattle, or get a part time job that requires you to ride. You’ll be surprised at the difference it will ultimately make in your roping.

I’ve always half jokingly said that I wasn’t allowed to carry a rope to the pasture until I’d made the finals a couple of times.


The Importance of Relationships (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Relationships are a fundamental part of life and can many times dictate the course our life takes. Personally, there are three areas or types of relationships that challenge and encourage me:

First and foremost are the relationships with people who cause me to be a better Christian. Second are the relationships and people that cause me to be a better roper. Third are those relationships that stretch and challenge me to be a better businessman.

When I was about sixteen and just starting to get serious about roping, a neighbor who was a little older than me came over and wanted to learn to team rope. I was excited because he wanted to head and I never got to heel. After several unsuccessful, but fun practice sessions, I still hadn’t gotten to heel because he couldn’t catch.

After one such visit, my dad, a man of very few words, made the comment, “You probably shouldn’t be roping with that boy.” My dad recognized the fact that my friend didn’t have much interest in getting better even though he was having a lot of fun. He also knew how serious I was about roping and knew this would not help me, and even worse, probably hurt what I was trying to accomplish.

The same holds true with personal relationships and the friends we choose. You will either pull them down to your level or they’ll pull you up to their level or vice versa. For that reason it’s important to surround yourself with people you respect. Like the old saying goes, “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you’re hanging out with buzzards.”

If your friends are pulling you down, personally or professionally, either try to help them change or put a little distance between you. The quality of your friends has a huge impact on the quality of your life.

You can learn something from everyone – whether it’s learning from their mistakes or accomplishments. If you’re living right, God strategically places people in your life that can make a major impact. When I was younger sometimes I recognized this when it was happening and sometimes I didn’t.

It’s vital to be around people who challenge and encourage you. More importantly, you should realize that you might be just what someone else needs for encouragement and a relationship where you will be the mentor.

As for the rodeo scene, we’re back in the rat race. It’s been a hectic driving/flying scheduling challenge between Calgary, Nampa, Salinas, etc. I have to say that Calgary gave me a nice break because I had ten days of pure enjoyment in one spot while I was there.
Calgary has raised the bar and changed rodeo as we know it. They invited twenty contestants in each event and added over a million dollars to the prize money. Jerome Schneeburger won first which paid him $100,000. Winning a couple of rounds and third in the average paid me $25,000.

It’s a cowboy’s dream come true. I got to stay in one place for ten days, had no entry fees and was paid $1,000 just for showing up. It was great for the contestants and for the fans. The first day alone brought in over a million dollars in ticket sales.

This is better for rodeo – whether you’re at the top or a #1 calf roper. Something like this should be embraced. Think about it, when did the PGA become so popular? When Tiger Woods became a super star. That’s when golf became a spectator sport. I’m a golf fan, but even more so because they captivated me as a spectator.

There will be many who complain that they don’t get the opportunity to qualify the rodeos with limited entries. Sure you do. Put this paper down, go outside and practice and I’ll see you down the line.


Living the Dream (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Whenever you watch professional cowboys being interviewed at the NFR or any other big win, it must seem like a dream come true. And in reality, it is – but what you don’t see is all the preparation prior to that moment of glory.

Last week I had to pack everything before heading out to Reno, knowing my rig may not be home until September. This was a very hectic and exhausting three-day job. I’ve got two rigs going, hauling four horses so that I can make more rodeos. That means both rigs need to be outfitted. Also during this three-day period I was making travel arrangements, arranging trades for rodeos, etc., etc. In addition to this, I was practicing like a man possessed.

Sometime during the second day when I started getting stressed out and tired, I stopped and thought about how different it is now than when I first started going in 1994. Back then I had one rig and did all the driving. I would load several pigging strings and if I had one or two ropes I really liked I was happy as a lark.

Now I have about fifty top quality pigging strings, six cans of great feeling ropes, more than two week’s worth of clothes – all that goes in two rigs with their respective drivers. As hard as it is to organize this conglomerate of equipment, it dawned on me that I was living the dream that I was chasing in 1994.

While this list might sound like overkill to many, I have learned over the years to leave nothing to chance and no stone unturned. Being prepared and covering all the bases two or three times is far better than to wonder if I could have done more after the fact. Therefore I pay attention to every detail and don’t want to use second string anything.

To be prepared at this level involves a lot work behind the scenes that is pure drudgery. At the NFR I know I’m going to reach a point of exhaustion due to this drudgery and that’s when I have to remind myself that I’m not at an invitational event. A lot of sacrifices by family and friends were made so that I could be there.

So while you might catch glimpses of what looks like a “rock star” life – that is only a glimpse. The other ninety-five percent of the time I’m just a regular guy with mundane jobs that need to be done.

When I practice at home, there’s a team of people that are part of this. I told them the other day that I’m tired of roping for nothing. I’ve been home practicing and made run after run that would draw a check at a rodeo.

At any rate, once I actually put things in perspective and thought about how much better I rodeo than I did in ’94, I actually started enjoying loading the trailer. Occasionally I remind myself to get my Bible out where I have this quotation jotted down:

“Can you remain a nobody when everyone around you is telling you you’re a somebody.”