It’s not supposed to be possible for a roper to make the NFR on a rodeo-green horse. In fact, very few have done it. Kollin VonAhn can say he did. The defending NFR team roping average champion (with Luke Brown) rode his 21-year-old horse, Frank, to the fastest 10-round time last December—but 6-year-old Apache R Hali was the reason he made it to Las Vegas. “Hali” was a practice horse that VonAhn expected to spend two or three years seasoning when he bought her from Blake Hughes.
But in Red Lodge, Mont., on the Fourth of July in 2013, VonAhn’s good horse was sliced to ribbons by barbed wire after escaping and running down the highway with Travis Graves’ and Luke Brown’s horses.
“At that point, it was either mount out or just start riding Hali, and I thought, ‘Man, at least I know her,’” VonAhn recalled.
Not only had Hali never been to a rodeo, but she’d only been to one jackpot—Kaleb Driggers heeled on her in a #15 roping in Fernley, Nev., a few days before she was thrown into the July Fourth fray.
In response, Hali did things like put him fifth on five steers over the long score at Salinas and then, a few days later, give him the short-score win at Spanish Fork with a smoking 8.8 on two.
“She’s always done exactly what I asked her to do,” said VonAhn, the 2009 world champion heeler. “She turned into a life-saver for me.”
He has ridden Hali all this season, too, and earned nearly $50,000 by late July. But back in 2013 when she was untested, VonAhn did his own part to make sure she kept working like she’d been working at home. He treated her just like a little girl. That meant getting her out of her stall, giving her a bath every day, letting her graze and just spending time with her.
“I told Luke, ‘I’m doing the impossible trying to make the NFR on her, but I really think if she understands that I’m the only friend in the world she’s got, we’re going to do this,’” he said. “It’s stupid and quirky, but I decided she’s a damn nice horse and the best horse I’ve got and I’ll love on her every day that I wake up. I’m telling you—I believe that’s what allowed her to take me to the NFR with all the pressure I put on her.”
It was about helping her understand her job and reassuring her that he wouldn’t lead her into a lion’s den.
“I don’t know if she’s the best horse I’ve ever had, but she’s dang sure my favorite because we went through this whole deal together,” he said.
Ironically, VonAhn rodeo-seasons a young horse at home.
“When I’m getting a horse ready to go, I make every different run in the practice pen that’s possible in competition,” he said. “When you get to the rodeo, your horse already has enough distraction from the noise and crowd, so you don’t want what happens with the cow to be something he or she has never seen.”
Horses know repetition, he said, and they know how to react to something they’ve seen before. VonAhn will get a horse just as comfortable with four-second runs as 10-second runs, and in the process he makes a confident horse that enjoys the job more and, therefore, works better.
“My dad told me one time that when a guy signs up for a job, he just wants to come to work and do his job,” VonAhn said. “Say he takes a job cleaning stalls. But on the second day they want him to clean stalls and feed. Then the day after that, they want him to clean stalls and feed and wash the water buckets. And on day four, they want him to clean stalls, feed, wash water buckets and saddle horses. Pretty soon he gives them the middle finger.”
Horses are no different, which is why VonAhn is careful not to surprise one at a rodeo.