Retired National Finals Rodeo Header Colter Todd had come in from a day of deer hunting in the rough country surrounding his Willcox, Arizona, ranch, when he sat down in front of the television just in time to see the last of the steer wrestling in Round 1 of the 2021 NFR.
His brother-in-law, Wildfire Champ Will Woodfin, was there watching with him, as was his wife, Carly. They had gathered round to watch the team roping and long-time family-friend Derrick Begay head for Brady Minor at Begay’s ninth NFR. As the camera panned down to Begay sitting in the Priefert box, Todd assumed he’d see the sorrel ears of Begay’s ageless Swagger under him.
“We see this buckskin and my wife says, ‘Wonder if that’s Cody Snow’s horse?'” Todd said, still in amazement. “My brother-in-law says, ‘No, that’s Keeta!’ I looked, and then I said, ‘No, he wouldn’t do that.’ But then I saw her different colored eyes, and I said, ‘What the heck is he thinking?!'”
Sure enough, Begay had climbed aboard the 8-year-old mare named Kit Kat Keeta that Todd has ridden for the last several years before selling her to Begay’s nephew, James Arviso, just two weeks ago. Begay and Minor stopped the clock aboard the mare in 4.9 seconds, worth $5,660.65 for a fifth- and sixth-place check in the go-round.
Begay has ridden Swagger in the bulk of his NFR appearances, as well as in most regular-season competition year round. He was hoping for one last hurrah with the grade gelding, who he estimates to be about 24 or 25, though the horse is grade, so there’s no real telling.
But on the very last steer in the Thomas & Mack run-through on Nov. 30, Swagger limped to the catch pen, off on his right front. Begay instantly knew there was no way he could ride him over the 10 rounds at the Finals.
“All the top 15 guys offered their second-string horses,” Begay said. “Even Trevor Brazile offered to send horses from Texas. The word got out, and people were calling. Brady’s brother, Riley, obviously has one of the best head horses there’s ever been in Bob, and I thought maybe if I had to I could ask.”
His pride got in the way a bit, however, and he started to tell himself that he could figure this out on his own—for the most part.
Luckily for Begay, his 18-year-old nephew James—already a top young-gun header in his own right; and the kid who, in his younger years, danced for the TV cameras when Begay was roping with Cesar de la Cruz at the Finals—had a few horses with him in Las Vegas to rope at the Ariat World Series of Team Roping events at the South Point. And, one of those horses happened to be a buckskin mare that came from Begay’s long-time best friend, Colter Todd.
“Obviously, I liked her, but I wanted to try her first,” Begay said. “Surely, you just go behind the steer. That’s all you have to do—there’s really no score. The steer goes, you go, you rope him and turn him. I thought she could do it.”
Begay had long watched the mare go in the practice pen and in the rocky hills around the Todd ranch.
“I’ve got a really good friend, Henry Kibler, who raises a lot of Driftwood horses,” Todd said. “It was four or five years ago, and I needed some ranch horses. I called him to see if he had any 3-year-olds who weren’t started that he’d want to do some trading on. I got like four or five of them, and the deal was that I’d start them all and take two and he’d get the other three as long as I broke them. She was one of them, and I guess I went about it wanting some horses I could ride and use, and if they’d made good arena horses, good, but it didn’t matter. I wanted some good rock pounders.”
Kibler—who owns the dam Katie Wood and has bred Driftwood horses for decades—had raised the mare in a , and he long aspired to raise tough, hard-working horses.
“That mare was part of a lease deal with Monty Pearce,” Kibler said. “As I remember it, as part of our agreement, I got the filly in the dam when she was returned to me, so the Pearces are the breeders. Driftwood horses, you can breed them to anything and they don’t lose cool-headed athleticism,” KibleYou can build on that foundation. I’ve sold several horses to the cutters, and they wanted an outcross on their hotter horses. That’s what they are—they just have lots of ability. They mature a little later, and that’s one of the drawbacks on a 3 or 4-year-old—they’re sometimes not ready. But once they get in the 7-8-year-old range, they’re outstanding.”
The horse spent her early days maturing in the desert going up and down the mountains with Todd, and Todd used her to pick up broncs on at the rodeos, too.
“I’d done enough stuff outside that I could rope on her. You know how owner’s pride can be? If it’s your horse and you did the job, you think they’re better than they are. I kept thinking she’d feel really good and was pretty fast. She likes to score, and I messed around with her and hauled her to some junior rodeos and little stuff and she never felt bad—she never did anything bad,” Todd said.
The feeling she gave him got his wheels turning, and he started daydreaming of riding her at places like the Bob Feist Invitational. But when he got the chance to head there for Junior Nogueira in 2019, she’d come up lame and didn’t get her shot on the big stage.
“Last spring, I was like, ‘A guy needs to try her to see if she’s good enough to sell.’ But I don’t like to just sell horses. If I sell them I want them to be good and something you can be proud of.”
So Todd kept her, and with Begay pushing him to heel for him at some jackpots, Todd took her to head for other partners. Begay noticed how good she was then.
“I really liked her, and Colter told me to ride her at his house, and I ran two steers on her. She’s easy. But it was a tough question to ask because obviously she’s good and Colter is my best friend, and he might want to rodeo so I didn’t want to take her from him and force him to stay at home. So I never asked if he’d sell her,” Begay said.
At about the same time, James noticed her, too, and he wasn’t afraid to ask.
“We were at a high school rodeo, and I was sitting on the fence with him,” Todd said. “He asked about her, and I said I should just sell her because I couldn’t win on her. I said, ‘What would you give me?’ He made an offer, and I thought it was fair. But I didn’t say anything about it. He started texting me—and I finally called him and said I’d bring her for the Turquoise Circuit Finals for him to try.”
Why She Works
James had been trying her at their place in Seba Delkai, and Todd told Begay he should practice on her for the Finals. But Begay didn’t want to step in the middle of his nephew’s horse dealings, so he stayed off.
Push came to shove, though, the day before the Finals, and Begay thought he had to give her a try. He thought he’d call Todd to ask his opinion on the matter, but Todd was out of cell service deer hunting horseback, and his phone went to voicemail three times.
“I just wanted him to see it on TV,” Begay said. “I wanted to see his reaction. Old head horses are so patterned—on her, if something goes wrong, I can make up for it. Every night will be a test.”
Keeta, however, has already been tested. Bred with a heavy dose of Driftwood, Todd liked her for her ability to go all day and handle whatever pressure his ranch work put on her. In fact, at exactly this time last year, Todd was on her back in the mountains hunting.
“I actually said while we were out yesterday that I was going to call JP and see if I could get her back to hunt on for the week,” Todd laughed. “I call horses like her dinosaurs, and I mean it because they’re from another era. Because when Driftwoods were first great, and people figured them out, they were used all week long and then you took them to the rodeos on the weekends. You needed something with stamina that could hold up. You could use them all week, and rodeo on them on the weekends. For ranch horses covering a lot of the country I have, I need something with staying power that won’t make me walk home at the end of the day. I’d ridden a lot of the modern day stuff, but that stuff does not have the staying power. You hit the bottom and you dink them and they take a while to come back. Horses like her, I just used her. I never trained her. In my mind, they need the big country and the long days. They’re from another time. There’s not a lot of people that have the ride-all-week, use-on-the-weekends style.”
Begay had a blast surprising his best friend with a horse appearance in the Thomas & Mack, the same arena in which Todd had cut his teeth more than a decade ago. And Todd, for his part, was more than pleasantly surprised at the sight. But both have a heavy dose of humility and perspective, and they know the challenges the Thomas & Mack presents.
“I don’t take friendship lightly,” Todd said. “And there are really no words. It’s just feelings. You want to say pride but it’s not pride because it’s a confidence thing, I guess, that in a sense I was able to help him out. Not even in any way because it was his nephew. We should be saying James did it. But I don’t know. It was just one of those cool things you don’t expect. I think it’s just fun. In the best sense. Who knows if he’ll even ride her again. He might have felt something we don’t see, but it was dang sure fun to see it, and they got paid for it.” TRJ