Stephen Britnell delivers his heel shot aboard two-time IPRA Heel Horse of the Year Sonny in Round 2 of IFR47 in 2017. Emily Gethke Photography
Stephen Britnell—the recent subject of the story “IPRA World Champion Bumps $1M NFR Heeler Out of First in WCRA“—was on the rodeo road when the news broke. Service in New York was terrible, he said. He’d call after the weekend.
Nearing midnight on Sunday, July 2, 2023, he followed up with a text from the road and said he’d be available around noon Monday. And he was … from beneath the horse he was trimming near his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, the unmistakable rasping of the file across the hoof playing the role of background music.
Britnell is a man on the move.
“I drove all night from South Bend, Indiana, to get home and haul hay most of the morning with 2 hours of sleep and, now, I’m trimming horses to go to Hayesville, North Carolina,” said the lifelong farrier.
The perf started at 8 p.m.
“This wasn’t supposed to be my year,” Britnell, 48, said.
Britnell’s wife, Rachel, has been putting in the work in the breakaway. She, too, is making a Fourth run, and Britnell wants nothing more than for her to see her hard work pay off.
“She is a gritty little woman and I love every little inch of her,” Britnell affirmed. “Tonight is her first Fourth of July run and I could care less if I win another dollar the month of July if she could win $.50.”
Months ago, it looked like Britnell, who also hosts clinics on occasion, would be backing off the roping. The youngest sibling in a large family, he lost numerous members of the family in just the last two years, which had him asking tough questions and looking for the right answers.
“I lost my mom and four brothers all in six months,” Britnell said. “I kinda had to sit back and think, ‘What’s going on here? What am I supposed to be doing?’”
He put in a call to the pastor at his Cowboy Church. Britnell was baptized on Feb. 9, 2023.
“When I was a little bitty boy, I remember going in my dad’s work and leading me around by his pinky finger,” Britnell said about his father, Marion, who died 33 years ago. “He’d parade me around and say, ‘This is the caboose of the train.’ And I didn’t get that. Those words did not hit me and swell in my head until I was baptized. I realized I better pay attention. My days are coming, too. I need to leave a mark somewhere other than wrote in a stone.”
Shooting for 7
“The biggest number in the Bible is seven,” Britnell said. “And that’s why I feel like going after this seventh World title.”
Britnell earned the first of his six IPRA World Championships in 2000.
“The first one was for my dad,” he said. “The second one was for my mom.”
He dedicates the third title to his father’s friend Ray Gist who helped dig Marion’s grave by hand to save the family the trouble of burial costs. He also changed the course of Britnell’s life when, after Marion’s death, Gist took great efforts to turn Britnell’s attention to roping instead of the trouble he seemed to be seeking.
“Ray Gist is the reason I’m still here today.”
Justifiably, Britnell claims his fourth world title for himself.
“The other two is to prove to everybody I could do it,” he asserted.
But the seventh?
“This one’s for God.”
In the arena
With his own goals renewed, Britnell is teaming up regularly with Heath King.
“I watched Heath King grow up,” said Britnell, who is perhaps the greatest proponent of his region’s youth ropers, recognizing unmatched, upcoming and not-yet-discovered talent and dedication in them.
“He’s a good young man. He wanted to go to the IRA rodeos, and he’s never made the IRA finals. So I said, ‘Yes, sir. All right; we’ll do it.’”
Just looking at the past month, King and Britnell won the early June rodeo in King, North Carolina, for $1,144.80 a man and split first with Brad and Braxton Culpepper for $1,175.51 each at Georgia’s 39th Annual Shady Dale Rodeo. Two weekends later, they took first again in Bristol, Virginia, at the Rodeo in the Valley for $694.26, and in Tryon, North Carolina, where Britnell tied for first with both of his heelers, King and Brantley Swofford, worth $472.50 for each header and $945 for Britnell.
And the team is going at it in some of the strangest conditions Britnell’s ever experienced.
“We haven’t gotten to rope a steer outside in six weeks,” he said of how challenging it’s been to practice when he’s home. “We’re pretty wet here.”
Videos of King and Britnell pulling steers tight under the lights and in the slop in May and June confirm the conditions. Luckily, Britnell’s put his signature touch on his mount.
The Britnell brand
Britnell is riding his 6-year-old gelding, Sams Cat Merada.
“He is one chromosome away from being a corpse,” Britnell said with deadpan humor. “He is very, very laid back and this is his first year.”
The small-framed sorrel is proving himself mighty capable.
“Nothing bothers him,” Britnell said. “He never cuts you short in the arena. He’s 6 years old and he’s just now being thrown to the rodeo wolves. I’ve been as fast as 3.8 to 9-flat on this horse in the most terrible conditions. There’s not many green horses that are going to accept going out there in the mud like that. He works the same, no matter how much water is standing in the arena or much dust is [blowing].”
Britnell has high hopes for his equine partner, including the IPRA’s Heel Horse of the Year. To some, that might sound a little lofty, but Britnell’s done it before … and more than once.
“I’ve made every heel horse that I’ve made the IFR on,” Britnell said. “Sonny was a two-time Horse of the Year at the IFR and Roanie was Horse of the Year at IFR 2021.”
Britnell won the majority of his world titles on Sonny and holds him in the highest regard.
“Sam has a lot of big shoes to fill,” he admitted on one hand, while recognizing his good fortune on the other. “That horse right here has been a blessing to me, and I didn’t even see it. I did not even see it until the day I was saved, and I see how much this little horse means to me and my family.”
When new opportunity knocks
In addition to filling big shoes, Sam is likely to make runs on a bigger stage than the horses before him thanks to growing opportunities for ropers in the East, notably, the WCRA’s Rodeo Carolina.
“Once I found out how it’s going [work] and the more places I can go to try to win a large amount of money that could count toward the IFR, I thought, ‘Man, I might need to be over there,’” Britnell said of why he started nominating rodeos for the WCRA.
Not to mention, a major WCRA event like Rodeo Carolina (the third installment of the WCRA’s Triple Crown of Rodeo) in the East introduces the kind of rodeo that, Britnell believes, will finally match the caliber of roping his region has long delivered.
“There’s men and women over here that are phenomenal cowboys and cowgirls,” Britnell espoused. “Speed Williams comes from here, from Jacksonville, Florida. Kaleb Driggers comes from South Georgia. Brad Culpepper is from Poulan, Georgia. Jimmy Tanner is from Tifton, Georgia. There’s a lot of young men in this part of the country that’s made the NFR.”
Not that the new opportunity comes easy. Last week, Britnell bumped two-time NFR qualifier Buddy Hawkins out of first place in the WCRA Rodeo Carolina heeling standings by rodeoing often and well enough to stay competitive against the PRCA ropers who are also nominating.
“So I’ve just been nominating every week,” Britnell said. “I just stay hooked, nominating. I want to keep my name up there at the top of the hat but, wherever that gets me, I don’t know. I don’t know where it’s going but, obviously, to get IPRA money, I gotta do something at Rodeo Carolina or all that money I’ve nominated is out the door. It’s kind of a big deal to me.”
The road to Rodeo Carolina
To think that Britnell is akin to a rookie on the big stage would be a mistake, however.
“Ross Lowry and I won the Dodge National Circuit Finals in 2011,” Britnell said. “That was my biggest accomplishment, and he will always be one of the biggest mentors of rodeoing that I’ve ever been in the truck with.”
Together, Lowry and Britnell set the arena record in Claremore, Oklahoma, a moment that remains a favorite in Britnell’s career so far.
“He had a horse at that time called Curly,” Britnell remembered of Lowry’s mount. “Curly was the horse of a lifetime. That horse was amazing. The things that he could do with a steer behind him was unbelievable. And, having a man on his back such as Ross was a lights-out story of what Ross could do with a head rope.”
Britnell thinks the arena record he set with Lowry in Claremore might still stand. (TRJ will update when we can confirm.)
“I’ll never forget that run.”
And, like any seasoned veteran of the sport, just as Britnell knows the high of greatest wins, he also knows the lows of the most devastating losses. If the 2023 man from Knoxville could go turn back time to again become the boy growing up in Florence, Alabama, he would change only one thing.
“Beverly Robbins was a major mentor to me in my early career,” Britnell said. “In 1998, I got to go to the BFI. That year, we were seventh. They give a consolation round and we won all kinds of stuff there.”
Things improved when the pair returned to the arena in 2003 … until they didn’t.
“We placed in the top six,” Britnell remembered. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy that Beverly Robbins has ever roped with in the BFI Open that she’s ever placed with.”
In a video of the run, the pair faces on a fast-running steer as the announcer calls a time of 7.6.
“You’re clean,” he exclaims as the screen shows a no-time.
Two decades later, the run remains a hotly contested crossfire.
“That cost us third in the average,” Britnell said, after sharing a more candid opinion of the call. “It cost us a lot of money.”
“The windshield’s larger than the rearview”
Britnell is a man who made Horse of the Year out of a $2,500 diamond in the rough. Sam, too, was a $2,500 find in 2019—and darn near legend for that fact alone in a market that’s currently flush with horses selling over $100,000.
So, for someone who’s made a lot of headway without a lot of horsepower, it makes sense that a no-time in the final round of the BFI would pack a brutal punch. But Britnell is committed to what’s ahead: making an honest go at Rodeo Carolina and his seventh IPRA World Championship.
“That’s behind us,” he said. “We can’t change it, you know? The future’s in front of us. I don’t look back in life. I had an older gentleman here a while back tell me the windshield’s larger than the rearview mirror.”
Blessed with an upcoming all-star mount, a wife who supports his goals, a header who shares those goals, and shoeing clients who are flexible enough to let him pursue his goals, Britnell is poised to make the most the year ahead.
“I appreciate every one of my clients,” Britnell emphasized. “But this is very special to me. It’s very special to me and to my wife, Rachel. She is a wonderful woman, and I could never imagine being given a better partner in life.”
The year is also a tremendous moment for ropers in the East—a victory in itself, regardless of who gets to claim the crown.
“I want to thank the WCRA,” Britnell said. “I want to thank the IPRA for making things better for cowboys in the East. We have been in the dark for many years and, as I said, there is guys and gals over here that are unbelievable ropers [with] talent and horses that nobody’s ever heard of.”
Find out more about nominations and how to capitalize on the IPRA/WCRA partnership HERE.