From the Ranch to the Rodeo

If you’re looking for a more successful, proven, long-term team roping horse program than the one put together decades ago by David Gill, Joe Murray, and Jim Wheatley—good luck with that. The “Horses with a History” way of breeding, breaking, and training talented team roping mounts is tried, true, and trusted by ropers at every level of the game. And on top of great horses, these three National Finals Rodeo ropers’ gold-standard reputations have stood quite the test of time.

Gill, Murray, and Wheatley all come from foundation ranching and cowboy families in California. The Gills started raising horses—heavy on the Driftwood and Hancock bloodlines—back in the 1940s. The family is now four generations deep in cattlemen, and has been running cattle in the country around Madera, Exeter, Porterville, and Gustine since the 1900s.

“My dad (Will Gill Jr.) bought an own son of Driftwood,” said David Gill, 69, who roped at the 1985 NFR with Jim Petersen. “Easy Keeper was a 7/8 brother to (Dale Smith’s ProRodeo Hall of Fame rope horse) Poker Chip. Along the way, our cousins owned Pelican, a Quarter Horse they used to match race all the time that could beat the Thoroughbreds. Pelican was a Joe Hancock-bred horse. We ended up with Pelican, and started crossing him with our Easy Keepers. That’s what got our program going.”

1948; The legendary Pelican winning another race in Arizona for Gill Cattle Company. 

1948; The legendary Pelican winning another race in Arizona for Gill Cattle Company. 

The gargantuan Will Gill & Sons horse and cattle operation included David’s dad (one of the sons from the name of the outfit; Will Gill Sr. was David’s grandfather), Will Jr., who won the Oakdale 10 Steer Roping and about everything else there was to win back in the day. Will Jr.’s brothers included David’s Uncle Ernest, who was the 1945 world champion team roper, and Uncle Ralph. A lot of the late, great, old-school cowboys, including 1951 World Champion Team Roper Olan Sims and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Clay Carr—who won world all-around titles in 1930 and ’33, steer roping gold buckles in 1930 and ’40, and the world saddle bronc riding championship in 1930—lived and worked on the Gill Ranch, and rode Gill horses.

The first Horses with a History Sale happened in 2001. The sale has since been held every other October—in 2017 at the Gill family’s historic Adobe Ranch in Madera—with the next one slated for the fall of 2019. David’s Madera-based immediate family also includes his wife, Creatia, and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association team roper son, Landon.

1976; Jim Wheatley turns one on his great mare Grey Box for John Bill Rodriguez at the 1976 NFR.

1976; Jim Wheatley turns one on his great mare Grey Box for John Bill Rodriguez at the 1976 NFR.

“What got us going with the sale is Joe and Jim both started buying and riding horses from us, and built their programs off of our program,” David said. “Joe bought (stud) Blue Light Ike from us, and we raised Frostys Tops (who was a Pelican grandson), which was Gilbert Reynolds’ sorrel stud Jim trained and won so much on. One of the reasons we had that first sale was that I was wanting to cut back from the 40 mares I had at the time. It was a performance and production sale, and also a reduction sale for me.”

So many greats have won a ton on horses from the Gill-Murray-Wheatley horse herds. There was a horse they called Cadillac, who was a half-brother to Frostys Tops, that Tee Woolman and Jake Barnes rode regularly when competing on the West Coast during their primes.

In fact, Jake rode Cadillac on the last three steers at the Finals in 1985, the year he and Clay O’Brien Cooper won their first of seven world team roping titles. Hall of Fame team ropers Jimmy Rodriguez and John Miller won world championships riding horses from these same bloodlines. Derrick Begay’s good sorrel horse, Swagger, who won the Head Horse of the BFI award one year, is a grandson of Frostys Tops.

1985; David Gill heeling a steer for Jim Petersen at the 1985 NFR. 

1985; David Gill heeling a steer for Jim Petersen at the 1985 NFR. 

Murray, 68, and Wheatley, 72, have been buddies since they were basically boys. Murray’s mom, Dorothy, was a sister to World Champion Team Ropers Vern and Vic Castro, who won the world roping together in 1942—Vern struck for a second gold buckle in 1955. Vic gave Joe and Jim a job at which they rode side by side from sunup to sunset for several years.

“Jim and I worked for my Uncle Vic, cowboying at his ranch in Oakdale,” said Murray, who still lives there in the original Cowboy Capital of the World with his wife, Cathy, and has two sons, Troy and Lane, who also rope. Murray headed at three straight NFRs—for Gary Gist in 1976, Rickey Green in 1977, and Gary Hemsted in 1978. “Jim and I took care of several thousand head of cattle a season. There was a time then that I was heading for Jim’s brother, John, at the amateur rodeos, too. So I go way back with the Wheatleys. I didn’t meet David until about 1976. He water-skied when he was young.”

Yes, Gill was an all-around daredevil in his youth.

“I cowboyed all my life, and worked in the feedlot most of the time,” David said. “But I didn’t care much about roping until I was about 25. I was more into racing go carts, dirt bikes, and drag boats. Then some of the guys at the feedlot talked me into going to a little, old nickel jackpot with them, I won a little money, and the rest is history.

“A cowboy who was a really good hand and working here at the ranch, Tom Harsh, helped me a lot with my roping, as did guys like Ron Goodrich, John Miller, and Tom Flenniken. Tom was teaching school in Chowchilla, and would come over and turn me steers every evening. He taught me how to win, and got me over the top.”

Wheatley’s a six-time NFR header, as is son Wade. Jim roped at the Finals from 1973-76 with John Bill Rodriguez, who’s Jimmy’s brother; and in 1978 and ’81 with the late Stan Melshaw.

1987; Joe Murray spins a steer on Blue Light Ike for Sam Williams, who was riding a son of Blue Light Ike.

1987; Joe Murray spins a steer on Blue Light Ike for Sam Williams, who was riding a son of Blue Light Ike.

“My dad (John Wheatley Sr., who roped with one arm—reins in his teeth—after losing the other one to a hunting accident in his youth) started raising horses in 1954,” said Wheatley, who lives in Hughson, California, and with wife Terry also has a daughter, Katie. “He started out with one mare, Rubia Linda, and just about all the horses we raise go back to her. One year at the NFR in the seventies, there were three horses out of her—ridden by me, Jim Rodriguez, and John Deaton.

“We had our own line of horses, and then I started crossing them with some of David’s bloodlines. We’re raising the kind of horses we like to ride—good looking, athletic horses with good dispositions that you can ride to gather your cows, brand the calves on, then take them to the roping or rodeo and compete on at the highest level.

“The horses Wade and I rode at the Finals were horses we raised (Wade’s renowned palomino horse, Woody, was out of a Frostys Tops mare; and his good sorrel horse Biscuit was by Frostys Tops). When I was riding Frostys Tops, Tee rode him at the Finals. I’ve had 14 horses I’ve raised and/or trained ridden at the Finals by guys like Tee, Jake, Bobby Hurley, and Walt Rodman.”

Murray’s World Champion Team Roper uncles rode Driftwood horses throughout their legendary careers, and that strong influence has been handed down like a family heirloom.

“The horses David, Jim, and I are raising all go back to proven bloodlines from way back,” Joe said. “These horses have had a lot of success for many, many years, and it makes me proud that they’re still the kind of horses you can go win on today. They really are Horses with a History, they’re very trainable, and they’re made to be good at their job.

“We were all old friends and NFR team ropers raising like-kinded horses for ourselves and our kids. When we got to where we had more than we needed for our families, we decided to get together to offer them to the public. Our goal is to raise a higher-level rodeo and jackpot-type horse that you can use on the ranch during the week, like they did 60 years ago. We’ve stuck with what we started with, because we’ve had quite a bit of luck with these horses over the years. They’re bigger boned and better footed than the average horse. They’re built to rope on.”

Murray mentioned a few more four-footed success stories out of this line of horses, including Spencer Mitchell riding one at the 2012 NFR. David raised Doyle Gellerman’s good bay horse Badger. Cody Cowden’s superstar bay horse Shot was by Murray’s stud Blue Light Ike (who Murray bought from Gill as a baby colt, and is out of a Frostys Tops mare who was a double-bred Lucky Blanton) and out of a Frostys Tops daughter.

And this success story is not limited to team roping horses. Both of reigning World Champion Barrel Racer Nellie Williams Miller’s NFR horses, Blue Duck and Sister, are out of a mare her dad, Sam Williams, calls Reba, who’s a daughter of Murray’s Blue Light Ike. Sister showed her true grit yet again in July by winning Cheyenne in a hail storm. Levi Rudd also won the steer wrestling at the 2018 Daddy of ’em All riding a horse out of Murray’s stud that was sold at the 2017 Horses with a History Sale, and is now owned by hazer Jeff Green.

Barrie Beach Smith has had a lot of success over the years at the barrel futurities riding Gill-branded horses, as has her World Champion Heeler husband, Brad Smith. Barrie and Brad’s son, Sterling Smith, has made the NFR riding Gill-bred horses in the tie-down roping.

“It’s all about getting good horses into good hands,” Gill said. “You can breed and break them right, but if you put the best horse in the world into the wrong hands, they’ll be just another hay-burning plug. It’s all about who does what with horses to give them the best chance to succeed. I’m not saying our horses are better than everybody else’s horses, but we do try to do right by them, and do what’s best for them. Bringing horses along slowly is a big key. Patience and taking the time to let them progress at their own pace is very important.

2001; Jim Wheatley branding on his great stud Trapper Bar Drop. 

2001; Jim Wheatley branding on his great stud Trapper Bar Drop. 

“We all ranch on these horses, which puts such a strong foundation on them. We use them, and we cowboy on them before we take them to the arena. Ninety percent of rodeo horses today are just arena broke. But giving them a job besides just running steers or barrels is better for their minds. Our horses enjoy getting out there on the ranch, and so do we.”

Gill starts his 2-year-olds, then turns them out until they’re 3. Then he and son Landon ranch on them awhile before they ever see the inside of an arena.

“I like a well-muscled horse with good bone and good feet, with a nice, big hip,” Gill said. “We’ve tried to class up our horses over the years, because everybody wants to ride a good looking horse now. The old Pelicans were ugly. We like our horses to have a lot of cow, ample speed, and intensity, and the mind to handle it. When you’re talking specifically about team roping horses, we want a horse that scores and finishes, and can take the pressure.

“It’s important to me to have a horse that’s really willing, and enjoyable to train. Those horses learn fast, and you don’t have to slug it out with them. Horses who like their jobs are a lot more likely to fit the next guy who rides them, too. I sell a lot of horses to businessmen who rope at World Series ropings. Those guys can win so much money. Horses I’ve raised and trained have won the Perry Di Loreto (now the Reno Million; John Paboojian won it one year on a horse David raised and Jim trained) and the BFI (Rocky Carpenter won it with Tom Flenniken Jr. in 1990), and $100,000 at the World Series Finale in Vegas.”

As is the case with the Gills and the Wheatleys, the Murray family is all hands on deck with their horse program. Joe halter breaks all the babies himself, and from there, everyone saddles up. They stand three studs—each with his own story on how he ties back to this bloodline—including Four Gill, Espuela Tom, and Azultis. Like Murray’s old Blue Light Ike horse, Espuela Tom is out of a double-bred Lucky Blanton mare. Azultis, which means “little blue,” is out of a half-sister to Sam Williams’s mare Reba, who, again, has blessed Nellie so richly in the barrel racing arena. Four Gill was raised by the Haythorn Land and Cattle Company in Arthur, Nebraska, and when the Haythorns sold out, the Murrays made the trek to Arthur, because Four Gill was the only full brother to Blue Light Ike who was still a stallion.

This Horses with a History program—which offers horses ranging “from weanlings to finished jackpot and rodeo horses you can go win money on” at the biennial sale—is based on a bond of trust and respect. And though their herds get a little smaller as these living-legend cowboys get a little older—David’s down to 10 mares and three studs, Joe has 22 mares in addition to his three studs, and Jim’s cut his herd back to five mares—that bond goes for both the humans and the horses. Quality has never been sacrificed for quantity, and—bottom line—these are good horses in good hands.

2018; Joe Murray jumped aboard Jim Wheatley's Dude in the short round to win the 2018 Salinas Gold Card Incentive buckle with Ronnie Garcia. 

2018; Joe Murray jumped aboard Jim Wheatley's Dude in the short round to win the 2018 Salinas Gold Card Incentive buckle with Ronnie Garcia. 

“To train a good rope horse, you’ve got to start ’em the same old way they did years ago—with a lot of wet saddle blankets,” said Wheatley, who proved yet again to be a friend indeed when Murray found himself in need of a short-round ride at California Rodeo Salinas in July. Joe jumped on Jim’s 8-year-old head horse Dude, and won the incentive buckle in the Gold Card roping with Ronnie Garcia. “I spend a lot of time with my colts when I’m halter breaking them. Then I like to do a lot of ranch work on them. After all that, when you take them to the arena, everything is easy.

“Riding a horse you can depend on makes winning so much easier. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hobby roper or roping for a living, you need something you can depend on. That’s the point of roping, and horses like these make it fun.”

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