Wesley Thorp was afoot come the end of ProRodeo's 2018 regular season, after his great brown horse, Lex, was sidelined by a torn meniscus at the Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Heading into his third consecutive Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Thorp sits eighth in the PRCA world standings with $88,173.40. But that's just a few go-round checks out of the number-one spot, and with $1.1 million in heeling prize money up for grabs at the NFR, Thorp needed an ace mount to pull back on those 10 steers in the Thomas & Mack for a chance at a gold buckle.
So Thorp tapped friend Dustin Searcy, of Mooreland, Oklahoma, who owns a little horse named Rio. Insiders know Rio as one of the best in the PRCA, even if Searcy isn't a full-time rodeo cowboy these days.
"I talked to Dustin about him at the end of the summer," Thorp said. "And he told me I could come try him. The closer it got to Vegas, I went and rode him and I decided I was going to try him out here. I've been riding him the last couple weeks, and he's smooth and he's quick and he's fast, so I'll be able to get around the end of them pretty quick."
Rio, registered as Bobs Rio Leo, was born into Dana and Wilma Larsen's cutting horse operation in Gruver, Texas. His sire, Bobs Hickory Leo, is the 2005 NCHA Open World Champion owned by Hare Quarter Horses. The Larsens owned the mare—Lil Wilma—and had already seen great success with her and her colts.
"That mare got crippled pretty early in her career," said Dana, an NCHA Open Futurity Finalist a few times over. "But she was probably one of my favorite horses to show. She was very electric and pretty quirky and cowy, and just really a nice horse. She could get in and out of the ground pretty fast."
The colts out of Lil Wilma ended up pretty darn good, but all of them took a little work in the beginning.
"They were pretty broncy," Larsen said, laughing. "Rio was terrible to start. He could buck for a little horse."
Dana showed Rio's brother, Lil Bob, at the NCHA Futurity, and had success on another brother, Bo Hickory Rio, too. But Rio, despite being on the same program as his older brothers of outside riding paired with cow work, didn't quite make the grade with his siblings.
"What I remember about him is that he was a good-minded colt, but as far as the cutting goes, he was a little slow-footed," Larsen said. "Compared to some of his older brothers, he didn't have the cow that you like to have in one. And he was a nice colt, but just wasn't something we felt like was good enough to bring to Fort Worth in December."
So when Rio was 3 year old, Dumas, Texas' 8-Elite heeler, Brandon Brown, purchased the bay gelding. Brown and his dad occasionally buy ex-cutters from the Larsens, and bought Rio and another colt this time around.
"He was scared of the rope at first," Brown said. "But he got over that, and we went to roping the Heel-O-Matic and live steers on him. He was pretty broke by the time he came to us, and he was just pretty nice."
The One That Got Away
Brown was in the market for a more finished horse, so he traded a batch of three colts to Bobby Lewis and his handy employee—then an up-and-coming heeler by the name of Joseph Harrison.
Harrison started roping on the 4-year-old Rio, and started jackpotting on him and even took him to a few rodeos. He found the horse's best quality to be his quick-footed nature—counter to what Larsen thought of him as a 2-year-old.
"He's a good one, really good," Harrison said. "He's quick-footed. He's not a great big horse, but he's a big-bodied horse. He's short-legged and he's the perfect height for me. His frame, everything about him, I like. He can run, really run, and really stop. He's the total package, that horse is."
Harrison and Lewis are known for their great horses, so when Searcy was looking for another good horse to help jump-start his heeling career, they offered Rio—then a coming 5-year-old—up for sale.
Searcy was college rodeoing with Cale Markham at the time, who told Searcy to call Harrison to find a horse. Searcy didn't know Harrison well then, but Harrison told him he had this sweet little bay that was green, but would end up a good one.
"I asked what he wanted, and I said there was no way I could afford it," Searcy said. "But I figured if I loved him, I'd make it work. I went and tried him right there at Bobby's house and, of course, I ended up buying him. He was really green, but Joseph had done a great job with him. I had to take a bank loan to make it work."
Harrison has undoubtedly sold dozens of great horses in his career, but selling Rio still stings.
"Obviously, I didn't know he'd be what he is right now or I wouldn't have sold him," Harrison lamented. "That was one of the worst mess ups I've had trading horses, right there."
Coming Into His Own
Searcy had another good horse that had come from Kollin VonAhn, so he was able to jackpot on Rio for a few years and rode him at the college rodeos from 2014 to 2015.
"I guess looking back on it, I took him for granted," Searcy said. "I rode him like he was a lot farther along than he really was. I rode him all that year as a 7-year-old, and he stayed together."
That bronc colt got gentle, too. Searcy lets his nieces and nephews ride Rio around, and said the horse really has no bad habits.
Searcy won the Ponoka (Alberta) Stampede on the horse in 2015 with Kolton Schmidt, and Paul Eaves, needing to give his good ones a break, borrowed Rio in 2016 when Searcy went home. Eaves won Lawton, Oklahoma; Canby, Oregon; and a round at Caldwell, Idaho; on the little bay gelding.
"That horse isn't a really big horse, but he can really run," Eaves said. "And that's a super big deal. He's got it all. He's quick-footed. He really moves his feet good and can stop. He's good everywhere."
And, hopefully, for Thorp and partner Cody Snow, "everywhere" includes the Thomas & Mack. In a small trap of an arena that requires heel horses to get up and around a steer faster than nearly everywhere else, but not be too cowy that they get on top of the steer with nowhere else to go, Rio could be the perfect selection.
Searcy will be there for all 10 rounds to watch his horse in action, and Brown and the Larsens (who didn't know their horse had made it this far until this interview) will watch the NFR this year with more intent than ever before.
"Anytime you raise one, regardless of the discipline, and they end up where the best horses are, it's cool," Larsen said. "I like to watch a good horse work, whether it's a cutting horse, calf horse or team roping horse. All of these horses, we breed them with one specific goal in mind because that's what we do. But obviously they don't all make it. And you know they're far from being trashed. They're going to fit somebody somewhere." TRJ