Horses in the Thomas & Mack
It's all about the horses.
Jake’s horse Bullwinkle and Clay’s Blue helped this dynasty dream team get their gold-buckle ball rolling. | James Fain photo

Back when I was coming up the roping ranks in California, we didn’t go to many indoor buildings. We almost always roped at outdoor venues, and it was the same way when I moved to Arizona at 16. We roped outside. It wasn’t until I started rodeoing that I started roping inside buildings. Odessa, Denver, the Cow Palace in San Francisco and Billings were all indoors, so we learned to rope in small-building setups. You’re more confined when you rope indoors, and there was a learning curve for me. 

There’s also a learning curve for our horses when we take it inside, and this is a timely conversation as the best in the business get set to rope inside the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. In my book, a horse that scores well, has a lot of speed and is able to really collect his stride in the corner and hit the spot gives you the best chance at being successful in that building. When your confined area starts to shorten down, you only get maybe three hops and you’re on the wall. 

I went to the NFR four times at the Myriad in downtown Oklahoma City, where it was pretty confining and small. When we moved to Vegas in 1985, we were so excited that the money doubled. But the tradeoff was roping in one of the smallest arenas we’d ever roped in. We’d been in Salt Lake’s small building before that, but now we were talking about the Finals and roping 10 head for all that money. 

By 1985, my horses had gotten better. I’d gotten the blue roan I called Blue, and he was flawless. When I took him to Vegas in 1985, I had a lot of confidence in him. But by the time Jake (Barnes) and I got to the NFR that year, it almost felt like we could have been riding donkeys and still won it. We blew everybody away that year. We went in with a $20,000 lead, and at that time the day moneys were paying $5,000. 

Riding good horses had everything to do with the phenomenal year we were having. Jake’s horse Bullwinkle and my horse Blue fit us and our run. We were on top of our game, and we had horses that fit us in that Thomas & Mack arena. 

When Blue was done, I had a little horse trouble for a few years until I got Ike. Ike had a lot of speed and slide, and was really savvy at hitting the corner just right. He was just a really easy horse for me to ride, and fit me really well. Ike lasted a long time. I think I rode him at 11 NFRs.

I was kind of spoiled having two great horses like Blue and Ike that got me through 14 NFRs. The money kept getting better and better every year, and roping was getting tougher every year. But when you’re on a good horse, and put in the work with your practice to show up prepared, things are probably going to go well for you. And they did for Jake and I. We won our first of seven gold buckles at that very first Finals in Vegas in 1985.  

Even toward the end, I had LB for my last four NFRs. That horse fit me like a glove, and was maybe the best horse of the three for the simple fact that he was so easy for me to ride when I was in my early 50s. By then, I needed an easy horse to ride to make up for not being 25 anymore. That horse was the key to having the best five financial years of my rodeo career right there at the end of it. 

During the great Jake and Clay years, we won about $100,000 a year between the jackpots and the rodeos. During those last five years, I was winning $250,000 a year, because the money had gotten so much better. That’s $1.25 million in five years. 

It’s all about the horses for the great ropers who’ve dominated at the NFR. Take Rich Skelton, for example. Those horses he rode were good everywhere, and fit that building great. Jade Corkill dominated there for 10 years riding older, seasoned horses that were awesome there. Being mounted on a top-of-the-line horse that fits you and the conditions makes all the difference, no matter how good you rope. I was blessed to ride some great ones. TRJ

WATCH ON ROPING.COM: Gold Buckle Secrets with Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper

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