Matt Sherwood is three-for-three so far at the 2019 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, thanks in large part to the big black horse that's letting him get it on them fast and shape them up for his heeler, NFR rookie Hunter Koch.
At 21, Pretty Boy Coal—known as Zorro by his owners California's Bert and Megan McGill—is the oldest team roping horse at this year's Finals. He has long been a stand-out head horse on the West Coast. Chad Masters borrowed him in 2010 from then-owner Waylon McClurley to win the California Rodeo Salinas, and McClurley himself got big wins across the California Circuit and beyond.
"Tee Woolman won second on him at Salinas one year, too," McGill remembered. "And Daniel Green borrowed him to win third another year. Everyone always wanted to ride him."
But the horse's story began a long way from the Golden State's long scores and the bright lights of Las Vegas. He was bred in Grant City, Missouri, by 20-year-award-winning AQHA breeder Jeffrey Lyle.
"I remember him," Lyle said, when TRJ called to ask him about the horse he'd long-since lost track of. "I raised his dad, Super Smooth Zeb, from a baby. His mom, Princess Janna Jet, was my daughter's horse, a babysitter. She was a sweet mare, a big, buckskin mare. And she could pull box car."
[Read More: Running-Bred Head Horses]
Lyle said he kept the coal-black colt a few years, but that he wasn't the easiest to deal with early on.
"He’s was a pickle to begin with," Lyle said. "He had no quit in him. He kicked me so hard one time shoeing him that he tore my shoeing chaps off of me and knocked over three saddle racks. We sold him, but he was too much for the client we sold him to. So we got him back."
The Lyle family had cutters and rope horses, but the then 3-year-old got pretty big and was a handful. Eventually, Lyle took him to a sale in Clovis, New Mexico, and down the road he went.
A cattleman named Sam Habib from California bought the horse, and his family used him on their ranch before Craig Fehlman bought the black 5-year-old through rope horse trainer Les Oswald, who Fehlman then sent the horse to start on the head side.
"We bought him for my wife, Shelly, as a head horse," Fehlman said. "He did stuff that was unusual when he was really young. I never saw a horse back in the box so fast footed and score every time. He ran so hard and flat going down he pen to cattle. He was amazing."
Amazing, but still quirky. He was scrawny after a couple years of hard use, so Shelly, who's in the wine business, fed him as best she could and shined him up right. She roped on him and learned a lot, but his speed got the best of her.
"We sold the horse to begin with because after two years of owning him, I said he was super talented, but he'd run so hard that she'd get behind. When there were just average cattle, he'd blow up there so hard that she'd get behind and whip it off a lot of horns. She reached over once to take her rope off, and he horse ducked out from underneath her. That's when Shelly decided she didn't need him anymore."
But young, talented ropers had already heard about the cool, green horse the Fehlmans had up for sale. Waylon McCurley and another young roper came to try him the same day and both offered full asking price right away. McCurley had made the first phone call, so Fehlman let him buy the horse.
"He was young when I got him, and a lot of the good, high-powered horses are good because they can take it thanks to all of those quirks," McCurley said. "What makes him quirky back then is what makes him so good. It was just that a lot of people couldn't ride him."
As the horse took to the rodeo trail, he settled down and McCurley found his groove on him. They won the California amateur rodeo finals, qualified for the Dodge National Circuit Finals where they won a round and rodeoed hard, making the Tour Finale at Puyallup.
McGill had long been friends with the McCurleys—he and Waylon were in each other's weddings—and he was one of the people whose head turned when Zorro went past.
"He’s got a presence about him," McGill said. "When he was younger, he was a lot. He was almost too fast. But he always rated, and he always scored. He never ran through your throw. He’s always been as honest as one can be."
Waylon let his buddy McGill borrow Zorro a few times, including once at the Reno Rodeo.
"It went terrible," McGill laughed. "I broke the barrier, and I don’t know if I touched the steer. Back then, I'd never rode anything like that."
McGill, who's had a role in making two other NFR back-up horses this year—one with Cody Snow and another with Brenten Hall—knew Waylon was ready to ease off the rodeo trail. But he also knew the family had been offered six-figures a few times for the horse, so he didn't consider trying to buy him.
"The calls were rolling in when people heard Waylon was done rodeoing," McGill said. "People wanting to buy him, lease him, anything. But he was more than just a horse to them, so Wayne decided to keep him and ride him at the World Series ropings."
Zorro was still as hard-running as ever at that point, and he was sometimes too much for the World Series starts. Pretty soon, the great horse was just standing around.
"Fast forward to five years ago, and Zorro was 17," McGill, who runs the equine rehabilitation center Annadale Equine Center in Sanger, California and is currently managing operations of the multimillion dollar improvements at Arizona Horselover's Parrk, said. "I had a young horse, and I was entered at the spring rodeos with Todd Hampton. He was a really nice gelding I was wanting to get out and season, but I ended up hurting him and I had to lay him off. And everything else I owned was 4 or 5. So my wife, Megan, and I were talking, and I was still entered at quite a few rodeos. She asked me what's the best horse I could possibly get on. The first name that popped into my head was Zorro. They’re like family, so she said, 'Well call Wayne and see what he says.'"
McGill called Wayne, and told him about his horseless predicament. Wayne told him to come get Zorro, no questions asked. McGill rode him for a few weeks, doing well everywhere he went.
"Nobody had seen him in several years, so riding him around everybody came up wanting to know what happened and how I got him. He’s just that well known. It was like riding a celebrity.
"It came time for me to send him back to Wayne. And I called Wayne and said I’d bring him back, and he tells me, 'Why don’t you just buy him?' My initial reaction was that there’s no way I could afford or justify a horse like that. But we came up with a deal, and I bought him, and now we own him outright. Really the reason it happened: We’re good friends and our deal was that I’d take care of him and manage him right. He had a lot of life left in him. He’s a very young 17."
McGill learned he couldn't practice much on the horse because he just didn't care much for it. But he and Megan now keep him on the Aqua Treadmill three to four days a week and Eurociser for 30 to 40 minutes three to four days a week, with good turn out and a comfortable stall at night.
"I take him to the circuit rodeos and the Bob Feist Invitational," McGill said. "Everything that horse is, it's because of Waylon. He did such an amazing job making him one of the best horses in the industry. Now, we just keep him fed and looking good. Everyone asks what we do with him. He gets alfalfa, Purina Senior and Platinum CJ. He’s never had a gram of bute. He’s 100-percent sound. We don’t have to inject him. We keep him in good shape and feed him the best we know how. I might rope on him a day or so before I go somewhere but I just throw him in the trailer and go."
But the McGills knew the horse could go farther. They'd heard through the grapevine that Sherwood might need a jump ride in Las Vegas, so McGill picked up the phone.
"I told him he could try him, and see if he'd work," McGill said. "I got the horse to Arizona, and Matt started riding him. We didn’t talk for three or four days. All I told him about him at first was that he likes a Petska chain port."
Sherwood, for his part, wasn't certain the horse would fit the building.
"I thought man he was too big and too long-strided because he’s really good at long scores," Sherwood said. "But then I took him home and tried him for a couple days and I really liked him. If he was a 7-year-old I tried three weeks before the Finals who felt good, I’d have been nervous to bring him here. But I knew however he felt, he’d feel that way in Vegas because he wasn’t going to get nervous."
Sherwood rode him in the NFR steer run through, and decided the night before Round 1 to give Zorro his shot.
"I liked him here because he wants to come back up the arena a little bit," Sherwood said. "I think with his age, he's slowed down a little bit, which makes him better here. If you have one who just blows to them, you’re gaining fast and you’re close already."
Sure enough, the horse backed into the box, scored like a statue, left off Sherwood's hand and let them be 4.1 to kick off a big week.
Heading into Round 4, Sherwood and Koch are fourth in the average with a time of 19.90 seconds on three had, having already won $34,961.54 over three rounds.
"You’ve got a horse somebody is riding, and they so deserve to be there," McGill said. "Now he gets his chance, and Matt put his faith in our horse. Everybody who's backing in there wants a gold buckle, and you don’t want your horse to mess it up for them. But you have no control over any of it. I was so excited for the horse. It’s important to us that this experience has nothing to do with any of us. We are so excited for Zorro. It’s such a cool thing for him to finally get his time to shine." TRJ