To have a shot at being a legendary head horse takes a special combination of natural talents—speed, strength and the mind to handle all the pressure put on your back, for starters. Travis Tryan’s Walt had it all—maybe most importantly a sincere love of the game, which is a critical component of being great at anything.
On August 8, Precious Speck—dubbed Walt by Tryan in honor of the man who raised him—will become the first team roping horse ever inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo. We’ll all take our hats off to the fluffy-forelocked bay horse one more time, and marvel over how he shined equally in the bright lights of Vegas while matching the 3.5-second world record at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo and knee deep in mud on short-round Sunday under the massive long-score conditions at the Daddy of ’em All in Cheyenne.
“Walt had a passion to be a great head horse and to do his job,” Travis said. “He wanted to catch up to the steer, no matter where he was at. You couldn’t get him to ease to a steer—ever. He’d almost run off with you to get to the spot to give you the perfect throw, then he’d just chill out and relax.”
Walt didn’t take days off. Walt didn’t want days off. In fact, in the early going of his 10-year all-pro career he did double duty, delivering both Travis and Clay Tryan to their first NFRs in 2001.
“Walt always showed up,” Travis said. “He was always ready to go, no matter what. And he was looking forward to it. With the great ones, I think it’s more them than anything we do. They need a good foundation, and that’s what Walt (Vermedahl) did so well. But I don’t think you can teach one to love it. You show them and they either love it or they don’t. Walt scored good every time and he ran hard every time. I think you can help or hurt that, but I don’t think you can teach that. You never had to tell Walt to go do his job.”
Precious Speck hit the ground in rural, remote Polson, Mont., on April 11, 1990. His sire, Skid Frost, was a descendent of Doc Bar, and his dam, Precious Rhythm, was three generations removed from Thoroughbred blood. Walt Vermedahl raised “Speck,” as he called him, and rode him the first 10 years of his life. Vermedahl headed and even heeled a little on Walt.
“My dad (Dennis, who in 1984 became the first NFR team roper from Montana) heard about him,” Travis said. “He heard from a couple guys that if they were going to try one that’s the one they’d go try. So we eventually made our way up there. We knew Walt (Vermedahl) from seeing him at jackpots in Missoula, but he stayed on the other side of the state so we didn’t see him a bunch.”
It was September 2000, and Vermedahl had put a $15,000 pricetag on his bay horse. But when he saw how badly Travis, 19 at the time, wanted that horse, he softened a little to make the deal possible.
“I gave him $7,500 in September, and had until the first of the year to give him the other $5,000,” Tryan remembers. “He told me, ‘When you guys start doing good on him you can give me that other $2,500,’ to get to his $15,000. He was pretty confident we would do good on him.”
Good gave way to beyond great. And it took awhile, but Tryan stayed true to his original word.
“I kind of forgot about that $2,500, but it kept popping into my head every once in awhile,” he smiled. “Seven or eight years after I bought him, I called Walt up, apologized for taking so long and asked for his address. He was cool about it. He told me he’d enjoyed watching us ride him.”
None of us who witnessed the Walt Tryan Show will ever forget it. What most don’t remember is that Travis actually paid for Walt with heeling money. “I was mostly heeling at the time,” he said. “When I got Walt is when I started wanting to head again. Heading got a lot more fun when I got Walt.”
Off they went—Travis, 19, three-time and reigning World Champion Team Roper Clay, then 21, and Walt, 10. Team ropers can count 75 rodeos today, but back then it was 100—each. You could read Walt’s mind by the way both ears were almost always pointing straight ahead toward the next run. He loved every minute of it—and it showed.
“Getting Walt was a turning point,” Travis said. “I knew he was good. You could just tell. But at the time we had no way of knowing how good. Walt made everything look so easy. I knew he was pretty special and he just kept getting better and better the more I rode him.”
Travis still marvels at how Walt moved. “I’ve never seen a horse move like him before or since,” he said. “The way he moved his feet was different. He had the most unusual stride. He didn’t pound the ground—it’s almost like he glided across the ground.”
The Tryan brothers didn’t just qualify for their first NFRs that December. With Walt’s help, they made some mighty waves when they got there. Travis and Matt Robertson won three go-rounds—rounds four, six and nine. Clay and his 2001 NFR partner, Caleb Twisselman, won the eighth round in 3.9, which was the fastest run of the rodeo.
My now college-aged sons, who were little boys at the time, watched those videos so many times that they got to where they’d turn off the sound and Lane would do the announcing while they rolled tape. I can still hear him blaring off his favorite Boyd Polhamus and Bob Tallman lines of the week when it came to Travis and Matt. “Not bad for a couple of street rats!” Boyd blared. Then Bob fired back with, “Oh, you little delinquents. You’re not making any friends, you know that?”
“Walt was a turning point for both of us,” Travis said. “He was that difference maker to get us both kick-started in our careers. When you don’t have to think about what your head horse is going to do, and you know you’re going to get a chance at money 98 out of 100 times, it makes it easier to go do your deal.
“Walt always wanted to do good for the guy on his back. He never wanted to disappoint me, and he never forced me to throw. He always let you decide when you wanted to throw. He would wait on you, then make his move. Walt always aimed to please.”
Travis rode Walt on all but five steers at his first nine NFRs, from 2001-09. He rode his palomino horse Gold Digger in rounds three through seven in 2005. Travis also roped at the Finals in 2010 and 2012, though it was never quite the same without his four-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association/American Quarter Horse Association Head Horse of the Year.
In 2009, Travis became the youngest team roper ever to reach the $1 million milestone in career earnings. He was 28, and that was just half of the more than $2 million the Tryans won on Walt’s back, all told, in his 10 years at the top.
Another memorable Walt story was the silver-lining scene that followed one of the saddest nights in NFR team roping history. After ProRodeo Hall of Famer Jake Barnes lost his thumb in the heat of world championship battle during round five at the 2005 NFR, Trevor Brazile was drafted by Kory Koontz to finish the rodeo. Trevor was roping calves, so was the obvious choice to sub in. Kory wasn’t eligible for any average money with the second partner, and Trevor couldn’t count the team roping money toward the all-around race, but their go-round money was all theirs.
I’ll never forget walking out into the mist of that hospital parking lot with Kory in the middle of that very dark night after Jake’s surgery. Kory and I were broken-hearted for Jake, and—typical Jake—he was the one apologizing to Kory for letting him down.
The stars aligned those next two nights, when Travis offered Walt to Trevor. Trevor and Kory won the sixth round in 3.7, and split round seven with Wade Wheatley and Kyle Lockett in 3.8. Trevor, Walt and Kory struck a third-straight night with a 4.4-second, fourth-place check in round eight also.
“You talk about a horse’s strong suits, and there are a few things that stand out about all the great ones,” Trevor said. “I’ve never seen a horse score every time like that. Some horses are great in certain situations. Walt was that horse for every situation—from Salinas to the NFR. I’m a Walt fan. If anybody’s not they’re just a hater. You can’t question Walt’s talent or his heart. A lot of the great ones have talent, but he was such a campaigner. He had it all.”
Ironically, Jake had taken a pass on the chance to try Walt back before the Tryans did. One of Jake’s Montana roping-school students, Marshall Ashcraft, told him about the horse.
“I’d been traveling a lot, so I had them send me a video,” Jake said. “I couldn’t tell much by the video, which was shot at a little indoor arena. I’d been on so many wild goose chases in my day turning over every stone trying to find that next good horse. But Walt’s the one that got away. I learned a good lesson from him.
“That’s why I try so many horses to this day. Everybody says they have the next Walt or (Charles Pogue’s) Scooter—99.9 percent of the time they aren’t even close to what you’re hoping. But you have to keep looking, because you never know when that next great one will come along. They just don’t come along very often, and what a difference a great horse makes in your career. Those great horses are so unique. They’re just so rare. Horses like Walt are once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky.”
Walt’s versatility alone made him rare. Travis and Matt Zancanella won the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up on the grass in 2004. Travis and Michael Jones won the Daddy of ’em All, the Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days, in 2007.
In 2008, Travis and Cory Petska won the eighth round at the NFR on the fastest track of all at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. They were 3.5, which at the time tied both the NFR and world team roping records. (A year later, Chad Masters and Jade Corkill set the 3.3-second NFR and world record that still stands. Brock Hanson and Ryan Motes matched that world record in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 2012.)
Walt was 15 hands tall and weighed 1,150 pounds. Between Travis, Clay and Trevor they won 15 NFR go-round buckles on him. It might be easier to name rodeos Walt didn’t win in his storied career than list those he did. Walt’s wins were many, and he took many a victory lap multiple times. In addition to Cheyenne and Sheridan, Wyo.; and Pendleton, Molalla and Canby, Ore.; Walt’s W’s included Reno and Laughlin, Nev.; Tucson, Ariz.; San Angelo, Austin, Amarillo and Odessa, Texas; Oakdale, Calif.; Nampa, Idaho; Greeley, Colo.; Billings (the Tryans’ hometown rodeo), Livingston and Red Lodge, Mont.; Guymon, Okla.; and Albuquerque, N.M.
“Walt’s obviously one of the best head horses that’s ever been, if not the best,” Clay said. “He’s in the conversation with them all. He always scored and ran, and he had such durability and longevity. Walt was as good as they get start to finish. He worked good every time, and he lasted a long time. When you talk about the greatest ever, Walt and Scooter come to mind.
“You run across horses in your lifetime that are just tougher than the rest. Walt was raised out in the country in Montana. The more you hauled him, the more he was ready to go. Walt was just a great horse. I know when I was on him I was a different header. He made me one of the best guys. You learn from riding a great one. Travis and I had never made the NFR before we rode Walt. He started our careers. Walt was good at everything. I’m not shocked Walt became great, because he was good from the start and good to the end. There might not ever be another one like him.”
The guy who’s won the last three gold buckles on the heeling side never roped a steer behind Walt. But he paid very close attention to Walt’s every move, and says he’s the best he’s ever seen. Like so many of us, he also remembers fondly Travis’s wife, Hillary, often warming Walt up—blonde hair flying—with both hands on the reins to maintain some semblance of control. It was hard to tell which one of those two was having more fun.
“I never saw Walt do anything wrong,” Jade Corkill said. “Not one time. He always scored. He always ran. He always pulled. He always faced. He never tried to duck. I’m a fan of great horses, and Walt was a great one.”
Walt—who lived simply, and was a low-maintenance easy keeper on alfalfa hay and Equine Senior—was basically sound and healthy for the duration of his career. There were a couple of speed bumps along the way, but he cleared them both with the greatest of ease. Dr. Gregg Veneklasen worked with Walt one year (2006) to help get his ringbone to fuse, and he never took another lame step.
Then there was colic surgery the summer before he died to remove a softball-sized tumor in his gut up in Nampa, Idaho. Hillary heard him whinnying in distress from afar, and her fast actions saved the day. Walt couldn’t wait to get back to work, and two months later was backing in the box with both barrels blazing.
At 20, Walt, who was Horse of the Year in 2003 and from 2007-09, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm while Travis was warming him up for slack at the Clovis (Calif.) Rodeo on April 24, 2010. The last act of Walt’s incredible life was using his final breath to get his boy safely to the ground. In obvious shock, Travis laid his hands on Walt and thanked him for all he’d done for him. Exactly five years later, Travis got the call that Walt would be the first team roping horse ever inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
“My career would have taken off at some point, but it took off for me when I got Walt,” Travis said. “He kick-started my career sooner than expected, and continued it on. I didn’t want it to end like it did, but I never had to see him lose a step. He came in and went out on top. It’s not very often you get to say that.”
There are 22 bucking horses and bulls in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. Walt is just the seventh timed-event horse ever inducted—legendary bulldogging horses Baby Doll and Peanuts, calf horses Baldy and Poker Chip Peake, and steer roping horse Bullet were part of the Hall’s inaugural Class of 1979—and the first one since Charmayne James’s barrel horse megastar Scamper went in in 1996.
“Walt going into the Hall of Fame is like a member of the family getting inducted,” Travis Tryan said. “Walt will be a part of rodeo history forever. He deserves that.”