Cowboys Share Their Life & Times in Cactus Country

Arizona is renowned roping country. It’s always been that way, and is rich with roping history and heritage. Some were born and raised in the Grand Canyon State. Others migrated there, and moved in and out. Some started as snowbirds and never left. Regardless of how Arizona fits into the stories of their lives and cowboy careers, what’s unanimous is that there’s no beating Arizona winters if you love to team rope.

Mel Coleman was best known as a bronc rider, but there he is heading for Pee Wee Freeman at Pendleton. He stuck as an Arizona snowbird thanks in large part to team roping. 

Cowboy Coleman

Mel Coleman grew up in the cold country of Pierceland, Saskatchewan, Canada. He qualified for 16 straight NFRs from 1974-1989 as a saddle bronc rider. He now splits his time between Cave Creek, Arizona and Joseph, Oregon. 

“I moved to Arizona in the early ’90s, when I quit riding broncs,” said Coleman, who’s 66 now. “I didn’t want to be cold anymore was the biggest reason, but I also bought a business. The first one was C&H Hay Barn in Phoenix. Then I bought Black Mountain Feed in Cave Creek. I still own Anderson Feeds in Phoenix. I live in Cave Creek, but I spend the hot months—May to the first of October—in Joseph, where the summers are green and nice.”

Team roping was also part of the draw to the Grand Canyon State.

“Bronc riding was my main event, but I roped calves throughout my rodeo career and also dabbled in team roping a little bit,” Coleman said. “I wanted to team rope more, and get more serious about it. The business opportunities were there, too, and I knew if I had to dig a ditch, at least the ground wouldn’t be frozen. 

Canadian Mel Coleman rode broncs at 16 straight NFRs. PRCA ProRodeo File Photo 

“I also wanted my son to start school in the US. I wasn’t a fan of the metric system or the political landscape in Canada. I wanted to be warm, so Arizona was the place. There are some places in the Northern states that are as cold as Saskatchewan.”

There’s no place like Arizona in the wintertime. Everybody knows that. 

“You can rope yourself sick and broke in Arizona, if you want to,” he smiled. “The weather is perfect, and if you like to rope seven days a week, there are jackpots everywhere.”

The Motes Brothers

David and Dennis Motes are two of Glenn and Hazel Motes’s five kids, who also include Larry, Sandy and Marilyn. Raised and rooted in Mesa, Arizona, David and Dennis both live in Texas now. 

“I loved growing up in Arizona,” David said. “So many guys would come stay with us. They called it Motesville, and my dad had 15 muley Holsteins at all times. I lived in Arizona until I got my (Rodeo Cowboys Association) card at 19 in 1973. I moved to California full time in 1975. I spent a lot of time on the Central Coast with Wayne Vaughn and at the Jones Ranch in Morro Bay when I first got there. I loved the coast, but I got married and lived in Fresno for 30 years starting in 1975. We grew Thompson Seedless Grapes, and made raisins out of them.

“All the team ropers were in Arizona and California when I was a kid. Arizona was team tying country, and California was strictly dally team roping. When I started team roping, there weren’t very many team ropers in the world. The big rodeos with team roping at that time were either in Arizona or California. Those were the two team roping hot spots.”

Like so many rodeo ropers, David migrated to Texas about 20 years ago. 

“My kids were there, and I was ready for a change,” he said. “But growing up in Arizona taught me that if I was a bird, I would fly North every summer and fly back every winter. Arizona has the best weather for six months out of the year. That’s why team roping got so big there. People with money and horses moved there for the wintertime, because there’s no better place to be. I plan on spending quite a bit of time in Arizona this winter, and soaking up the weather.”

Motes were raised in Mesa, Arizona and roped at three NFRs together, winning the world in 1977. PRCA ProRodeo File Photo 

Like David, the Motes’s dad, Glenn, was a National Finals Rodeo header. 

“Our dad was a rodeo cowboy who taught us to be successful no matter what we were doing,” said David, who roped at 22 NFRs, including one heeling for Bill Parker in 1979. “He really didn’t want us to be team ropers, because there wasn’t much money in it at that time. But roping was our passion, and our way to get out and see the world. When I got to California, Jim Rodriguez was one of my mentors. He taught me about scoring good and roping consistent. 

“Over the course of my lifetime, team roping has gone from an event that wasn’t even included at a lot of the big rodeos to now an event with hundreds of millions of dollars out there to be won. It’s unbelievable how far team roping has come. We’re one step closer every day to a time when we could have a million-dollar world champion.”

David’s 69 now. Big brother Dennis, who’s the oldest of the five Motes kids, just turned 72 on August 26. 

“We roped a lot growing up in Arizona,” Dennis said. “There was no numbering system when we were kids, so we roped against the legends. I moved to California when I was 21 in 1971. Team roping was mostly in California—there were 80 rodeos in California back then—Arizona and New Mexico, with a few rodeos in Colorado and Oregon. I lived in Newhall, California for 25 years, and worked in the movie business. I did some wrangling, stunts and sets construction.”

Like David, Dennis lives in Texas now. 

“Team roping is just what we did as kids,” Dennis remembers. “We went to two or three jackpots a week. All the ropings were two for $14—$7 a man—and it was all team tying in Arizona. When I was 16-17-18, we had a lot of winter visitors come down and stay. We called them snowbirds. Everybody had two-horse trailers back then. It’s all big rigs now, and there are thousands of snowbirds.”

Dream Team

Seven-time World Champion Team Ropers Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper have a whole lot of history in Arizona. Jake grew up in New Mexico; Clay in Southern California. But they made their Hall of Fame magic based in the Grand Canyon State.

“That first year I made the Finals with Allen (Bach in 1980), I was headquartered in California with him,” Jake said. “It rained and rained, so we went to Arizona. I started renting a place in Chandler in 1981, then bought my first place outside of Queen Creek in 1985.”

That was the year the NFR moved from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas, and the first of seven gold-buckle seasons for their partnership. 

“Clay bought a place next door, and those were some pretty amazing years,” Jake said. “I didn’t have an arena, so we started out going to Hal Earnhardt’s arena. I bought 33 head of old bulldogging steers from John Marchello, who provided all the Turquoise Circuit team roping and steer wrestling steers. In the beginning, Clay was still living in Gilbert. He’d load up, and we’d rope. We ran those steers through three times, and made 100 runs every day. 

“That’s how Leo (Camarillo) did it when I lived with him. You went at it one-on-one with your partner. No distractions. Clay and I did that every day like clockwork, and we developed a rhythm. Clay bought a few acres next door to my place, and put in an arena. And every morning, I’d saddle four or five horses, lead them over to Clay’s and we’d go to work. We didn’t talk much. I don’t ever remember us talking strategy. We just roped. I did my thing, and Clay did his.”

Jake and Clay became household names in the days they were famous for running 100 practice steers a day in Arizona. Hubbell photos

Jake stayed in Arizona all these years before a recent move to Clay’s current home country in Gardnerville, Nevada. 

“I contemplated moving to Texas 20 years ago,” said Jake, who’s 63 now. “I could see the change coming. But my kids were in school in Arizona. We saw that through, then sold our place in Scottsdale—out by Rio Verde—last year and moved to Gardnerville. Doing all the schools Clay and I do now, we have easy access in and out of the Reno Airport from Gardnerville.

“Arizona has been a huge part of my life. California and Arizona were the rodeo hubs early on in my career. That’s where the majority of the rodeos were when we started rodeoing. It was a lot of years before we ever got to go to Houston, San Antonio and Fort Worth. Today’s rodeo hub in the wintertime is Texas, but it sure didn’t used to be that way. 

“You can’t beat the Arizona winters if you’re a jackpot team roper. I’m a warm-weather person, so I’m going to have to be a snowbird now, and go to Arizona when everybody else does. It’s so hot there in the summertime, but in the winter it can’t be beat.”

Clay, who’s 61, migrated south from Southern California when he could. 

“All my family on both sides are from Arizona,” he said. “So when I got my driver’s license and had my freedom, that’s where I went. I had grandmas, grandpas, uncles and my real dad (Joe Cooper) there, and there was just a lot of roping there all year long. Guys I roped with who went to a lot of ropings, like Bret Beach, George Aros, Tom Cox and George Richards, were in Arizona, and the girl I chose from when I was 10 years old (Beth Beach) was there, too. 

“Arizona was the perfect place for a kid who wanted to rope non-stop. Besides all the jackpots, there were rodeos in Scottsdale, Phoenix, Yuma and Tucson. Eventually, we got team roping at Odessa, San Antonio, Houston and Austin, and pretty soon, the bigger rodeos were in Texas. Texas became a no-brainer when the rodeos moved and our girls got in school. Guys who rope for a living now live in Texas. But a lot of jackpot team ropers winter in Arizona, because there are more ropings than you can get to and the weather is beautiful.”

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