Only a handful of team roping horses have ever carried a price tag of close to $100,000, and these are them. This is what retirement looks like for head and heel horses born in the 1990s that have earned a million bucks each, been hauled a million miles each, and wowed a million fans.
A ranch-rodeo horse out of west Texas helped Rich Skelton become the sixth-highest earning roper in PRCA history. Skelton had spotted the horse underneath its trainer, a kid named Andy Paul Jones, whom Skelton gave some lessons in exchange for letting him try Chili Dog.
He bought the horse in 2003 and locked down his seventh straight gold buckle behind Speed Williams, then won his record eighth title in ’04. Chili Dog won back-to-back Heel Horse of the Year honors in 2004-05.
“Anybody could get on and catch on him,” said Skelton, who lent Chili Dog in ’04 to guys like Kyle Lockett, Denny Watkins and Wayne Folmer. “He was good in every situation, and I could sit him out for six months and then take him to a rodeo and he’d work.”
Former Canadian champ Dean Tuftin had also ridden Chili Dog, and told Skelton he’d be interested if he ever wanted to sell. When Gambler came along, Skelton was ready.
“I always liked one with more size and a little more stride,” Tuftin said. “I don’t like a real quick-footed heel horse and Chili Dog fit that bill. He was just special.”
The horse showed up crippled from a deep bruise to his coffin bone, but Tuftin pulled out all the stops in healing him in 2006, and it worked. When winter 2007 rolled around, it was fairy-tale time. Williams turned steers for Chili Dog just like he had for his former owner, and he and Tuftin won everything, including the Tour finals and the regular season.
“I don’t know how he didn’t win or even place for Horse of the Year again,” said Tuftin. “But I guess I was a nobody. He was unbelievable that year.”
He was great the next couple of years, too, as Tuftin lent him to Marty Becker and in 2010, Skelton borrowed him, intending to buy him back. But an injured stifle that fall was “kind of the end” for Chili Dog. He became a kid’s horse for Tuftin’s daughters and these days acts as babysitter for colts at DT Horses.
“We breed the top 30 mares and have arguably the top young stud in the cow-horse industry, but still, when people come here they say, ‘What’s that horse?’” Tuftin explained. “I say, ‘Oh, he’s had more than $1.5 million earned on him,’ and they look a bit surprised. Everyone could ride him. He was just one of those special horses.”
Words don’t suffice for the 31-year-old gelding that carried Rich Skelton to six of his eight gold buckles. Roany also won PRCA/AQHA Heel Horse of the Year a record four of those years.
In the early 1990s, Skelton had leased Roany from David Key to ride at the USTRC Finals, and housed him for a while before realizing he needed the horse. He bought Roany from Key as a finished 7-year-old.
The great roan gelding has always been a fire-hot, one-man horse that needed a bit of acepromazine at big events. A slip in some mud one summer in Wyoming caused Roany to pull a hind ligament, which spelled the end of his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career.
When asked what kind of sale price such a horse would carry today, Skelton was speechless.
“I don’t think you could put a number on him,” he said. “Just for what he could do and how he did it.”
Skelton’s parents-in-law absolutely loved Roany, and housed the legendary horse on their ranch in Sinton, Texas, for years until he began to drop off a bit. Recently, he returned to Rich and Rhonda’s place for the winter, where he’s turned out on pasture.
Eight years ago, Clay Tryan won more money rodeoing than any header, ever.
Despite recent attempts by Kaleb Driggers to smash it, nobody has come close to the record $146,608 Tryan earned on Cate (an own granddaughter of The Signature), with Travis Graves at the heel end.
Tryan unexpectedly had to jump on her the first time at the 2010 Wildfire Open to the World – where he won first and second. That fall, she helped him set the record for most money ever won at the Justin Boots Championships – $35,000 in Omaha.
While she placed third that year in Head Horse of the Year voting (behind Vegas and Walt), Cate didn’t get much notoriety because Tryan’s gelding got the call at big jackpots and the televised NFR. But Tryan won a lot – a lot– of rodeos on Cate. The three-time world champ is actually also a four-time reserve world champ. Domination much?
“I rode those two horses for six years and I won the regular season four times and was second once,” Tryan said.
Cate came from the Hansen family of North Dakota. The late M.G. Olson had stood several sons of Dash For Cash atthe Hansen ranch, so when he gave Bear’s Cash Partner as a filly to sisters Rose Hansen and Shirley Meyer, they called her “Syndicate.” Rose’s husband Bob broke and trained the mare, and later their daughter Tess hauled her to rodeos for Dickinson State University.
“She was an outstanding heel horse, and I ran barrels on her at jackpots,” said Tess, whose brother Alfred then took her to circuit rodeos heading. “She was amazing.”
Tryan’s kids were so little, they couldn’t say “Syndicate.” So the family called her “Cate” for short.
“I think she’s the best mare I’ve ever been around or have seen since I’ve been rodeoing,” said Tryan, who also gives a nod to Graves’ old Baby Doll. “She was good. I wish I had her today.”
Cate shattered a bone in her foot late in 2015 while making a simple run. Tryan was told she’d need surgery just to become pasture sound. He didn’t hesitate.
“We tried to get her back to retire her,” said Tess Hansen. “But he didn’t want to part with her.”
Both Cate, 21, and Tryan’s old horse Thumper are in the care of his friend Kellie Singleton.
“My place isn’t huge and I don’t want to kick them out with just any horses,” Tryan said. “They’re living the life, now.”
Just as Tryan has re-teamed with Graves this year, he has a shot at reproducing Cate. A recipient mare in Texas was due to foal this spring with Cate’s baby by a young stallion named Repete Offender (by Firewater Flit and out of a Dash Ta Fame mare who ran barrels at the NFR).
“I want it to be a mare,” he said.
He’s 26 now, but the 2005 PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year has enjoyed the good life since 2009, grazing at the home of Kellie Singleton and enjoying weekly baths, daily belly rubs and an unknown amount of treats.
After Hall-of-Fame head horse Walt introduced Tryan to winning, it was Thumper who faced on Tryan’s first of three gold buckles. Like Tryan’s two great horses Dew and Cate, the big black gelding has Dash For Cash breeding – but it’s on the bottom via Ole Lady Cash, out of a granddaughter of The Ole Man.
“He was by far the most unique horse I ever had,” said Tryan. “Most good horses are kind of hard to ride. But Thumper, I could win the BFI on him one day and a kid could rope on him a couple of days later.”
That quality was appreciated by Clay’s in-laws. The Robertson family of Montana cultivated Thumper, and rumor has it Matt won a truck roping on him – when he was only 3.
“Usually those kind that are so gentle aren’t any good, you know?” Tryan added. “They’re just ‘okay’ horses. He was different.”
On Thumper, Tryan could – and did – win Salinas over a 35-foot score, and also tie the world record in team roping, which was 3.5 in 2005. Thumper had half his ears frostbitten off in Canada as a baby, and had low heels that could easily get sore, but he was super-tough.
“He’s almost human; he would play hide-and-seek over fences with kids,” Tryan remembered. “And I guess when Cate was lying down a lot on a cold winter day, he stood by her the entire time she was down. He’s just a unique, cool horse.”
Cadillac and Yeller
Brandon Beers joins only Clay Tryan and Bobby Hurley as guys who have owned two different Head Horses of the Year. So it’s not surprising that his place in Powell Butte, Oregon, is a virtual retirement home for great head horses. Two standouts living there didn’t even win the award – the big gelding Cadillac, known for kick-starting Riley Minor’s elite career, is 24 and broken-back survivor Yeller is 23.
In about 2006, Minor had purchased Cadillac from Bill and Pat Spratt in Wyoming, and about two weeks later, he won the Mike Boothe Memorial Roping on him. Minor’s good friend Beers rode the buckskin at the 2007 NFR because, just before the Finals while practicing, Beers’ good horse Yeller had fractured his spine. The very next season, Cadillac took Minor, then just 20, to his first NFR.
“Cadillac was so good at Cheyenne and Salinas,” Minor said. “But you could also win on him at the National Finals; nothing bothered him.”
Minor sold Cadillac to Beers in 2011.
“I also still have Yeller,” Beers said. “My wife learned to rope on him. I tell people, ‘Those two horses; if I had them again in their prime, oh my God, I don’t know how much money they’d be worth, for what people are paying today for head horses.’”
Beers rode Yeller to win the 2005 PRCA Resistol Rookie of the Year award, heading for Brady Minor, then bought the horse from Speed Williams in 2007. The latter had gotten the horse from Colorado’s Ross Gosney, but the horse is not to be confused with Aaron Tsinigine’s younger “Yeller” that also came from Gosney.
“Those two horses live in a pasture together; sleep together, everything,” said Beers. “We quit riding Cadillac about three years ago. When Kimber would saddle up Yeller and leave the pasture gate open, Cadillac would come to the arena and hang out. Once she’d unsaddle Yeller and give him a bath, Cadillac would follow him back out to the pasture.”
Two years ago, Beers also got back Blowfish. The horse, 21, had placed in the top three for 2007 Head Horse of the Year, after which Beers had sold him to Jake Cooper, who had then sold him to Travis Tryan, after which he went to Kaleb Driggers. It was Blowfish and Yeller in Beers’ trailer in 2007 when he rolled his rig.
“Those three horses will die with me,” said Beers. “Kimber won about $6,000 at the World Series in Powell Butte on Yeller. Riley sold me Cadillac, and Driggers put Blowfish on the trailer home in December two years ago. They’re not ever for sale.”
There’s no more accurate nickname for the gelding, now 24, that made Travis Graves – and that he made.
Graves was only 13 in the 1990s when he started training Superstar as a 3-year-old colt. Both Superstar and his mare Baby Doll, now 21, were raised by Travis’ father, Ronnie.
“I won so many things on both those horses – a lot of the highlights in my career came on those two,” said Graves, who has roped in nearly $1.7 million. “On Superstar I won the U.S. Finals, the Wildfire three times, the BFI, and he was named Heel Horse of the BFI.”
Graves rode his pair of home-grown stars to his first NFR heeling for Turtle Powell – where they placed second in the average – and returned for the past eight NFRs straight. Baby Doll is semi-retired at the home of a friend, where she gets ridden because “she’s lazy and would get fat eating air.” And Graves retired the great Superstar two years ago.
However, last May with nothing to ride at a nearby rodeo, Graves gathered him up, placed third or fourth, went home and turned him back out. Superstar is pretty sound, he said, but just can’t take the hauling anymore.
“Those two horses are so sentimental to me,” he said. “I’ve had them since they were 3 and 4, and trained them both and they’ve done so much for me. I owe so much to them – I could never have sold them.”
Few horses have as storied a career as the veteran Owen’s Cub (“Switchblade”). Now 24, the Okie Leo-bred gelding is enjoying green grass instead of highway miles.
“He’s probably one of the best heel horses that has ever lived,” said three-time world champ Jade Corkill. He, like four-time champ Allen Bach, speaks of the living legend with pure revelation. Fellow owner Kory Koontz will tell you that Switchblade was to Corkill what Iceman was to him.
Bred by the HK Ranch in south Texas, Switchblade was sent to Tyler Magnus, who won the 2002 George Strait Team Roping Classic on him (with Speed Williams). Koontz tried to buy him the first day he rode the horse, but Magnus wouldn’t sell for a few years.
On the nervous, sensitive bay Koontz tied the arena record at the 2003 NFR while winning four rounds, and later won the 2004 Wildfire on him.
The duo were third in the world in both ‘05-06, and one little-known feat is that Cory Petska rode Switchblade in the final three rounds to win the 2005 NFR average title (behind Tee Woolman).
Although Switchblade never nailed down Horse of the Year honors, the versatile super-athlete placed second at least twice, in ’05 and ’07. Allen Bach bought Switchblade in 2008 and rode him at that year’s NFR with Speed Williams before winning Pendleton on him in 2009. In 2013, Corkill took the reins and promptly turned him in on two gold buckles and an NFR average title. The last steer he chased on the legend was at the 2016 George Strait Team Roping Classic.
Corkill recounts a story from a couple of years ago about Switchblade, who had been turned out loose around his barn on a day that J.B. James was at Corkill’s place. They’d seen the retired superstar grazing as they’d walked in.
“We walked out of the barn a while later, and he wasn’t there,” said Corkill. “I was thinking, that’s weird, did he take off? J.B. went to load his horse, and Switchblade had loaded himself in the trailer.”
Rodeo’s infamous 27-year-old, two-million-dollar winner is living out retirement at the home of ProRodeo Hall-of-Famer Jimmie Cooper. Seems appropriate for the Hall-of-Fame-worthy heel horse. Plus, summers in Monument, New Mexico, aren’t as hot as they are in Stephenville.
Jackyl made quite a team with the late bonafide Hall-of-Fame head horse Walt 15 years ago, when Travis Tryan and Michael Jones were terrorizing team roping. One of the last great-grandsons of both Doc Bar and Poco Bueno, Jackyl was bred by Bob Wyatt of Stephenville out of an unpapered mare, so nobody remembers whether the little dun was born in 1989 or ’91.
He was sold in 1999 because his owner didn’t think he’d stay sound [insert laugh]. Then Jackyl was hauled a million miles and ran more than 100 NFR steers, winning go-rounds underneath Kory Koontz, Michael Jones, Allen Bach, Jade Corkill and Jim Ross Cooper. A song lyric about him would have called him “too mean to die,” and indeed he stomped a few dogs and bit a few humans along the way.
There was one man at whom he wouldn’t pin his ears, and that was Koontz, whom he took to the Wildfire victory twice in a row (2002-03). Then Jones qualified for his first NFR aboard Jackyl, won the 2004 NFR average title, broke the 2004 NFR earnings record, broke the NFR arena record, and won the 2008 George Strait on him.
Bach won the 2006 NFR average title, broke the NFR earnings record, and won his fourth gold buckle on Jackyl. Corkill won or placed in six rounds of the 2012 NFR to win his first gold buckle on Jackyl, then the dun played a part in his next two gold buckles, as well. He also won the 2013 Wildfire. And Jackyl was at least 23 years old when he dropped the anchor for Cooper to win the 10round of his final NFR three years ago.
“He’s the toughest horse there’s ever been,” Corkill said. “I’ve never had a horse that loves heeling as much as a person. I bought him specifically for the NFR. In Vegas, when you went to cinch him up, you had to hang on because he’d lunge forward and charge up the tunnel. He just knew he was there.”
Today, Jackyl has a covered pen, shade and a turnout on four or five acres basically in Jimmie and Sheryl Cooper’s front yard, where they keep an eye on him and 19-year-old Z. The younger sorrel went to the NFR with Rich Skelton as a youngster, then was owned by fellow world champ Randon Adams and Kyle Crick before Cooper bought him in 2013.
Now, the Coopers are hoping Z’s company will keep the winningest heel horse of all-time from being too upset about retirement.
“He chills a little with Z,” said Cooper, who ran the final steer on the famed horse in the Northwest in the fall of 2016. “Two old traveling buddies.”
The real Slim Shady never needed to stand up – and get noticed.
One of the winningest head horses of all time remains under the radar, at 25. After all, he’s a nondescript sorrel with no chrome, no flashy moves. People weren’t trying to buy him; you can’t find anything on Google about him. But oh, the miles. The years. The money.
Slim Shady took Luke Brown to the first eight of his 10 straight NFRs, two of his three NFR average titles, and honestly most of his staggering career earnings of nearly $2 million. For seven straight years, he was Brown’s only stick – he took all the practice, all the miles, all the rodeos, all the jackpots. What gives?
“Honestly, he was the only horse I had,” said Brown. “Plus, he’s kind of crazy and real high-strung. I think as a second- or third-string horse, it would have been hard to like him. But he was all I had, and he was tough enough to take it all.”
Slim Shady was a practice horse for Jay Adams, then a guy in Oklahoma owned him before Keven Daniel finally had him for sale. Brown took him to try for two weeks, but the gelding was pretty strong; virtually running off.
“It’s an amazing story – both my only two horses actually died right then,” Brown said. “All I had was this borrowed horse from Keven, and it was a blessing that since I had nothing else, I learned how to ride him.”
Brown bought Slim Shady on credit in 2007, but it wasn’t until more than a year later when he cashed a $22,300 check at the 2008 U.S. Open that he paid him off. Less than two months later at Brown’s first NFR, he placed in seven of 10 rounds with Jade Corkill aboard the fast, honest sorrel.
“He’s the reason I’m around today,” said Brown.
Slim Shady never ducked, and he could fly. Everywhere, Brown knew that if he got out clean, he had a good chance for money. And that gives a guy confidence.
“He’s only been injected once in his life, never any Bute, no abscesses; he’s never limped,” said Brown. “He’s the soundest horse on my place, and still the best horse I own.”
In fact, Slim Shady still goes to Vegas every year as Brown’s backup NFR horse. At home, he has the run of the place, and still looks great, thanks to plenty of Purina Equine Senior. The great Southeastern header saddles him up and runs a few steers on him now and then, too, because the horse loves it.
“I really think I could rodeo on him right now,” Brown said. “But that would just be rude. He’s done enough.”