When Dan Stewart began his marketing firm in 1972 in Jeffersonville, Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, he couldn’t have possibly imagined the impact his work would have on the team roping industry. There’s a distinct possibility, in fact, that Dan had never even heard of team roping in 1972. And yet, in the 50 years since, not only would he become an avid roper, he’d also create marketing campaigns that changed the roping industry as we know it.
An unexpected journey into roping
A father of five and a proper Kentuckian, Dan’s kids were raised on horses. His son Nat was competing in horse shows and 4H when a veterinarian clued Dan in to the sport of team roping.
“He took lessons on our horses, which didn’t know anything about it,” Nat said, “and the guys from the fence said, ‘This guy is never going to make it.’”
Well, they couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. Instead, Dan and Nat took to roping like fish to water. In 1989, the family’s Yankeetown Farm—named for the Civil-War-era stage stop that predated the property—became a hub for ropers East of the Mississippi. In those pre-handicap days, Nat remembers when the pros would swing in for a little easy money.
“It was before the number system,” he explained, “so the regular ropers just didn’t stand a chance.”
But as Nat’s stepmother, Kate, explained it, her husband would do anything for his ropers because he was so passionate about it.
“There was nothing he didn’t do as if it was the end of the world,” she said.
“He wanted an indoor, and he found a tobacco barn in Lexington, and had it shipped here piece by piece,” Nat said. “It was a lot taller than it needed to be for an indoor, but it got the job done.”
He and Kate both remember Dan heading off to the Mexican border so his ropers could finally rope real horned cattle.
“I think he brought 15 or 20 Corrientes back with him, and we had some 200 teams show up to rope,” Nat said laughing.
Shaping the landscape of roping
Today, Nat’s in the business of making horses and producing ropings, so his cattle operation is rooted in those first 20 head, and he’s quick to note that the Mexican cattle of yesteryear were a couple hundred pounds stouter than today’s roping steers. Plus, it wasn’t long before Dan was back on the border, buying cattle for his operations and his buddies who’d caught the bug.
If the change and the investment was for the betterment of the sport and the experience, Dan was in—especially when the handicap system was introduced.
“Denny (Gentry) was trying to find people across the country who could make this happen, and somebody mentioned Dan’s name,” Kate recounted. “We went out there and listened to this whole spiel Denny had about raising the level of the sport and making it fairer. And it just, you know, it was everything Dan wanted to hear, so he was in immediately, and he proceeded to try his best to put on the very best USTRC ropings anybody ever could.”
Through his years, Dan helped organize associations and events like the Indiana Ropers and Doggers Association, the Eastern Regional Finals, annual ropings at Kentucky Horse Park—which required hauling every piece of equipment needed that wasn’t “ground or cover,” as Nat puts it—and was a 30-year producer of USTRC ropings at Yankeetown. As his commitment to the sport grew, so did his knowledge of the industry.
Paired with his aptitude for advertising, he knew how to help the roping industry hit its stride.
“Dan cut his teeth developing cigarette brands and liquor brands for those kinds of businesses that were located here in Louisville,” said Kate, who is now championing their company, Stewart & Associates. “He became very successful in the world of graphic design and of marketing, but he was kind of bored with it. But when it started being about horses and horse sports, which led to horse health and many of the other clients we have now, we were just ripe for following our passions and our interests and our instincts.”
Dan’s first big move entering the space was a cold call in the form of getting on a plane to Texas and showing up unannounced at Classic Ropes, asking to meet with Ken Bray.
“It was in ’92,” said Bray, the CEO of Equibrand, which developed out of Classic. “I had done an ad with Tee Woolman as the feature endorser and Dan came to my door and said, ‘This is an ad that you did, and I took your idea and this is how I would have done your ad.’
“It was like a kid with crayons versus a masterful artist,” Bray remembered.
The pitch worked, and Dan worked with Bray for the rest of his life.
“Dan was a partner in our business,” Bray said. “He wasn’t a contracted servant. He was truly a partner—he and Kate, both. I have enormous appreciation and admiration for Dan Stewart. Not just because of what he did to help us from a marketing standpoint—his handprints are all over Equibrand and our business; everything from naming products to launching new brands—but Dan was always such a big thinker, and his ideas were way ahead of everybody.”
Classic Ropes was the first company to put a logo patch on one of their athletes. That was Dan’s idea. Dan designed the USTRC logo and, when the association rolled out regional competitions for the first time ever, that was a concept developed by Dan. Being able to look at a rope and know who made it? Also Dan.
“He was roping a lot, and he developed an opinion about ropes,” Kate recalled. “Dan showed [Ken] how he would design tail tags for ropes, and he invented the tail tag, basically.”
“Creative genius” is a term Kate uses to describe her late husband and business partner. “Ahead of his time,” says Bray about the man who laid the foundation for projects the roping community has yet to dig into. But Dan was more than a creative catapult, too.
Last acts in Liberty & Loyalty
Dan joined the Army Reserves in the Vietnam years, and the final project he worked on for Bray was a stoic nod to his military history and to his fellow ropers who’ve served.
“I’m on the board with what’s now the Liberty & Loyalty Foundation, which started as Charly Crawford’s American Military Celebration,” Bray explained. “And Dan, pro bono, came up with that new name for the foundation, which helps raise money for veterans and first responders. He created the logo for it and came up with the name and the concept, so that was the last thing he did. And while he was working on it, he was in the hospital and I didn’t even know it.”
The American Military Celebration was rebranded as the American Hero Celebration to speak more broadly to those men and women in the roping community, and is often a life-changing experience for them.
“He was a proud man and would never admit that he was weak or suffering,” Bray continued. “But he did that from his hospital bed.”
Even for those who never met Dan, his commitments to this community’s causes—from buying better roping steers at the border to elevating a foundation’s ability to make a meaningful impact—are plainly seen, acknowledged and appreciated. May his legacy live on in roping’s most passionate members. TRJ