the old days

Back When Team Ropers Were Treated Like Second-Class Cowboys 

Today’s young guns can’t imagine a world where only one world team roping titlist is crowned. Or a time when the 16th winningest team roper in a regular season did not get to rope at the National Finals Rodeo, because only 15 total qualified and he was not picked as an NFR dance partner.  But not all that long ago, team roping wasn’t even a standard event at all professional rodeos (it’s only been mandatory at all of them since 2006). On the bright side, we have evolved as a sport and as an event, and righted most of the wrongs—with equal money for team ropers everywhere still at stake. Though we can’t change the past, we can remember it, respect it, learn from it and not repeat historic mistakes. Want to take a walk back down memory lane with a few of the living legends who lived it and fought for positive change for all team ropers? Let’s go!

Team Roping Titles Timeline

Jake Barnes and Clay Cooper won their seventh set of world team roping titles together in 1994, which was the last year a lone team roping titlist was possible. Each got his own gold buckle, because their earnings were identical. Flip the page on that rodeo records book back just one year, and you’ll find that Bobby Hurley took center stage solo as the 1993 world champion team roper. Not header. Team roper. The reserve world champ that year was Allen Bach, so by 1994 standards on, Big Al would have—should have—been the 1993 world champion heeler. But not in 1993. 

“It was such a long grind to get team roping at every rodeo, equal money at the NFR (National Finals Rodeo), world champion headers and heelers—all of it,” said four-time World Champion Bach, who roped at a record 30 NFRs between 1978 and 2008. “We all just kept on it, and kept fighting for what we knew was right. The longer I roped for a living, the more we battled to try and change things.

“It was kind of a bummer when Bobby and I won five rounds in a row (at the 1993 NFR), I was the winningest heeler of the year and didn’t win the world. We had to win the 10th round for Bobby to win the world, and I was so happy for him to win it. But yes, I do sometimes look back on it now. It’s hard not to wonder if the rules were then what they are now if I might be mentioned in some of the same conversations as Jake and Clay, or Speed and Rich. But it was worth the fight to get where we are today. Because I absolutely think that whichever header and heeler wins the most money all year long should be the world champion.”

Back in the day, there were also no rodeo limits, which made winning world championships a rigorous travel-fest rope-athon, and also a serious fight to find a profit margin. 

“I was one of the guys who traveled really hard, and fell into the trap of who can cowboy up and get to more rodeos than anyone else,” Bach said. “Then I realized that didn’t make financial sense. When we first adopted the 50-rodeo rule, some of the PRCA administrators called it the Allen Bach rule.

“We had a lot to fight for, but that was the cause I took on. I went to bat for it after figuring out that the top 50 rodeos we went to accounted for 80% of our earnings. That’s when I saw the light that going to more than 100 rodeos a year didn’t make sense.” (Team ropers could count 75 rodeos toward their world standings in 2022.)

In a spectacular rodeo-twist-of-fate tale, Bach won his last world title roping with Chad Masters in 2006. It was one of those split decisions, where members of two different teams came out on top, and Matt Sherwood was crowned the world champion header while roping with Walt Woodard. Western justice turned the tables and righted that in 2007, when Masters and Woodard came back and won the world, albeit again from different teams. 

Top 15 on Each Side

At the same time we started crowning world champion headers and heelers, we made a change in how team ropers qualified to rope at the NFR. Until then, the Top 15 team ropers in the world standings qualified, and they then got to invite the partners of their choice. 

“That made no sense, and sure wasn’t fair for someone who ended up 16th in the world not to get to go,” said Bach, who won over $2.5 million in his rodeo career. “If I’m a Top-15 heeler, I should get to go. And it got out of hand, when some people bought their way to the NFR.”

As the timed-event representative on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Board of Directors for 22 years starting in the mid-90s—he also was a longtime team roping event rep—NFR heeler Bret Tonozzi was at the forefront of much of the positive team roping change. 

“It wasn’t always fun—there were times I lost friends over it, and that’s tough—but we got a lot done,” Tonozzi said. “When I was first the event rep, only a couple PRCA rodeos had equal money in the team roping. Now it’s hundreds.”

Tonozzi was at the wheel in 2006, when with the support of then-PRCA Commissioner Troy Ellerman, team roping finally became a standard event, making it mandatory at all PRCA-sanctioned rodeos. That came 11 years after we started crowning two world team roping titlists in 1995, which shows you just how painstakingly slow progress can sometimes be.

“That first year we crowned a world champion header and a world champion heeler was my first year on the board,” Tonozzi said. “I thought that if we had a world champion on each side, and 15 guys on each side qualified for the Finals, we could get equal money everywhere that way. 

“My other motivation for those changes was that it was just only right. You either qualified for the Finals or you didn’t. And by recognizing headers and heelers separately, it made it more obvious that both guys deserved to be paid. Those changes needed to be made for every reason, and when guys started buying their way into the NFR, it became even more obvious. It really bothers me that there still isn’t equal money at every rodeo. That’s just wrong.”

He’s right for the most obvious reasons. It takes two to team rope, and both partners pay PRCA dues, insurance, PROCOM fees for entering, fines, entry fees, food, fuel and every other expense. The money each guy has tied up in a rig and horses alone is all you need to know beyond that. There did come a time when team ropers and barrel racers banded together and threatened a boycott over equal money at the NFR, but that’s another story for another time. 

HP Evetts heading one at the NFR for Leo “The Lion” Camarillo and his legendary horse Stick at the NFR back in the day. James Fain

Monetary Monkey Business

No need to name names now on guys buying a back number from one of the Top 15 who made the cut before these changes went down. It wasn’t technically illegal at the time, until a rulebook change put a stop to it. But there are some great underground stories that are pretty unforgettable. Take it from one of the most colorful cowboy characters of all time, who’s famous for telling it like it is, 1974 World Champion Team Roper HP Evetts.

“I was working on the movie set of (the Kevin Costner film) Dances With Wolves in South Dakota,” Evetts remembers. “I played an Indian who chased buffalo bareback, a Yankee soldier, a Confederate soldier—hell, I got shot with an arrow crossing a creek. I wasn’t the only team roper on the set, and one day here comes a shoebox to one of the other team ropers with $10,000 cash in it. That was the last straw that got that sh*t shut down.”

HP had his share of intriguing invites, though they were all done on top of the table. He twice took his dad, Hoke, to heel for him and one year headed for his friend Super Looper Roy Cooper. 

“Back then, I felt like if you made it, you should get to rope with whoever you wanted,” Evetts said. “That’s how it was. I took my dad twice, because he’s the only reason I was there. He did it all—my horses, my cars. I figured, ‘Why not?’ Hell, I’d rope with my dad again right now, if I could, and we did good at the Finals. People also need to remember that the team roping didn’t pay much back when I made my first NFR (in 1970 at H’s first Finals, he and Hoke won a round, placed second in a round and third in another, and finished seventh in the average for total winnings of $589 a man).

“But a lot of people who’d rodeoed all year and could really rope sat home. I think it’s better now. The best guy at each end wins the world, and the best guys at each end make the Finals. That’s more fair for the sport.”

For the record, HP roped with Camarillo brothers Leo and Jerold his world championship year in ’74, then with Jerold at the Finals. But each year back then, there were some surprise NFR entries.

“A guy from California, Billy Wilson, showed up at the Finals a couple times in shoes, and borrowed my hat, my rope and my horse at the NFR,” HP said. “Those were just different times. And that guy could really rope.” Wilson won the 1968 NFR average heading for Leo. 

Tee Woolman heading for Leo Camarillo and Stick at the NFR. Woolman won the world as a rookie in 1980, and The Lion had to forfeit his shot at another gold buckle to rope with him. James Fain

As Told by Tee 

Tee Woolman blasted onto the professional rodeo scene with both barrels blazing in 1980, and is one of the rare few who managed to win the world as a rookie. Leo “The Lion” chose to forego a shot at that year’s world title to rope with the young gunslinger. 

“Some of the rodeos were go twice back then is why we went into the Finals with different money,” said three-time World Team Roping Titlist Tee. “I sometimes roped second partners with Jerold. Mike Beers and I placed at St George (Utah), and I placed at Caldwell (Idaho) with Gary Ford. Leo’s second partners at that time included Billy Parker, Dee (Pickett) and Julio (Moreno). Leo and I went back and forth to the lead in the world all year long, but going into the Finals, I was $189 ahead. 

“I told Leo, ‘I just need to know if you’re going to heel for me, or if I’m going to kick your ass.’ He said, ‘I’m going to heel for you. I’m all about the money.’ We didn’t really question there only being one world champion a lot of years back then. The guy who won the most money was the champ, and that’s just the way it was. I do think it’s better now. It is a team sport.”

The way Woolman remembers it, Jake and Clay being co-champs in 1994 drove the concept of always crowning two world team roping titlists home. 

“There being two champions that year really got everybody talking about how we should crown two champs every year,” said Tee, who only took advantage of the invite option one year, when he asked Dan Fisher to heel for him at the Finals. “All rodeos were only enter once by then, and it only made sense.

“With no rodeo limits back then, I went to 127 rodeos my rookie year in 1980, and 132 rodeos in 1981. And that’s way before team roping was a standard event, so a lot of rodeos didn’t even have it. We were going wherever we could find team roping, no matter what they added. It was half of what was added in the other events a lot of the time. I’d like to see today’s generation of team ropers try that on.” 

The Champ

Clay Cooper has always been notorious for letting his rope do most of his public speaking. But after a $3 million-plus, 29-NFR career, he has no problem publicly standing up for team roping today. 

“The rest of the rodeo world didn’t think much of team roping for a long time, but then our sport exploded,” Champ said. “Guys like Jake, Allen, Matt Tyler and me in our era started to question why team ropers were treated like second-class citizens. We have way more participants in our event than any other, and team ropers subsidize the (Professional Rodeo Cowboys) Association more than the other events put together. When team roping exploded as an event, we were like, ‘Wait a minute. Are you kidding me?’ We had to go out on a limb, into board rooms, look people in the eye and buck the system. 

“It was slow in coming, but the arguments against us getting equal money at the Finals started falling by the wayside. They wanted team ropers to just shut up and go away. But fate had its way. Shut up and sit down did not work. Having a world champion header and a world champion heeler is a no-brainer. Team roping takes a header and a heeler, and that was our main argument for equal money. Between that and team ropers making up the majority of the membership, the people fighting us didn’t have a leg to stand on. 

“The days of 15 qualifiers and invite whoever you want were horrible. They didn’t think that through. We’re trying to put on a show here of the best of the best, and you can buy your way in? That’s idiotic. Guys who did it were technically playing by the rules at the time. My beef was with the people in charge allowing it. The way the rules read was wrong.”

team ropers
Doyle Gellerman and Walt Woodard won the world together in 1981 after choosing not to go twice at rodeos that allowed it, so their world standings earnings would be identical. James Fain


“Team ropers are 100% better off now than they were back then,” stated Walt Woodard, who won world team roping championships 26 years apart in 1981 and 2007. “The sport has evolved so much. Young guys today don’t have a clue that we couldn’t wear sponsor patches on our shirts back in the day, because it was against PRCA policy. We couldn’t go to amateur rodeos if we had a card. It was against the rules. To think that someone actually voted on that stuff is mind blowing. 

“I may only have a high school education, but I instinctively liked the idea of two world team roping champions. When we had the chance to enter certain rodeos twice, I talked Doyle (Gellerman, his 1981 co-world champ) into not going twice at them. I wanted it to be Doyle and Walt. Jake and Clay. Speed and Rich. A team. I thought winning the world championship together was a great thing—a cool thing. Having two world champions every time is how we got equal money, but it’s also just what’s right.

“As for 15 guys qualifying and inviting anyone they want, what a terrible idea. They didn’t earn their way in. Jonathan Torres roped amazing this year. He deserves to rope at the NFR. For him not to get to go after roping like he did all year would be unfair. I’m glad they fixed that.”

team ropers
Bobby Hurley won his first world title in 1993, and Allen Bach was the reserve world champion team roper. By today’s standards, Bach would have been the world champion heeler. In 1995, they were crowned the first-ever world champion header and world champion heeler. Hubbell Rodeo Images

Back to Bobby

Giving the last-ever lone-ranger world team roping titlist the last word here feels fair. 

“We were fighting for equal money and dual world championships, but a lot of people didn’t want change,” said Hall of Famer Hurley, who roped with Cooper until Dodge City when he won his first championship in 1993, then finished the year with Bach. “It was team roping, and it wasn’t a standard event. Team ropers made up the majority of the PRCA membership, and everybody—stock contractors included—gladly took money from both partners. But there was nothing equal about how we were treated. A lot of rodeos didn’t even have team roping, and a lot of those added the same money in the team roping as every other event, so the header roped at half of it and the heeler roped at half of it.

“I made my first Finals in 1986, and 15 guys qualified instead of 30, like today. That was wrong. I was well into my career before team ropers got much respect from anybody. It finally got so frustrating, that we were like, ‘Cut the team roping out of the PRCA, and see what happens.’ I guarantee you half the people who watch rodeo on the Cowboy Channel today tune in to watch the team roping. The concourse at the Thomas & Mack might be buzzing during some events, but it’s empty during the team roping, because they’re all in their seats watching. 

“I’m for all of rodeo, but there are more team ropers than all the roughstock events put together. The people who look at equal money as cutting into their pie need to step back and look at the big picture, because that pie would be a whole lot smaller for everybody without team roping. As rodeo committees know, most of the people who go into rodeo towns and spend money are team ropers. Team roping makes the rodeo wheel go round.”

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