Luke Brown had his horse plan in ship-shape order when he set sail for the 2019 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. He would take two horses—Rebel, the 16-year-old palomino horse he bought from Cory Kidd in September, and Cowboy, who is Luke’s 14-year-old sorrel horse that’s historically sort of been a jackpot and long-score specialist. Brown planned to ride both horses at the Top-15 “running of the steers” at the Thomas & Mack two days before opening night, then make an executive decision about which one to start on and take it from there. Then fate stepped in, when Rebel snapped his leg while running a steer at a roping en route to Vegas.
“I was heading a steer for Paul (Eaves) at an open roping in Wickenburg (Arizona on Sunday, December 1; the NFR started on Thursday, December 5), and the big bone above Rebel’s hock on his left hind leg broke in two the third or fourth stride out of the box,” said Brown, who roped at his 12th straight NFR in December, and with Eaves on the back side placed in five rounds and third in the average for $43,154/man. “Nothing looks odd on the video. There was no rhyme or reason to why it happened. It was just a freak deal.
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“I was really excited about riding Rebel there. I kind of bought him because I thought he’d be really easy to rope on at the Thomas & Mack. I’d seen that horse around for a long time, and really liked him. He kind of reminded me of Slim (Shady; Luke’s iconic, game-changing sorrel). Rebel could run, and was just super easy. That was the first time I’ve ever had a horse break a leg like that. I was sad, and my wife (Lacy) was upset.”
In Rebel’s absence, Cowboy got the call in all 10 NFR rounds.
“I haven’t rodeoed on Cowboy a whole lot over the years,” Luke said. “I’ve ridden him at Reno, Salinas and Cheyenne quite a bit. But Cowboy leaves there so hard and really runs, so everything happens fast, and there’s not much room for error. For the normal rodeo, a more mediocre horse can be easier to ride. It’s harder to reach on a horse like Cowboy, because he runs so hard.
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“There’s basically no score at the Finals, so it’s a little different than your average rodeo. Cowboy didn’t have time to get to full speed, as fast as you rope there. It was definitely different roping on him in that building, because he does fire so hard and is so strong. But I geared myself up differently to ride him. I was just excited to get to ride him again. He’d been hurt.”
In 2013, Cowboy tore his right-hind deep flexor tendon.
“It wasn’t torn in two, but it was torn deep enough that healing it was pretty iffy,” said Brown, who’s heading for two-time Champ of the World Patrick Smith in 2020. “Recovery from that was a longshot, but my vet in Weatherford (Texas), Dr. Reese Hand, did six rounds of stem-cell therapy throughout a whole year, and we kept Cowboy in a big stall for a solid year before getting him out and hand-walking him.
“At that same time, Turtle’s (Powell) horse Vegas was having issues, and I got to talking to Turtle one day about how Blane Chapman from Lubbock was shoeing Vegas trying to get him sound again. I got to talking to Blane about it, and he came and shod Cowboy. After several months, I shod him every other time myself, but always staying in close contact with Blane about everything we both did. We kept that tendon as relaxed as we could, and got it healed up to where Cowboy got super sound. He was pretty sound after about six months, but we took a year to make sure.”
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Cowboy got hurt in 2013, and was off in 2014. Brown went back to riding him in 2015, and won Cheyenne riding Cowboy that summer with Kollin (VonAhn). Luke won the 2017 BFI with Jake Long and the Windy Ryon that same year with Junior (Nogueira) riding Cowboy, then he tore that same deep flexor tendon in his right hind in May 2018.
“I had just roped a steer, and felt him stumble a little,” Luke said. “Another MRI showed that this time it didn’t just tear the tendon, it shredded it. I thought Cowboy was done, and Dr. Hand thought so, too, because it was so damaged. But we did stem-cell therapy again, and put him back in a big stall. Our goal was to get Cowboy well enough just to live the rest of his life out in our pasture at the house.
“I wasn’t thinking about roping on Cowboy ever again being even possible, I just wanted him to be comfortable. He didn’t stay sore as long that second time, so after about 10 months I started saddling him again, just to see how he felt. I got to where I could lope him lightly, and he just kept getting sounder. By March 2019, Dr. Hand was telling me to push Cowboy a little harder each day. The MRI came back better than after he healed up the first time, which was a true act of God.”
Cowboy rehabbed slowly, including time spent on an AquaTred to build strength without stress.
“When I got home from the Northwest last fall, I started getting Cowboy in shape again,” Luke said. “I took him the week of the USTRC Finals in October and rode him at some jackpots. He felt good. And he’s been good ever since.
“A month before the Finals, when we were practicing at Chad’s (Masters) one day, Chad kept on me that Cowboy’s the horse I needed to ride in Vegas. Chad said Cowboy reminded him of his old black, Wart(hog), who was so easy to ride in that building. Between Chad encouraging me, and me getting a feel for Cowboy again, I got kind of excited about trying to ride him at the Finals.
“When I left home, I had two horses I was really excited about riding at the NFR. Paul and I had a good feeling about the yellow horse, too. I hated what happened to Rebel, and the timing was terrible. Our team had chemistry with Rebel. Losing him was heartbreaking. But I loved how Cowboy worked at the Finals, and it was especially cool after all he’s been through to get to ride him again at all. Whether we did good or bad, I was excited to get to ride him every single night in Vegas. And Cowboy did everything he was supposed to do, so whether I won $200,000 or $2,000, I was so proud of him.”