Jesse Stipes did it in the wrong order.
Ever since 1987, winners of major sporting events from the Super Bowl to the Stanley Cup have had an answer when told, “You’ve just won ___________, what are you going to do next?”
But Stipes had just come from Disneyworld. He stopped there for three days with his wife, Ashley, and kids Addy and Jeyton on his way to Kissimmee, Fla., where he won the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo, April 6-9. Not only had Stipes just been to Disneyworld, but he’d also just purchased a new truck and hadn’t even made the first payment yet.
Nevertheless, Stipes would go home with a voucher for $20,000 toward a new Dodge RAM, along with bragging rights, trophies and $15,447 cash, courtesy of the 4.9-second run he and his heeler, 30-year-old Buddy Hawkins II of Columbus, Kan., put together to win the PRCA’s 30th Annual RNCFR. Their Prairie Circuit also claimed the coveted team title, besting the PRCA’s 11 other circuits for the third time in five years.
According to Hawkins, a former NFR qualifier and BFI champ, Stipes is one of the most underrated headers in rodeo. The horse trainer from Salina, Okla., had made his circuit finals a few times, but never won the average or year-end titles.
He and Hawkins didn’t win those last year, either, but as reserve champs to Coleman Proctor and Billie Jack Saebens, they punched their ticket to Kissimmee when Proctor and Saebens won both titles at the Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo.
Setting the Pace
Stipes and Hawkins had made business-like runs of 5.6 and 6.0 seconds on their first two steers, which placed them second in the average and made them almost last to rope in the semi-finals. The two came tight in less than 6 seconds to squeeze into the finals in fourth. That meant Stipes and Hawkins would be first to rope in the finals.
“I told Buddy, ‘We can’t beat them before they rope,’” said Stipes. “Let’s make our run and see how it pans out.’”
Hawkins, always strategizing, knew even a third-place run meant they’d still leave town with $13,000, so he was game. But their steer was one Hawkins had wanted to cull while sorting prior to the rodeo. The heavy paint steer was a little “phony” to head, then handled terribly slow.
“Jesse did a great job getting out, put a great head loop on him and got tight fast to really pull that steer,” said Hawkins. “My mare waited patiently for the steer to leave so I could rope him out in front of me. That’s what helps you get your bottom strand on the ground. If the steer is underneath you where you’re picking up on your horse, it’s really hard to set that bottom strand where you need it.”
Hawkins’ 13-year-old mare, Daisy, also got the call at the 2013 NFR. The past couple of years, Hawkins has also used a gelding he calls ‘X’, and the aging Rue, on whom he won the 2014 BFI.
“The cattle don’t run hard at the RNCFR and aren’t going to get away from you,” Hawkins said. “That mare is better than anything else I’ve ridden at keeping separation from a steer. She’s never on top of a slow steer. I knew those steers were getting three runs on Sunday and would slow down, so keeping distance from cattle is important when you need to be fast.”
She also fits well behind Stipes’ 10-year-old gelding. When he bought the rodeo-green head horse two years ago, he started calling him “The Good Gray” of the three gray geldings he had at the time. He shortened that and now calls him ‘G.’
“He hadn’t been to many rodeos, but I saw a lot of potential,” said Stipes. “He’s really honest and never takes your throw away. There are a few things we’re still working on but he’s let me win quite a bit these past two years.”
Surprisingly in the RNCFR’s sudden-death finals, the dominating performance of Arizona’s Indian cowboys—Eddie Hawley and Ty Romo—came to an end, while Luke Brown and Wesley Thorp, hot-hot last winter, also had a rare miss. Plus, Saebens came up with a five-second penalty to make the Prairie teams finish one-two in the nation.
“We’ve all had success with each other, and we were the only circuit to have two teams come back in the team roping,” Hawkins said.
Ironically, Proctor and Hawkins were rodeo partners last winter, before Stipes entered the picture in April. And he was partnered up with Saebens before that. At jackpots, Hawkins and Proctor switch ends for each other, and Stipes actually headed for Proctor back in high school.
In fact, the stiffest RNCFR competition in a handful of years has come from the Prairie states of Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Jake Long almost won a second national title one year ago with Proctor (they were second). So we’re guessing Proctor’s second-straight RNCFR reserve title in April stung that much more.
The Prairie Circuit is also a hotbed of International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA) champs, and Stipes is no exception, as the 2009 IPRA world champion header. He went back to the International Finals Rodeo (IFR) this year with Hawkins.
“Jesse is one of the most consistent headers of all time, in my opinion,” Hawkins said. “He’s spent a lot of his life close to the house, but he catches a lot of cattle and he has all the tools. He can go fast when his back’s against the wall, but he’s very smart about catching cattle when catching means paying the bills.”
Loving Sudden Death
Hawkins, like Stipes, does what it takes to make a living roping, whether that’s riding outside horses or competing. Both train and sell rope horses, and Hawkins spent the summer and fall of last year launching his horse-marketing business at QualityTeamRopingHorses.com.
“I just found that if people owned a good horse, they had a difficult time getting a fair market value if they weren’t an NFR qualifier,” said Hawkins, whose hashtag “RopeBetter” has become popular on social media. “And on the buyer’s side with no appraisal system, people need someone to tell them, yes, a horse is worth that much, or no he’s not.”
Now that his RNCFR money counts toward the 2017 PRCA world standings, Stipes said he might venture west to rodeo with his brother, Casey. Meanwhile, Hawkins will be on the road this year with Lane Ivy. One thing is sure—guys at tournament-style rodeos need to watch out for Hawkins.
He excels in sudden-death, progressive formats. Case in point—he won the San Antonio Rodeo in 2013; he nearly always cashes in at RFD-TV’s The American, and he won the 2015 RNCFR—and is still driving the truck he got through Atascosa Dodge’s Rob Smets.
With this second PRCA national championship, Hawkins enters an elite group—only Dennis Watkins has heeled two such titles, and Rich Skelton gathered up three. Clay O’Brien Cooper, in his heyday with Jake Barnes, came tight on four national titles (most of which came while winning a record seven Turquoise Circuit titles). SWR