While the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association awards its Horse of the Year honors to American Quarter Horse Association registered equine elite every year, great horses that carry their cowboys to world titles and millions of dollars in earnings are overlooked because of their lack of registration papers. In the last 20 years, a few of those mounts have left their mark on the team roping industry in undeniable ways without ever getting a nod from the sports sanctioning body.
Ridden by Clay Smith
There’s no doubt about it—Clay Smith’s gray bomber Marty is “the great one” of this generation. The horse has carried Smith to five-straight National Finals Rodeo appearances and back-to-back world titles in 2018 and 2019. In just eight years of PRCA competition, Smith has accumulated $1.2 million in earnings, with the lion’s share of that coming aboard Marty.
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“That horse is so smart,” Smith said. “He knows what I’m going to do before I do it. That horse has been amazing. I’m hoping I have something else that will take his spot when he [retires.] I’ve got several other horses coming up that I hope will be as good, but in all reality, I don’t know that there will ever be another Marty. I can ride him at Pendleton and turn around and ride him at the NFR.”
Smith almost didn’t buy Marty—who’s sire is known to be a Hollywood Dun It, Smart Little Lena-bred horse named Royal Dept—because he bucked when Smith tried him. Smith haggled on price with former owner and family friend Marty Caudle, but the next day, Caudle took Smith’s offer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ridden by Travis Graves, Tyler Magnus, Kory Koontz, Michael Jones,
Allen Bach, Jade Corkill and Jim Ross Cooper
If any horse needs no introduction, it’s Jackyl. The late, great dun carried Kory Koontz, Allen Bach, Michael Jones, Jade Corkill and Jim Ross Cooper to major wins from the Wildfire to Cheyenne to the NFR across three decades.
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“He was a game-changer,” Jones said. “The amount of guys with different styles who could ride and win on him against the best in the world shows how diverse he was. He loved the sport. He loved to win.”
“If there was ever a horse I wish I’d have owned for 10 or 15 years that could have changed my heeling or won me another world title or more, it was Jackyl,” Allen Bach added. “I only ran 14 steers on him—four in the practice pen, and 10 to win the World in the Thomas & Mack. And he fit me like a glove.”
At 24, Jackyl carried Jim Ross Cooper to the win (behind Brandon Beers) at Cheyenne Frontier Days—one of rodeo’s most tasking setups for a horse of any age. That same year, Jackyl won the 10 Round of the NFR in his last appearance at rodeo’s big show. He died in December 2018.
Ridden by Patrick Smith
Patrick Smith climbed the number system aboard Jaws, a sorrel gelding on whom he eventually won the NFR average title in 2003 (with Matt Tyler) and the world title in 2005 (with Clay Tryan). Rumor has it that Jaws was double-bred Two-Eyed Jack, but nobody ever found out for sure.
“He was so amazing because we learned together, and he learned faster than I did,” said Smith, who also won the gold buckle in 2010. “He was always in the right spot no matter how terrible I rode him. He loved his job and was extremely good at it.”
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Driven 2.0 DVD, by Patrick Smith
Jaws—who showed his skills behind Tryan’s iconic horse, Thumper—won the Tour Finale in Reno in 2005, and the next day won Heel Horse of the BFI. Tryan and Smith went on to win the most money over the Fourth of July that year, too. But Jaws was retired at just 11 the next year after a stifle injury took him out. He died in 2010.
Ridden by Cody Cowden and Trevor Brazile
Cody Cowden had some friends stop by his place one night on their way to a killer sale with a load of horses. A little tipsy, they unloaded a raggedy, half-inbred-looking stud for the night in a pen next to a mare. The next morning, the guys went out to find the stud in the pen with that mare. Not thinking much of it, they loaded the stud for the sale, and that next year, Doofus was born. Cowden didn’t own the mare, but eventually he ended up with the unregistered colt.
Trevor Brazile first spotted Cowden riding Doofus at the George Strait in the late 1990s, then he watched Cowden on him at Pendleton. He decided if he ever tried heeling, that was the horse he’d want. Sure enough, when JP Wickett asked Brazile to heel for him in 1999, Brazile bought Doofus.
“He was 14 hands even, but was thick and could run,” Brazile said. “My first run on him after trying him was San Antone, and we won it that year, then we made the Finals. He was a real natural athlete and had real natural timing. That next year I was still heeling on him, but I decided I’d head the following year. I always had half a cross tie or a tire in my rig when I was rodeoing, and at the rodeos I would teach him to get back. By the end of the summer, he knew how to work a rope and all that was left was teaching him to break to the pin. So then I roped calves on him and made the Finals on him calf roping in 1999.”
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Doofus was in Brazile’s string for a long time, but he colicked and died in 2007.
Ridden by Allen Bach
While most horses named Hollywood inevitably have the reining-bred legend Hollywood Dunit in their pedigrees, Allen Bach named his grade gelding Hollywood after one of his good buddies, model and stuntman Craig Branham, who found and made the horse in Los Angeles.
Branham had got the bulky-headed horse in a dude string from Mexico, and he happened to make a heel horse by the time Bach spotted him.
“His heart was amazing,” Bach remembered of the horse that carried him through the bulk of a decade in the late ’90s and early 2000s. “He stopped with his head up and dragged his rear end. The horse literally, in every situation he needed to help you, he helped you. He was that horse that, if he were a person, you’d have liked to have him in Vietnam in battle with you.”
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Bach paid $25,000 for Hollywood back in the 1990s, but said the horse would easily be a $100,000 heel horse today, papers or not. When the horse started to lose sight in one of his eyes, Bach passed him along to a family to learn on.
Ridden by Derrick Begay
Derrick Begay isn’t one to brag on much of anything—especially his horses—but that hasn’t stopped the world from taking notice of his signature sorrel gelding, Swagger. Begay rode Swagger in all eight of his NFR appearances, including in rounds seven and eight of his first Finals in 2008 and throughout his last Finals appearance in 2018.
“I didn’t have to give very much for him,” Begay said. “He came from a guy named Wally Tsosie. He had some guys around the house riding him. I tried him and didn’t buy him. The price was real low, and maybe a year or so went by. I tried him again and liked him, and I took him for a few months. I rode him around for a while and I liked him. The guy really didn’t want to sell him. He said they’d prayed for the horse, and he was supposed to be theirs. They’d said a lot of prayers for him, so they couldn’t sell him. I got to talking to him a little more, and I told him it was turning into something we didn’t have control of. I said I thought the horse was supposed to go with me, and his prayers were being answered in a different way. He says a lot of those good prayers, and so for me to take [Swagger] and have the horse all these years and be successful has been really special. I tell him all the time, he’s spiritually still his.”
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Begay has some $1.2 million in career earnings, with the bulk of that coming aboard Swagger, who is still going strong in his late teens or early 20s.
• Ice Cube
Ridden by Jade Corkill
Jade Corkill might not be the Jade Corkill who’s defined heeling mastery for the last 15 years if it hadn’t been for an outlaw sorrel gelding he called Ice Cube. A 15-year-old Corkill bought him as a green 5-year-old, first riding him at Nevada’s high school rodeos.
“If you sat in the box too long, he’d rear and walk out on his back feet,” Corkill said of those early days. “Or if you turned his head to the right he’d lock up, and if you tried to turn straight he would either rear up and walk out or rear over the side of the box.”
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When Jade broke out in the PRCA with Matt Tyler in 2006, it was aboard Ice Cube. He won the Wildfire, the George Strait, the US Finals and the Spicer Gripp Memorial, and he set the 3.3-second world record at the 2009 Wrangler NFR with Chad Masters.
Corkill sold the horse to Jim Ross Cooper, then bought him back in 2013. Corkill eventually traded him to Bach for Switchblade, but got him back for his dad, Bruce, to ride at the World Series ropings. Ice Cube lost site in his left eye, but that hasn’t stopped him from winning tens of thousands more in the jackpot pen to this day.
Ridden by Cody Cowden
Cody Cowden’s Shot had as royal breeding as you get in a California rope horse—by Joe Murray’s White Lightening Ike, out of a Driftwood mare—but the original owners fooled around and never got him papered, Cowden explained.
“He was in a pasture with other horses as a colt, and someone shot him and all those other horses,” Cowden said. “The other horses got killed, and we found him and took him to the vet and he dug the bullets out of his neck, and he lived. That’s how he got his name—Shot.”
They gelded him at 4 after breeding a few mares to him, and Shot took to heeling from the start.
“I started riding him and he was fluke good,” Cowden said. “He could really stop and use his hind end. Daniel Green rode him to win the Timed Event, and I helped several other guys win it on him. I won second at the George Strait on him one year, and I won Denver on him. His first-ever rodeo was Cheyenne, and I won fourth.”
Cowden’s super-star son, Will, got to ride him a bit before the horse retired, but Shot stopped pretty hard for a kid, even in his old age. The hardy bay took his last breath in the winter of 2020 at somewhere around 25, after arthritis made getting around too painful.
Ridden by Kaleb Driggers
Kaleb Driggers kickstarted his career aboard a sorrel he called Champ, who he bought on a payment plan from former pro baseball player Tano Tijerina in 2010. He then made his first NFR in 2011, mostly aboard Champ. On the unassuming gelding, Driggers won the Mike Cervi Jr. Memorial and set the arena record at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo the following day.
“I think the best attribute he had was his scoring,” Driggers said. “He could score every single time. He was pretty fast and very athletic. He never lost the steer’s head. He helped you without you realizing because he was easy about it.”
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In mid-July 2012, Driggers and Corkill won the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs, Colorado, then laid over in Rock Springs, Wyoming, to sign autographs at the National High School Finals Rodeo. That night, Champ colicked and couldn’t be saved.
“That was probably one of the best years I ever had in 2012 before he died,” Driggers said. “It was all because of him. I’ve had a lot of really good horses that were good at what they do. But he was a one-type, all-around horse. If I had to pick one horse, he’d be the best.”