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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Our Second Son is Born (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Looking back over these articles this past year, you’ll find an abundance of information about preparation and competing in the quest for a world championship. Anyone who’s had the goal of winning a championship has spent some time thinking about how it will feel when the time comes.

I can assure you that as much as I’d like that experience, it will never be as fulfilling as what I felt when my sons were born. It’s awe inspiring and a little over whelming to realize that you’re responsible for this little human being and he depends on you.

In my career it’s great to win, but my first and most important goal in life is to never let Jen and the boys down, whether it has to do with winning or not. I want to spend every minute I have with my family. My life has always seemed to fly by but in the couple of years since Stone was born, it seems like it’s been in fast forward.

Words haven’t been created to describe the love you feel for your children. It’s a tremendous responsibility to realize that you can do no wrong in the eyes of your children. That in itself makes me want to be the very best I can be for them.

Our second son, Scout, was born on October 17th, causing some excitement in the process. When Stone was born Jennifer was only in labor for a couple of hours and we expected pretty much the same scenario this time.

So when her contractions started and were thirty minutes apart I wasn’t too alarmed at having a forty-five minute drive to the hospital. About ten minutes from the hospital I became alarmed. I was driving my mothers car, a Lexus, and my speed those last ten minutes was in the triple digits.

When we got to the hospital the contractions were one minute apart. I parked in front and after getting Jennifer into a wheel chair, I literally ran pushing her to the OB department in the back of the hospital. The nurse seemed pretty relaxed while I was trying to make them realize she was going to have the baby any minute. Then they checked her out and also became alarmed. Scout was born in just a little over an hour from the time Jen went into labor.

Having one child already, we considered ourselves experienced. With Stone, things didn’t happen quite as fast and we had the luxury of an epidural shot and enjoyed an overall pleasant experience. Unfortunately, this time things were happening too fast for Jen to get an epidural. Natural childbirth is a true miracle, but can be un-nerving when unexpected. I was trying to help Jen stay calm but I’m not sure how effective I was after my NASCAR driving experience and my adrenaline still pumping.

Now, a month later, that panic is just a memory and we’re enjoying our healthy baby boy. I like to think with each child I become wiser. When I was younger I always thought that fifty percent of life was what happened to you and the other fifty was how you handled it. Now I know that ten percent of life is what happens to you and the other ninety is how you handle it.

I hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as I enjoy writing them. If you have a question you want to ask, you can visit my website at www.stransmith.com where you can leave me a message. If you happen to be at the National Finals this month and see me, be sure and grab me and tell me what you want to hear about in this article.

I hope everyone has a safe and happy Christmas and holiday season. God Bless, and Ill see you down the line.

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Preparing for the Finals (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Normally at this time of year, as the regular season winds down, I begin to focus on getting ready for the National Finals. But this year is not a routine year as we’ve just moved into a new house and in the next week or so Jennifer and I will have our second son. We’ve got the Dallas Tour Finale coming up and Topper just won the AQHA Calf Horse of the Year again for the second time. It’s an exciting time for me personally and things have been so hectic I almost feel like I need to enter some rodeos to get some rest.

Still this is about the time people start asking, “How do you prepare for the National Finals?”

Honestly this is the only time of the year I can truly concentrate, day after day, on getting my horses and my body ready for the finals. There was a time when I would run fifty or more calves a day in preparation for the finals. Now, a few years and surgeries later, I’ve changed my emphasis to quality rather than quantity.

I don’t own a practice horse and won’t buy one before the finals, but that’s as much to keep me from running too many as anything. I’ll concentrate on getting Topper and myself both in shape because I want us both breathing fire in Las Vegas.

Many people have a misconception of the National Finals and how physically demanding it is. What they don’t understand is that the roping is the easy part. It’s not just a matter of roping ten calves in ten days. With scheduled appearances and obligations to sponsors I will walk more in those ten days than any given month during the year.

To feel fit and have my legs under me, I’ll do a lot of cardio work on the bike and treadmill, among other things. This time is really enjoyable to me because I know I can get up every day, rope at home and concentrate on my roping and getting my horses in shape.

Contrary to what you might think, I don’t go out there day and see how many I can rope in six seconds. One year using the same barrier and conditions as the finals, I did that for a solid week. It was a lot of fun and I tied over twenty that week in less than seven seconds. At the time I needed to know that I could do it. I won’t do that at home on Topper anymore because now I know anytime we’re backed in the box there’s a good possibility we’ll be that fast.

As for getting Topper ready, we’ll do lots of sprints to build his wind. He’s such a great athlete and has had more great ropers ride and win big ropings on him than any other horse I can think of. He’s twenty-three and could very well be the oldest horse to win the Calf Horse of the Year. I think one reason he’s lasted so well is because I quit treating him like an old horse. I always take care of him and take precautions about the ground and so on, but the fact is he loves his job. I have to give a lot of credit to my vet, Gregg Veneklausen. Topper’s as sound as he’s ever been.

At the finals the one and only key thing for me is to get a good start. For me, after getting a good start, everything else is easy. In the past at the finals I’ve placed on every calf where my start was good, as long as the calf didn’t kick.

Any time someone asks me how to get out at a rodeo, I usually laugh and say, “Nod, hesitate and go.” At the finals you just take out the “hesitate.”

This is my seventh article and I would really love to hear from some of you and what you think, along with any questions you might have. You can visit my website at www.stransmith.com and leave your questions or comments. Good luck, God Bless and thanks for your support.

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