Original publication: Oct. 19, 2022
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before — Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins have won another major rodeo.
Apart from earning better than $120,000 in ProRodeos and qualifying to their third straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) as a team in 2022, the pair have won huge open jackpot events like The American, the Lone Star Shootout and the Resistol Reno Open, wins that put $460,000 in their pockets.
“It has felt like a Cinderella season for sure,” Ward, 33, said.
“What a blessing,” Hawkins agreed.
The brothers-in-law checked off another goal achieved when they claimed the year-end championships for the Prairie Circuit after winning the average at the Chisholm Trail RAM Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo held in Duncan, Oklahoma on October 13-15, 2022.
High Priority and A Little Strategy
While making it back to the Wrangler NFR is always goal number one, Ward notes that he and Hawkins also prioritize the circuit side of ProRodeo.
“We make it a high priority because of how good the circuit finals rodeo is and also because we want to get to the NFR Open,” Ward notes.
Hawkins notes the economics of rodeoing within the Prairie Circuit which includes Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.
“We’re not trying to set any records with the number of miles we drive,” Hawkins joked. “We look at the profit we can accumulate. It’s so easy to look at the big payouts and get distracted from your profit margins—where are your best chances of winning.”
“I’m at the point in my career that I look at both what it’s going to cost us and, not only what we can win, but the chances when we get there.”
Probabilities factor heavily in their entering decisions which is why getting to the NFR Open matters to both ropers.
The NFR Open is the national championship for the circuit system; only the year end and average winners from each circuit advance to the lucrative event, now held in Colorado Springs, Colorado in July.
Earnings from the NFR Open, as well as all the circuit finals rodeos, counts towards PRCA | RAM World Standings, a fact that no one appreciates more than Ward and Hawkins. They roped their way to a victory at the 2021 event, then known as the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Kissimmee, Florida.
“I went to Kissimmee four times,” Ward said. “The first time I went with Tyler Worley and then I went two times with my brother, Reagan. We actually tied for the win [they lost the title on the tie-breaker] in 2018 and that set us up to rodeo for the first time.”
“Then me and Buds won it in 2021 and it helped us get to the Finals that year,” Ward said. “I really like it, it’s a huge opportunity. They give a [Polaris] Ranger and a voucher for a Dodge. It helps a lot financially.”
“Being there sets you up for the chance to win $20,000 or more. It’s a big advantage for 2023 and we’ve seen that in our history.”
Hawkins also has a great record at the RNCFR/NFR Open. He won the event in 2015 with Drew Horner and again in 2017 with Jesse Stipes. In fact, only the legends, Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper, have won more titles at the event. They have four.
Given that Hawkins and Ward erased Barnes and Cooper’s decades-long record for the average at the Wrangler NFR last December, could Hawkins repeat the feat with the RNCFR record?
“That’s neat,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t realize that but I feel like Jake and Clay are kind of kindred spirits.”
“It comes back to probability of winning,” Hawkins said. “You’re one in 26 teams when you show up. That’s better odds than most rodeos where you’re one in 100.”
Ward says his team excels at the NFR Open because of their consistency.
“We catch a lot,” he said. “That deal is 26 teams and you get two rounds before they cut it to the top eight in the average, a tournament style. They let you catch down through the rodeo.”
“We pride ourselves on catching a lot so it suits our style.”
“We just look at it like a four head rodeo,” Hawkins added. “It narrows down each round as they cut the misses out so it’s almost progressive like a jackpot.”
“There’s so much money to be made early in the rounds that it can be distracting and guys get drawn into the trap and forget that the big money is at the end,” Hawkins said. “I feel I’ve been able to block that out, potentially step over that, and be prepared with my mind and my horse for that final day.”
“If you just go catch that fourth one, there is a significant payout to that.”
Getting to Duncan
Simply qualifying to the circuit finals rodeo itself is no simple feat, particularly in the Prairie Circuit.
First, there are logistics to consider. To qualify to a circuit finals, cowboys are required to compete in a minimum number of rodeos within the circuit. This can be tricky for ropers also hauling for the NFR as they can only count 75 rodeos towards World standings.
“It takes a little bit of strategy but tried to go hard in the spring, we probably counted 20-25 circuit rodeos, trying to give ourselves a chance to win the year-end,” Ward said. And it’s no easy matter to win at a circuit rodeo either. “We’re roping against these same guys so the rodeos are really tough.”
Do What We Do
Ward and Hawkins carried a lead of about $7,000 over Paul David Tierney and Tanner Braden into the Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo. Their core strategy, go catch everything, didn’t change.
“We just wanted to make the same kind of runs that we would at any normal three head rodeo,” Ward said, adding he doesn’t look at standings much. “We just wanted to go have a good Duncan because there is value to that in order to set up the new year and get you to the NFR Open.”
“It becomes redundant,” Hawkins added. “We are geared toward catching. We’re always trying to finish the course.”
Still, the level of competition in Duncan dictates a team keep their foot on the gas.
“You have to be pretty aggressive in the rounds to stay with everybody,” Ward said. “There are NFR quality teams, basically 12 of them, so it’s never easy there.”
“If you stay aggressive, it makes it easier at the end, where maybe you just have to go knock down that third one to win the average,” Ward said. “You don’t want to fall behind and get to the end where you’re having to go fast and hoping for maybe third in the average or some day money.”
Running at $2,000 go rounds is also a great incentive and Ward and Hawkins played their cards perfectly. A 4.4 second first round run won the go-round and mathematically eliminated the rest of the field from catching them for the year-end titles.
“We drew good and it just so happened that we won the round,” Ward said. “With a 4.4, sometimes that’s good there and sometimes it’s not.”
They followed up with runs of 4.6 and 5.4 seconds, good enough for second and fourth in the rounds. They held off the challenge from Jake Clay and Billie Jack Saebens in the average, winning with 14.4 seconds on three steers. Clay and Saebens were second with 15.7 seconds.
Clay and Saebens also leapfrogged from fourth to second in the year-end standings and will join Ward and Hawkins in representing the Prairie Circuit at the NFR Open.
Coleman Proctor and Logan Medlin won the second two rounds with matching runs of 4.4 seconds.
All totaled up, Ward and Hawkins banked $6,742 towards the 2023 season.
“It was a good way to finish up,” Hawkins said. He picked up his second Prairie Circuit year-end championship. He also has one from the Texas Circuit. “The circuit’s been really good to us, not just us personally but to the team ropers.”
“It’s such a good rodeo in Duncan and sets you up for next year,” Ward said. He earned his fourth Prairie Circuit championship. “We were blessed to have done so good.”
“It’s a neat thing to prioritize our circuit — that’s filled up with great guys and really talented team ropers and it’s not easy to win, especially a year-long thing,” Ward noted. “There’s lots of thought and strategy to get to it and to have it go the right way for us, we just feel blessed and thankful.”