Heeler Travis Graves has ridden some of the best horses in the game in his 10 prior trips to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, including his sorrel breeding-stock Paint named Manny and his iconic brown gelding named Dual Chip.
This year, though, Graves could turn some heads December 5 when he backs into the Thomas & Mack's heeling box aboard a horse of a different color—a leopard Appaloosa named Appy.
Graves, originally from Jay, Oklahoma but who now calls Morgan Mill, Texas home, had always admired the colorful character that his second cousin Layne Bryson jackpotted on. But for years, Bryson, 22, wouldn't part with the horse.
The 10-year-old gelding, registered with the Appaloosa Horse Club as SBARL Navajo Hawk, had been with Bryson since the horse was a green 3-year-old. A friend in their small town of Jay had sent Bryson the horse to ride for him, but after a few weeks, Bryson—then just 16—decided he needed to own him.
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"He didn’t show me anything special right then, but he was a good horse," Bryson said. "I just got him more broke and I started roping on him. He taught me a lot on training. It’s really helped me with every horse I rode after him."
Now a 7.5 heeler, Bryson was just a 5 when he first started jackpotting on Appy.
"He is just a pleaser," Bryson said. "He was brilliant on how much he could feel you and read you. He was just easy going about moving right and he always had his butt underneath him and could move around smooth and quiet. He just liked it so much and wanted to please whoever was on him."
Two years ago, Graves approached his little cousin about buying the horse, but at the time, Bryson was too eaten-up with the team roping lifestyle to consider parting with his good one just as he was hitting his prime.
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"At that point I was so hung up on roping, it’s all I wanted to do," Bryson said. "I was just trying to do everything I could to work at it. Travis told me then that he wanted to buy him, and I wasn’t ready to let him go. Everybody in my family has had a hand on him, and they really love him. I couldn’t let him go at all then."
But life changes, and Bryson soon realized he wanted a career as a horse trainer, and jackpotting and amateur rodeo took the back burner to riding colts and making horses. He got married, too, fueling his passion to establish himself in the horse business.
"I'd been contemplating it all year," Bryson said. "I was feeling bad because Appy didn’t go that much, and he loves it. I just finally put it out there and told Travis if he still liked him, I wanted to see him going."
Graves, who never stops hunting for the next great one, was ready for the opportunity to buy Appy.
"It didn't matter to me if he was purple," Graves said. "Layne is really gifted as a horseman—he's one of the best hands I've ever seen with a horse—and this is a really good horse he's made. Everything about him is good."
And just a few weeks into owning the horse, Graves is strongly considering starting off Round 1 behind the fast-throwing Ty Blasingame on his new mount. At Thrill Hill's NFR Open Roping, Blasingame and Graves were 3.2, with Graves cleaning it up on the back side on Appy.
"He’s so cool," Graves said. "Everybody asks about him. He’s got a long mane and his tail drags the ground. He’s cowy, and he’s a big stopper. It’s a good stop because he’s built up in the front end. He’s really broke. He scores good, and he’s free. He’s forgiving if something goes wrong. I'm definitely taking him to Vegas. Blaster's been down here, and we've been practicing every day. This horse feels great."
All-around legend Paul Tierney rode an Appaloosa mare named Meter Maid at the 1984 Finals, and the Appaloosa Horse Club used to have an incentive that paid contestants $5,000 for competing on an App at the NFR. The program, according to a representative from the association, has recently been discontinued. But that hasn't dampened Bryson's enthusiasm for seeing his horse in Vegas.
"I’d always believed I’d take him out there, but... I don’t know what to say," Bryson said, choking up. "It would be awesome. I know he can do it. I just know that he’s with someone who can do it, too. It will be quite the site to see." TRJ