Buddy Hawkins was riding the rodeo hot seat. After roping at the 2013 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo with Drew Horner, he was scratching and clawing to end a five-year desert draught in Vegas. The yearlong battle was long and hard, and come fall Hawkins and his 2018 header, Lane Ivy, found themselves in a knife fight for one of the last few tickets to the Finals. When Buddy’s main mount, X, took a tricky misstep, stumbled and about went down at the WestStar Open roping in Ellensburg, Washington, the day before slack, Hawkins had a day-to-day decision to make for the duration of the regular season.
“The WestStar Open is the best roping up in the Northwest, and it’s the day before slack at Ellensburg,” explained Columbus, Kansas native Hawkins, who now lives in Stephenville, Texas. “I was heeling for (his second partner) Andrew Ward, and I was about 25 in the world when we showed up in Ellensburg. All I had left (to count toward the world standings in the regular season) was Ellensburg, Pendleton and a bunch of one-headers. I was good on rodeo count, because I didn’t go hard over the Fourth. But if I didn’t catch up at those next two big rodeos, I was probably done. I was running out of time.
“I’m kind of hard core, but I always evaluate the value of an event when deciding whether or not to ride my good one. I ask myself, ‘What’s the maximum I can benefit?’ If it’s muddy at a rodeo or I unofficial it, I might not ride my best horse. The conditions at WestStar were fine and the payoff was good, so I rode X at the roping. He overreached and jerked off his left front shoe. He fell, but he didn’t go all the way down. His left hip hit the ground and drug four or five feet before he got back up.”
It was a scary little incident, and it happened so fast. Adrenaline kicked in, and Hawkins and Ward finished the run. Hawkins stepped off of X—who was green when he got him, and named because Buddy thought there was a mysteriously positive X factor about the horse—and led him out of the arena. The horse was noticeably off, and also barefoot on that left front. The shoe was bent about 90 degrees.
“In my business, my horses are my livelihood,” Buddy said. “In the spot that I was in I had to do good to make the National Finals. X is my best horse, so he was my best chance. We live and die by the sword, and that’s the National Finals. I decided the risk-reward ratio was worth it, so I rode him at Ellensburg slack the next morning.”
Ivy and Hawkins made a good run in Round 1, and were one out of placing.
“The way I saw it, that’s what we’d trained for our whole life,” Buddy said of his decision to ride X. “If you train four years for the Olympics and you sprain your ankle the day before, you’re going to run the race. Ivy was 16 or 17 at that point, so his qualification was on the line, too.
“At the end of the year, if I feel like I left everything on the table I can sleep at night. An honest effort puts me at peace. In 2017, I ended up 16. But I did everything I could do, so I could live with it. Ellensburg last fall was the ninth inning of the season. You can’t let up and expect for things to work out for you.”
Buddy’s secondary decision was in the pain-management department.
“X stays on Previcox,” he said. “I chose not to overdrug my horse, because I didn’t want to stack on too much Bute or Banamine. I basically wanted to assess him when he was sober, so I could see where he was really at. You have to know your horse, who’s your other partner. I’ve had horses that wouldn’t work through pain. X is the kind that does not give up and quit.”
Ivy and Hawkins finished just out of the money in both the rounds and the average at Ellensburg.
“We didn’t win anything there, but I could sleep at night, because I’d given it my best shot,” he said. “I rode my mare (he’s ridden Daisy, now 15, since she was 2 and she’s the only horse he’s ever ridden on the grass) at Pendleton, and we won about $7,000. I moved up to 14 or 15, and Ivy moved up to 14 or 15. I had 10 rodeos left and more decisions to make.
“I didn’t run any steers on X for one week. But I walked and trotted him for an hour every day. And I tracked a machine on him, just to keep him from getting fresh. I wanted to keep him moving, because so many injuries get worse in a stall. I try to keep my horses where they can move, whether I’m home or away. I like my horses to stay in motion.”
After the rodeo in Amarillo (Texas, where they placed second) and with eight days left in the regular season, Hawkins hauled X to his vet of the last 10 years, Dr. John Marcotte, in Vinita, Oklahoma. The basic verdict: X was still a little sore, but he was improving. This was a case where gritting it out would likely not jeopardize his long-term soundness.
“Rodeo athletes make these risk-reward decisions all the time,” Buddy said. “Cowboys pay to play. We don’t lose a contract if we’re out for a few games—we lose everything. X showed his X factor last fall, when every steer we ran was the difference. Once the regular season was over I gave X a little time off and rehab. In October, I didn’t run a steer on him for three weeks. I used Back on Track and Soft-Ride boots, which helped control the swelling in the tendons running down the back of his left front leg.
“I brought him back slow. You can’t go from 40 percent to 100 percent overnight, and I needed X to be tip top going into the Finals. When we got to Vegas, my horse did exactly what I’d prepared him to do. Our Finals was about medium, but we won the fourth round (and $51,462 a man total). And I’d take a medium National Finals every year.”