With two Prairie Circuit Champion buckles already in each of their caches, Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins claimed their third and final year-end championship together at the 2023 Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo in Duncan, Oklahoma, Oct. 14, as they prepare to give their partnership a rest in 2024.
“There’s really no bitterness in it at all, but that’s really a sweet way to finish that portion of the year for us,” five-time NFR heeler Hawkins, 36, explained. “We’re best buds and have done good and just decided it’s time to do something different.”
For Hawkins’ brother-in-law, four-time NFR header Ward, the win marks the culmination of a successful year, and not just a great finals.
“It’s exciting,” Ward, 33, said. “It’s pretty hard to show people, but it’s not just going to Duncan and doing good. If you could see what we did during the regular year to make sure we had a chance, we feel like we tried pretty hard for our circuit to try to win it. It’s never felt like they just give it to you.”
Gold in Colorado Springs
Yet again, Ward and Hawkins have punched their tickets to the NFR Open, and they recognize the opportunity that can come from the qualification.
“All you have to do is a little bit of good,” Ward said. “You don’t even have to win it and you have a great rodeo, compared to even Reno or Greeley. If you win just a little bit, you’re going to feel like you had a great rodeo. And if you do good and win, then you’re up there with Fort Worth and Houston and Sioux Falls. To me, it’s probably one of the top five rodeos. So that’s why we try hard.”
Ward and Hawkins both have multiple national circuit titles to their names—Ward’s a two-time Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo (now named NFR Open) champ, and Hawkins is a three-time champ—so with $85,300 added on both ends of the 2024 NFR Open team roping, they’re well aware the impacts that kind of payout can have.
“We were really close to having the Finals made [by July of this year], and we would’ve just punched our ticket at the NFR Open if we had won $30,000,” Ward explained.
“Our second NFR, it helped us get there and get over the hump,” Hawkins added. “I think there’s a lot of good rodeos during the year, but there’s only a few great rodeos. And that’s one.”
Because the only way to compete at the NFR Open is by winning either the year-end or the average in a ProRodeo circuit, the team prioritized making the Prairie Circuit Finals in recent years. Though gold buckles and the NFR are, obviously, always the primary goals, adding an NFR Open appearance can only help in that goal.
“To be honest, I start every year as a circuit guy in my mind,” Hawkins said. “I don’t start off really thinking about the [world] championship. I kind of build steam throughout the season, particularly this year with new partners. But even for me and Andrew, we wanted to set ourselves up good by getting to the National Circuit Finals over and over again, and we have three out of four years, and it’s helped us.”
Priority and Strategy
As circuit ropers and Top 15 contenders, Ward and Hawkins have to find the sweet spot between meeting their minimum circuit rodeo count and not exceeding the 75-rodeo limit set to qualify for the NFR. This can make things tricky when trying to decide when to stay on the home front and when to hit the big road.
In the Prairie Circuit, Ward figures they do most of their circuit rodeoing in the spring with Guymon and Woodward, both in Oklahoma, being the most important rodeos. Toward the end of the year, come August and September, they also pick back up on the circuit front with Lawton, Oklahoma, and multiple Kansas rodeos like Dodge City, Phillipsburg and Abilene.
“There’s not a lot of big hits if you don’t do good at one of those,” Ward admitted. “But it always takes over $20,000 to win the year-end. If you get to thinking about that, that means you either have to win at the big ones or you have to win all the little ones that you counted. You have to do good at some of the big ones is what it comes down to, I think.”
For Hawkins, a Kansas native making his home in Texas, he has to drive quite a bit to make it work.
“It takes a little bit of try,” Ward said. “We like going to them, but it is a little bit of dedication. There are so many guys that rope so good [in our circuit], they don’t give you the year-end or the average win hardly ever at the Prairie Circuit. So, if you’re going to try, you better try pretty hard.”
For Hawkins, all that try is what makes the year-end win a worthy endeavor.
“It’s a great way to finish this season, being a little unsure what the next season holds for me,” Hawkins said. I’m grateful for that opportunity. One year it was $100 that kept me from winning it, and there’s been almost four other times I’ve been one steer away from winning it. But just the overall value of it, for me, I’m grateful. I’m all for it.”