Whether you’re a young professional team roper trying to navigate your rookie year or a recreational roper competing for the first time, it can be intimidating when you first step into new waters. I know that first year I got thrown into the fire—when Allen Bach called me right before the Fourth of July run in 1980—I did a pretty good deer-in-the-headlights impersonation.
In any sport, including team roping, my best advice is to watch every move of the people who are doing what you want to do. If you’re a professional rookie roper, stick like glue to any of the top guys who win and make the Finals, and beg for their advice. Ask them every question you can think of about every aspect of the game.
The first rodeo of my professional career with Allen was the 1980 Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte, Nebraska, and there I was roping with the 1979 world champion team roper. I was just a country kid from New Mexico, who’d spent some time roping at the amateur rodeos in South Texas, and it felt like I got thrown into a tornado.
The pace and all the different setups were brand new to me coming out of the little short scores in South Texas, and I was overwhelmed to be going up against the big-name guys. It was almost more than I could handle, and I didn’t fare very well right off the bat.
My confidence was low, and after a week or two of getting my butt kicked, Leo (Camarillo) came walking by one day and said, “Son, are you about ready to go back to Texas where you belong?” That could have been a back breaker, but was actually what got me over the hump. It ticked me off so bad that I just gritted my teeth and decided I was going to bow up and try even harder.
I was a rookie the same year as Tee Woolman, and he was roping with Leo. We all know they were a force, and Tee won his first championship in 1980 as a rookie. But I’d roped against Tee quite a bit at those amateur rodeos in Texas, and I knew I could hang with him. So my motto was, “Maybe I’m not good enough right now, but I’ll outwork everybody until I am.”
That’s when my work ethic kicked in, and I made it my mission to figure out how to rope better and win. Roping bad on occasion is just part of what you have to overcome at any level to be successful. And one of the hardest parts of rodeoing professionally for me was the fatigue from the all-night drives. Roping, then driving 10 hours to the next one is just part of it. But it’s not easy.
Enlisting a good mentor and making sure you’re riding the best possible horse will make you a more attractive partner in the early going. If you’re rodeoing for the first time, there’s a good chance you’re roping with another young guy. It’s pretty tough when two rookies rodeo together, but maybe you can buddy with some veterans. At the very least, seek their advice.
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If I had it to do all over again today, I’d move to Stephenville, Texas, and go to all the ropings they have every day around there. You’ll most likely get your butt handed to you at first, but you’ll also get to see how the big boys do it.
Just remember that it doesn’t go great all the time for anybody. A lot of guys get broke and have to go home, build their nest egg back up and try again. But there are always a few guys who figure out a way to break the ice.
Learning to lose is another inevitable part of climbing the roping ladder. And for some of the younger guys who’ve been climbing the rodeo ranks, losing for the first time is especially hard to swallow. We all get our tails kicked along the way, and even the best go through slumps. To survive, you have to learn to work your way out of the tough times without throwing your sucker in the dirt. You can’t control when you get up, which steer you draw or whether or not you get a bad flag. But you can control your attitude.