Iowa is better known for its cornfields than it is its cowboys. Nonetheless, team roping's phenomenal growth over the past 15 years has even made inroads in the Midwest.
Kollin VonAhn, the 2005 College National Finals Rodeo heeling champion, grew up in Sac City, Iowa, among the first generation raised with team roping as a legitimate pastime.
"I grew up in Iowa and my family has always had horses," VonAhn said. "My dad [Gene] is a banker now, but he's always rode horses. At one time he rode reiners. We've done it our whole lives and everybody in our family does something horse-related. My dad and my uncles buy and trade horses; that's kind of the way I grew up, we rode every day. In Iowa, there was no such thing as a finished team roping or calf roping horse, so we never could buy one. My dad knew enough about horses-not necessarily about calf roping-but he knew how to train a horse. We made everything we've had."
And as a youngster, he craved the sport. In Iowa, Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper were as foreign to VonAhn as movie stars. He bought their instructional videos, and as a family, they devoured the information therein. Then, they would apply it to the arena. As VonAhn progressed through the high school ranks, he became one of the few young ropers to study the sport with the intent of making it more than a hobby.
"There are guys that rope, but it's not a way of life whatsoever," he said. "You've only got a few months before snow's on the ground. I was fortunate enough to have a barn-just big enough to rope in. We studied roping."
And they applied their horsemanship skills to the arena. The VonAhns would trade and train horses from what seemed like an endless supply. The horses they would come up with were raw.
"My dad shops around and buys horses and we'll ride a bunch of them and kind of pick through and when we get something we think is good we spend a little extra time and try to get them finished out to where we can use them," he said.
In that process, they developed horses that fit them and their environment. On the heeling end, the horses were athletic and cowy.
"For the most part, I grew up riding my horse a lot closer to the steer because the barns in Iowa are a lot smaller," he explained. "I always had their nose tipped in a little bit. I don't know what the correct term is, but I call it patting their feet, when the steer goes through the corner, I want the horse to hover and wait and read the cow before they make their entry."
And through the years, he and his family developed some good ones. His first solid mare-the one he used in high school-was a Doc's Prescription-bred mare he called Bunny. In the trading game, VonAhn wound up with a yearling Gay Bar King stud horse. By accident, the yearling bred VonAhn's top horse.
The result is what Cesar de la Cruz would later dub, "a freak of nature." Snoopy, as VonAhn called him, carried him to the CNFR title in 2005. VonAhn sold Snoopy to Randon Adams's Western States Ranches and when de la Cruz was shopping for a backup horse for Little Johnny Ringo in 2007, Adams sold him. Later that year, de la Cruz rode the horse he renamed Cimarron to a second-place finish at the Wrangler NFR.
"From the moment I stepped foot on him, I knew I was going to like him because he had the same moves and the same stop and everything was almost identical to my good one," de la Cruz said.
VonAhn also sold a mare he called Momma Joe to Kory Koontz.
"Kory Koontz rode a mare that we trained and had for a while," VonAhn said. "It was a mare he rode at the Finals a few years ago, she's got an MJ brand on her hip. That mare's a mare that's not great in all situations, but those little short set ups she's really good. He's won a pile of money on her at the Finals and holds her back for the Finals."
With some money in his pocket and experience under his belt, VonAhn was ready to hit the rodeo trail. The only problem was, now he didn't have a horse.
"That's my downfall, I sell a lot of them," he said. "We get a whole bunch going and riding them and my dad's a firm believer that there's always another one."
The horse he hoped to ride went lame, and couldn't stay sound enough for the rigors of the rodeo road. But, as always, he and his family had plenty of up-and-comers.
"I really needed another horse," he said. "I had a couple of younger horses coming on, but I really needed something if I was going to rope. My dad's a hard guy to talk into spending very much money on a horse. But I called him one day and said, 'Roping is no fun riding these colts.' I basically explained to him that it's not even a competition if I'm riding a four- or five-year-old and I'm going against Mike Jones riding Jackyl that's 18. I don't stand a chance. He told me to go find a horse."
The only horse he knew of that was for sale at the time was a five-year-old Missouri-based trainer Eddie Root was shopping around.
"I went over there and tried him," VonAhn said. "I told Eddie right away that I could tell he wasn't the most talented horse I'd ever ridden."
But VonAhn wasn't worried. He had done much more with much less. Within a few months, he would have the horse he calls Five doing exactly what he needed him to do.
"I've always had a set pattern the way I wanted my horses to work and that's the way I trained them, to fit me," he said. "Five did not work that way. I thought, 'It isn't a big deal, I'll go home and get him kind of where I want him.' The horse, truthfully, would not do what I wanted him to do. It opened my eyes as far as horsemanship goes. My dad's saying is that the first guy that tells you he knows everything about horsemanship is the biggest liar you've ever talked to. There's always a better way and a different way."
Accustomed to short, quick horses, the first problem came with Five's build. He's big, heavy and long-strided for a heel horse.
"When I got him in a tighter position, he couldn't make the corner without running into the steer or covering him up. It was real frustrating for me," he admitted. "A lot of heelers ride real wide position and get up there real high. I never roped that way and was more back and in tight and would let my horse make up the difference. When I was narrower through there, his stride was longer and if I had a decent throw, he was so uncollected and out of kilter with himself, he couldn't stay with the steer."
Something had to give. Either the horse would go down the road or VonAhn would figure him out.
"So there I was sitting there with this horse that I paid more money for than my family's ever paid for a horse and I just started playing with it," he said.
As the consummate horseman, VonAhn began tinkering-trying to understand the best way to make a run from the horse's point of view.
"I actually started pulling him out wider to where he had more time and he could start gauging the steer as they came through the corner," he said. "By me moving that position out and getting a little wider and giving him a lot more room to make his corner, that horse actually is talented enough to make that happen. I've owned this horse for two years and for the first year I didn't ride him at very many jackpots because I couldn't get him to work the way I wanted him to. As soon as I figured out how to step him a little wider and give him a little more room, it was like the light came on.
"That was something about all the guys who want to say they train horses, that's maybe their downfall: they pick out a style that they want to work for them that they're used to roping and they don't want to change. That was real hard for me."
But the journey to learn how to work with Five brought VonAhn to a new level in understanding his horses.
"I just figured out there's more than one way to make your heel horse work and to get him where you want him," he said. "As soon as I woke up to that realization, this horse is a good horse. He knows where he's supposed to be, maybe not the feel that I really love, but when you actually start talking horsemanship and getting to a spot where you want to be considered a horseman, a guy should be able to get on any horse and figure out what way the horse works best and you should be able to adapt somewhat to that horse to have him work the best he can."
Once VonAhn and Five were on the same page, their discoveries spilled over into benefiting the rodeo partnership he and header Nick Sartain formed.
"What's made a big difference this year is I've got a great partner," VonAhn said. "We went to the drawing board and set up a rhythm and a style that worked for our horses. His horse is equally important as mine.
"He says that his horse is a little forward and doesn't pull as strong, with that said, my horse isn't as athletic as I'd like him to be and can't do all the stuff I'd like him to. So we made a run where the steer was going to move through the corner slower and stuff was going to happen slower than what I was used to and that would enable me to step wider. Basically we made a run that both of us could get maximum potential out of our horses and make us a competitive team."
So competitive, in fact, that at press time, both VonAhn and Sartain sat third in the PRCA word standings.
"We tried to set up a run where we never exposed their weaknesses. By dong that, it's been a great year and I think it's going to continue on. If guys can get the most potential out of themselves and their horses, you can have a winning combination."