The Pace of Pro Rodeo (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Well I’ve been going for four days now on six hours sleep and am in the airport waiting to board another flight tonight so that I rope in the morning. It’s been pretty much full throttle like this since leaving Reno in June.

Last year I passed up seven or eight rodeos that were hard to get to. At the time I thought if I was going to win the world, it would be because of what happened at the Dallas Tour Finale or National Finals and it would either happen or it wouldn’t.

When it was all said and done, I missed winning the world championship by $2,000. I learned something from that. Last year I averaged winning from $1,400 to $2,000 per rodeo, which means that mathematically I would have won it if I hadn’t passed up those rodeos. After that I made a promise to myself to that I would not let any rodeos go by and I would make my seventy-five. That’s what I think about every time I feel like turning out.

Going like this is hard and when I do get a chance to sleep, I’m usually so exhausted that I can’t. I take lots of Advil and drink a lot of caffeine. Still, I’m more determined now than ever because coming that close last year was like giving a lion a taste of blood. I could literally get in the truck and drive to Canada if I had to.

One thing I couldn’t live with would be to hold myself back by protecting myself. I want to know that I did all I could do. Right now that means going and rodeoing hard. I’ll rest on December 15th, but not until then. Whether rodeoing or practicing for the Tour Finale or National Finals, I’m all out.

I’ve taken the same approach with my horses. After Reno I decided I wasn’t going to save Topper for the finals like I usually do. I’ve ridden him at all the Tour rodeos and have won first or second on him every time and it’s paid off. One of my goals has been to win the $25,000 bonus for having the most combined Tour points. Right now I’m leading that race by over 20 points because of that decision.

This pace is exhausting and you don’t feel good a lot of the time. But, for a few minutes before you rope, you tell yourself that you’re not tired, hungry or sleepy. And it’s not a lie – you really aren’t. You have to put yourself at the top of your game because you really don’t have any choice.

I don’t acknowledge being tired because it’s so exciting to be in this race. It’s inspiring to watch everyone, their horses and the determination as they step it up a notch. There aren’t many sports where athletes improve with age, but Mike Johnson is better now than he’s ever been in his career.

There’s also the race of guys trying to make the finals. I think everyone should have to rope under that kind of pressure at least once. Having the finals made means you still have some options, but the guys trying to make them are not only forced into going, but they have to win. It can be really inspiring to watch this unfold and I believe these situations and how you react to them reveals your true character and mental toughness.

Over the next few months I’ll go to the Finales in Omaha, Dallas and then the National Finals. Somewhere during that time my wife and I are going to have another little boy. Whenever Jennifer and Stone, my son, get to be with me on the road is just the ultimate for me. Having them with me is almost like cheating the system.

Things might be a little tough right now but when I stop and think about the victims of Katrina who have lost their loved ones, their homes and virtually everything they own, it tends to change my perspective. In the grand scheme of things, I’m blessed and my heart and prayers go out to those people.


When to Pro Rodeo (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

To me, one of the biggest tragedies in professional rodeo is the number of young ropers with phenomenal talent trying to make the NFR each year – and knowing it won’t happen for them.

There are so many kids with “the dream.” Most of these kids work real hard, rope good, and are seldom beat growing up. So when they turn eighteen, they immediately buy their PRCA card and go about trying to fill their permit. What these kids, and many parents, don’t realize is that the physical act of roping is just one of many skills needed to succeed in professional rodeo.

To rodeo professionally and successfully you need be able to: manage money, promote yourself, be a master planner and scheduler – all while taking care of your business and horses. To do this even remotely well takes “round the clock” effort and it’s happening so fast that it’s easy to miss or forget something important.

The normal eighteen year-old usually isn’t prepared for this. Because they don’t realize that roping good isn’t enough, they won’t grasp the significance of the business end of rodeo. Sadly, by the time they figure it out, their egg’s been busted and they go home defeated.

Professional baseball, football and basketball all have minimum age limits. With contracts worth millions of dollars, most of these athletes have managers to take care of them and their business, and who’ll bring them along without hampering their development.

I think every kid should go to college and get a degree before they rodeo professionally. Because I didn’t really start roping until the age of sixteen or seventeen, I went to college primarily to develop my roping skills. It was a blessing in disguise because I matured a lot during that time and developed some much needed business skills.

I remember a roper who was one of the toughest and quickest guys I had ever seen. He joined the PRCA as soon as he turned eighteen and five years later still had not made the finals. He didn’t make them until a seasoned veteran took him under his wing and showed him the “ropes.”

At the end of the summer, before my senior year in college, I had $30,000 won with a real good chance of making the National Finals if I kept going. It was a hard decision but I went back and finished school knowing I’d have plenty of time once I graduated. Consequently I made the finals the next year.

Unfortunately, when kids get out there before they’re mentally mature, inevitably they will start doubting their ability and very few make the finals. When the mental aspect of rodeo is a constant struggle for the top fifteen, you can be sure it’s devastating for someone who’s young and inexperienced.

By going to college and getting a degree, you’ll give yourself a legitimate chance at your dreams. If you don’t believe me, skip college, spend $500 on your card and fill your permit and I’ll pay my kids’ college tuition with your money.


How Roping School Help (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

The “fourth of July marathon” is over for another year. In the past I’ve worked the fourth a number of ways. This year The Pharr’s and I split our rigs up in two different directions and would either ride with the rig or fly. Between us, we won almost $50,000 in eight days. By splitting up rigs I was able to send my best three horses to different rodeos and win first on each one of them. It’s a prime example of the benefits of having and keeping good horses, the subject of last month’s article.

Since Reno I’ve won about $30,000, placing in both rounds and winning the average at Prescott; placing in the second round at Greeley; winning the second round at Pecos; splitting first at St. Paul, Oregon and winning Vernall, Utah.

I don’t feel like I’ve done anything extraordinary to accomplish this. I’ve just tried to go rope and tie down every calf the best that I can. It sounds simple and actually it is – especially at a time like this. I missed one of my calves at Reno during the Tour Finale and as disappointing as that was, I couldn’t let that devastate me and cause me to miss the next one.

Some ropers will miss a calf and then go rope the dummy a hundred times. You didn’t miss because you forgot how to rope. It’s simple. You made a mistake. Get over it and don’t do it again. Letting one mistake lead to another is what happens to almost all ropers. Know that every run is a new opportunity.

I taught a school in Farmington, Utah, the week before Reno, which was beneficial for me before the fourth of July. When teaching I stay with the basics and try to keep it simple. Having to break roping down to the base fundamentals always helps my roping.

Teaching can be very rewarding and I enjoy it. Now days I don’t rope and flank and tie as much at my schools as I used to, but am more exhausted at the end of the day. A friend of mine said it’s mental exhaustion from trying so hard. After thinking about that comment, he’s absolutely right.

I respect everyone who comes to a school, because by being there they want to get better. I like to think I’m trying to get better every day. As a teacher I want to give everything I’ve got and when it’s over I want my students saying, “Wow.”

Learning to rope is a progressive process. For instance if you are just learning, you can hear everything I have to say to someone that’s been roping for ten years, but you won’t be able to apply it because you’re not at that place in the process yet. Everyone is able to absorb a certain amount of information and you can’t control that.

People who show the most improvement are those that attend a school at least annually. The reason is because they absorb the information and principles that fit their roping at that time and then take time putting it into practice. Six months or a year later they have advanced in the process and are ready for more information. By doing this systematically, whether it’s annually or semi-annually, their roping steadily advances and their progress is obvious.

Most things learned in a school must be accomplished in time. It’s a slow process and there’s no quick shortcut in learning to rope. It takes time and repetition.

When it comes to roping, the sky is the limit – if you’re willing.


The Value of Horses (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Many of you will be reading this article during the toughest week of the year for any professional rodeo cowboy in pursuit of a world championship. During the week of July 4th there are more big purse rodeos going on than any other time of the year. This is an opportune time for guys to make a jump in the world standings, whether they’re trying to catch the leader, pass the leader or try to keep the lead.

There’s no way to describe the preparation that goes into this one week out of the year. Most of these rodeos are two head plus a short go and it’s quite a challenge trying to draw up decent, then plan travel for you and your horses when you may be up at two or three rodeos in one day. Even the best travel agents couldn’t compete with some of the strategic and creative planning that takes place. Booking commercial flights, chartering flights and deciding which horses to send to which rodeos leaves you exhausted by the time you have to start the trip. Food and sleep is purely a bonus. Thankfully, I take some pretty good vitamins.

The key factor at these rodeos, or any rodeo or jackpot for that matter, is your horse. I hear a lot of controversy about horses – how much they cost, are they worth it, and so on. What I believe to be fact is that from beginners to the very top ropers, your horse makes or breaks you as a competitor. One thing we all have in common is that we’re all looking for a better horse.

Right now I feel like I’ve got the best calf horse in existence. Even though I didn’t train Topper, I real feel fortunate to own him. I learned late in my career that your horse makes all the difference.

When I was about seventeen, my dad and I were pulling into a roping and he asked me, “Would you rather pull up in a $3,500 rig and unload a $35,000 horse; or would you rather have a $35,000 rig and be pulling a $3,500 horse?”

My answer was that a $35,000 horse would pay for a $35,000 rig. Now days you can triple that amount.

Because the price of horses is not an exact science, a lot of people have the misconception that they need to spend $60,000 for a good horse and that’s not necessarily the case. Personally, I don’t believe there’s a horse worth over $35,000.

However, they’ll bring more, and I’ve paid more, when they’re proven winners and really fit me. That’s when they’re worth extra. Finding a horse like that forces a guy like me to pay just about whatever they ask because this horse could mean the difference in winning a gold buckle or not. I don’t buy horses that aren’t proven. I‘ll watch them go and if I like what I see, then I ride them to see how they fit me.

Horses are the foundation of my rodeo business. If I had $50,000 in hand to spend on a house, a rig or horses – it’s always gone to the horse. Because of that philosophy I own four horses that are all first string caliber. I’m fairly confident that if anyone else owned them, they’d be happy to have them as first string. In my opinion, you can’t have too many good horses.

I see people every day who are in a $50,000 rig, pulling a $75,000 trailer and then unload a $10,000 horse. That just doesn’t make sense to me when you’re out here trying to win. That doesn’t mean you need to pay $100,000 for a horse. But you do need a horse that is consistent that you can win on. If you are satisfied to ride a mediocre horse that won’t let you win, you need to question your priorities.

When looking for a horse, if you’re not comfortable with the decision of purchasing an expensive horse, find someone you know and trust who knows more about it than you do. Also, if you’re just beginning to rope, you don’t need an open caliber horse. Find a horse that will let you learn and still be competitive. As you progress the time will come to find a better horse.

No matter what level of roper you are, ask yourself, “Is this horse going to make me better?”


Mental Game (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

Frequently I’m asked about the mental game of roping. So this month I’m going to share a few things that have helped me and if you’re someone who really struggles with the mental aspect of roping, maybe we can change your perspective.

One of the key words that I often say out loud to myself is “persevere.” It’s real easy to be upbeat and positive when you’re roping good and winning. It’s when things go wrong that you find out what you’re made of.

Last month the cover of this magazine featured Doug Pharr being in the #1 position. It was only a couple of years ago that Doug and I had been visiting at a rodeo and discussing how he was coming together with his horse. Doug and his brother, Tim, left that rodeo and had a wreck that ended up killing their horses. Now here he is at the top, which is a pretty vivid example of perseverance. Doug and Tim have come full circle and are both in the top fifteen and I congratulate them and wish them the best this year in their quest for the NFR.

I think everything in life can be classified in one of two categories: positive or negative. The answer to the old saying, “Is your cup half full, or is it half empty?” all depends on your perspective. We all have negative experiences, in and out of the arena. In my roping I try to take a negative experience, learn from it and improve in that area. Then I’ve taken a negative and turned it into a positive.

Draw on past experiences to help you prepare. Even if you are just a beginner, you’ve made a good run that stands out in your mind. Take that positive experience and dwell on it. Relive it. Don’t spend a lot of time beating yourself up for mistakes. Figure out why you made the mistake and go to work on improving in that area.

After having chosen the topic for this article, ironically I picked up the Spin to Win this month and the champ, Clay Cooper, was talking about preparing to catch the high money steer. Clay Cooper has forgotten more about roping than most of us will ever know and when he has something to say, I quit talking and listen. Clay doesn’t make a lot of small talk and when he has something to say it’s worthy of taking notes.

In that article Clay pointed out that in the big picture of life, is it really going to matter five years from now? That’s keeping things simple and in perspective. For me, it’s easy because it’s not in my hands anyway. I do the best I can, but it’s ultimately in God’s hands.

Ninety-nine percent of people, who rope, get caught up in the mental game. You start thinking about things and before long your mind is messing with you and before long – your mind is your worst enemy. If you’re one of the few who can rope their calves without being affected by being high call or thinking about the money – then you’ve cheated the system. You’re unconscious and like a rattlesnake without any rattles. The other 99.9% deal with the pressure of thinking about things. That’s when it’s important to draw from your past successes.

As for myself, I try not to put any unnecessary pressure on myself. It doesn’t matter whether I’m roping for a gold buckle or in my own practice pen. I’m still roping a calf that costs $400.

If you can learn to rope with the attitude of building on past successes and making use of things you’ve learned from failures, then you won’t have to cheat the system. You’ll be more deadly than the unconscious rattlesnake.

I don’t gamble, but there’s a saying in gambling that you don’t play with “scared money.” That’s true in calf roping too. Don’t back in the box being afraid of losing. Being afraid of missing or losing opens the doors for negative thoughts to flood your mind. Drawing from your success, being confident and aggressive is positive and much more powerful.