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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Mount Money (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

The other day I ran into an old college buddy who suggested I write an article about a topic that caused the two of us to have a disagreement years ago. Back in our college days we had gone to a jackpot where I rode his horse. The entry fees were $300 and I won the last hole, which paid $350. After the roping he looked to me for the 25% mount money, which would be $75. By my calculations, I subtracted my entry fees before figuring the mount money, since we had split the cost of the fuel. I also couldn’t figure out how placing in the jackpot should cost me $25, where if I had not placed at all it wouldn’t cost me anything.

Actually we were both right and the whole problem stemmed from a lack of communication. We laugh about it now, but you can see the potential for problems and misunderstandings.

When you ride someone else’s horse there are many factors you should keep in mind. Mount money covers the expense of getting the horse to the rodeo as well as taking care of that horse. With diesel in California now close to $3.50 per gallon, that’s not exactly chump change.

If you ride someone else’s horse and he gets crippled – you didn’t cripple your horse. You crippled their horse. Most professional cowboys, especially the guys who own nice horses, will tell you that any horse has a certain amount of runs in him. Five runs on my best horse, Topper, could be five NFR runs for me – and a chance at $15,000 per night round money. Am I willing to sacrifice those runs? That’s how I feed my family so no, I am not.

Now there are some who are charging 35% mount money, an increase from the unspoken standard of 25%. They’ve raised the fee because they had to pay more for the horse or because he’s a better than average horse. Before getting on, think about how much you’re roping for and how good the horse is. It may be well worth the extra cost in mount money.

If you rodeo long enough, you will have to ride someone else’s horse at some point in time. This is just one aspect of a business where you are your own boss. Don’t assume anything – have a clear understanding beforehand. Do the right thing and don’t cheat anyone because if you do, eventually no one will mount you and that will hurt your career over the long run.

It’s also easy to forget to pay mount money. For that reason, when you get your check – write a check right then and either put it in the mail or put it in your wallet and give it to them the first time you see them. Don’t make someone ask you for it.

Consider this scenario and the potential problems that could arise. I fly to the rodeo in Cloverdale, Canada, get on someone’s horse and win $7,500. I may not see that person until Reno. Hopefully by that time I’ve received my Canadian check. By the time it’s cleared the bank, with the exchange rate, my actual winnings are now $6,750. Without prior discussion – the guy who mounted me is expecting prompt payment for 25% of $7,500, which would be $1,875. How would it go if I waited the month it took for all these checks to clear and then sent him a check for 25% of my winnings in US dollars, which would be $1,687. That $200 difference could ruin a business relationship for us both.

I’m not discouraging you from riding other people’s horses; it’s part of this business. Just be sure to handle it as a business and have a very clear understanding before you put your foot in the stirrup. In fact, my outlook has always been that I’d rather have 75% of something than 0% of nothing.

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Attitude Makes the Difference (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

When I started this article I made a deal with myself not to preach, but today is Easter Sunday and the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. To me it’s the greatest story ever told and everything I stand for and believe in is based on this. It’s this understanding that makes life worth living – no matter what’s happening.

Whenever I’m asked to speak or preach it may seem that I’m stepping on toes, but like with this article I’m usually talking to myself. Continually I try to keep myself positive, especially, like now, when things aren’t happening they way I want them to.

I would like for people to be able to say about me what they say about the champ, Clay O’Brien Cooper. When you see him you don’t know if he’s winning the world or hasn’t won anything in six months – because he’s always the same.

A friend once asked me what it took to rodeo professionally. For over two hours I told him all the negative things from the financial end, the mental pressure, the responsibilities to sponsors, having good horses, and on and on. Then I told him that what it takes is to know all these things and still when you back in the corner you think, “I love this and this pressure.” I think that’s when he went home.

Everyone that does this for a living has their own way of dealing with the ups and downs of this business. The other day I roped a calf, walked back to my horse and before the six seconds was up, I repeated out loud to myself a quote from my friend, Shawn McMullen, “Stran – if it ain’t happening now, it ain’t happening yet.”

Recently I was asked who my hero was. I’m a huge sports buff and enjoy watching almost all sports. While I have the greatest admiration for these athletes I wouldn’t really call any of them my hero. Then I thought about my mom, dad and brother, all who I truly admire and respect, but knew that wasn’t what the person asking had in mind.

Finally, it dawned on me and I answered, “Tom.”

Tom is a friend of mine in Childress. Tom is forty-eight years old and lives in a nursing home because of his illness. Tom has myoclonic seizures and is confined to a wheel chair. He’s had this illness since high school and there’s no cure for it.

Tom teaches Sunday school and his favorite thing to do all day is rope the dummy. Here’s a man that’s forty years younger than anyone else where he lives. It would be easy for someone in this situation to feel sorry for themselves and endlessly ask, “Why me?”

I always go visit Tom with the intention of making him feel better and invariably it’s just the opposite. The entire time, Tom makes me feel like the biggest blessing and by the time I head home, I’m ten feet tall. It’s hard to imagine him never having a bad day, but if he does, you’ll never know it. Tom has a better attitude and outlook than anyone else I know. While the rest us are moaning and groaning about the calf we’ve drawn, or how deep the mud is, Tom’s having a great day no matter what.

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Don’t Get Comfortable (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

When tying calves most people get in a position where they’re most comfortable. It’s not always the best position, but that’s where they’re comfortable. Don’t settle for less because of comfort. I’m constantly striving to get better in all aspects of my life. Whether it’s my roping, my spiritual walk or being a better husband and father, I want to be the best I can. That means taking risks and leaving my comfort zone. Complacency breeds mediocrity and that’s just not good enough.

My natural instinct is to be a coach because I make a living by winning. But now as my two-year old wants to rope, play golf and bat baseballs I’ve had cause to reflect on my own childhood and how my dad coached me.

Admittedly I was probably the most hardheaded kid in Texas and didn’t want to be told anything, I wanted to do it myself. My dad supported me and would turn calves out for days on end. He might, or might not, make a suggestion in a day’s time. Now, I think that was partially due to my hard headedness, but also because he knew the value of me learning to figure things out for myself.

As parents we love our children to distraction and want them to be the best they can be and enjoy the benefits that come with being the best. But even with the purest intentions we can rob our kids of developing problem solving skills and learning to think for themselves by telling them what to do and think.
Over the years I’ve seen this quite often at clinics and junior rodeos but had never given it much thought until I became a parent. As I play ball with Stone, I have to work hard to keep the coach in me at bay. Not only because he’s even harder headed than I was, I don’t want to turn quality time with my son into a critiquing session that he won’t enjoy and ultimately want to avoid. If he enjoys it now, he will want to excel at it later.

I’ve been a parent for less than three years and don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I do know that it’s the most important job I’ll ever have. It’s both hard and rewarding and as I raise my boys I’ll try hard to keep an open mind so I can encourage them to be individuals.

As parents it’s easy, even if unintentional, to sacrifice your child’s happiness for your own goals. As for me, I’m pushing myself to be the best dad I can be and sometimes that means not saying a word.

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It Starts Again (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

When you win a big rodeo or championship, it’s real easy to talk about how blessed you are when they stick a microphone in your face. But when you don’t win, that reveals what you’re really made of and how strong your faith is.

For the last two years I’ve come so close to a championship I could taste it. In fact, the last Sunday of the finals I got to rope last which meant at that point in time I was leading the standings. Hard as I tried, it didn’t work out.

Do you accept defeat and have a pity party? I can assure you the guest list will be pretty short if you do.

Immediately I started thinking about how to improve and how to prevent repeating the mistakes I made last year. During the ninth round of the national finals I told Jennifer, my wife, that I couldn’t wait until the next year started.

It wasn’t always like this. In the late 90’s I was tired of roping and rodeo and when I didn’t do well I wanted to quit. Since roping is my job, quitting wasn’t a viable option.

Then when I had heart surgery a couple of years ago and couldn’t rope, it gave me a new outlook. I decided then if I was going to come back, that I’d come back better than before and from then on wouldn’t allow myself to have any negative thoughts.

Afterwards I worked hard and stayed positive. The more I improved, the more I craved it. Knowing I can keep getting better has ignited a passion that makes me want it more than ever. I guess it’s like lifting weights – the more you do it and improve, the more you want to.

Recently I was asked to speak at a Junior High School. I told those kids that life is all about choices. The choices we make will determine the route our life takes. Here’s what I choose:

I don’t get emotional about roping because I don’t allow it. It just gets in the way and isn’t productive. I don’t allow any negative thoughts. I stay positive and concentrate on making positive changes. I’m not my own enemy because I choose to stay out of my way.

I choose not to get in the way of being blessed the way God wants to bless me. I’m the only one who can keep myself from receiving those blessings.

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The Big Picture (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Are you consistent? Score well? Good horseman? Winner? Are you a good, even great, roper?

Now, let me ask, in the big picture of life, death and eternity how much does any of that matter? While at the national finals a close friend of ours died unexpectedly. He was thirty-two years old and had a massive heart attack, leaving behind two young sons. They postponed the funeral until we got back from Las Vegas.

A tragedy like this will cause a man to reflect on his own life and how well he’s living it. During the eulogy, my friend’s many admirable character traits were listed and not one of those things in the first sentence was ever brought up.

If those things were all you were remembered for, then you really wouldn’t be leaving much behind. I would like to think at my funeral they can say I set a good example for my sons, and I was a good father, husband, role model and that I had integrity and did what I said I would do.

If they mention I was a pretty good roper, that’s okay. If they don’t, that’s okay too. I’m proud of what I accomplish in the arena – but it’s only what I do – not who I am.

I need to do it as well as I can because that’s how I pay the bills, but if I bring my successes and failures into the house at night, then I’m falling down on an even more important job as a father and husband.

This is the week of Christmas and a time to remember the reason for the season. Go tell someone you love them. Better yet, show them.

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