“It shouldn’t be a drawing competition,” Oren Mathews, 54, asserted across the table over Mexican fare at El Rialto restaurant, in the heart of Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Originally published in December 2018
He’s speaking specifically to drawing steers at a roping, and more broadly about his motivation to produce quality events featuring Mathews Land & Cattle corrientes that ropers can count on.
“It should be a roping competition.”
At dinner, Mathews is flanked by 2018 BFI winners and, more recently, PRCA Turquoise Circuit Finals winners Chris Francis and Cade Passig on his right and left; with Francis’ wife, Kenna, and his soon-to-be-walking daughter, Karstyn, to his own left; while Cord Crowell, formerly of Floresville, Texas, takes a seat across the table, where he’s the recipient of the evening’s good-humored hard knocks, as is accustomed for the newly hired. This is a call-it-like-you-see-it crew, so the thin-skinned need not apply.
It’s also a crew that adopts to its core Mathews’ motivation to produce the best product, whether that is ropings, cattle, horses, crew, or—perhaps most importantly—customer service, which manifests in far more forms than simply knowing how to answer a phone. The kind of customer service Mathews espouses takes a whole-enchilada approach, from the simple act of dressing tidy to the sometimes far more complicated task of going to great pains to right a wrong.
“I think it was the first year at the New Orleans and the dirt was terrible,” Mathews recalled of 2014’s inaugural qualifier held in conjunction with the World Series of Team Roping Finale in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“People were talking about quitting after the first day,” added Francis, 40, who manages the day-to-day operations at Mathews Land & Cattle for Mathews.
That the crew had just learned how to transform what was literally a basketball court the day before into a roping arena overnight didn’t count for diddly if people didn’t want to run their horses across it, and Mathews knew it. He had the announcer make frequent statements that new dirt was on the way.
“At the end of the day,” Francis attested, “there were two trucks of dirt and they were moving equipment into the arena to start hauling the old dirt out before the last riders were even out.”
“People knew we were serious,” Mathews continued. “And they’ve been coming back ever since.”
For Mathews, surrounding himself at all levels with people who can step up and get the job done well has made all the difference in his ventures. He credits Darryl Mosier and Mel Clark of Mel Clark Inc. and their ability to deliver exceptional dirt as “very instrumental” in the ongoing success of December’s Vegas qualifier. And the success and sustainability of Mathews Land and Cattle sits squarely on the shoulders of Mathews’ go-to guy, Francis.
“I don’t take partners,” revealed Mathews, who also owns Rocky Road Gravel Products, “but that guy’s my partner.”
It’s a partnership that, at least when it comes to cattle, allows Mathews to sleep soundly at night, while, meanwhile, sleep evades Francis as he mentally tracks what’s been done on the ranch, what still needs to be done, and whether the cattle are set up for a prime performance at the weekend’s roping.
“A lot of times, we’ll get caught up and be in a good place,” Francis said of the workload, which includes managing up to 1,000 steers, branding four or five times a year, breaking in the steers, dispatching cattle shipments, and putting on 15 ropings a year across an impressive swath of the Southwest, among other responsibilities. “And then, all of a sudden, we’re trying to catch up again.”
Like Mathews, Francis now understands the value of the team around him—an element he didn’t quite know how to implement when he was hired on at Mathews and first began recruiting help 10 years ago.
“I’ve learned a lot about people,” offered Francis, who is storied to have had a good-timing past, but now maintains a quiet, sober, and driven demeanor. “In the beginning, I used to hire my friends because they were good ropers and I thought it made sense, but there’s so much more to what we do than just roping, and not many people understand that.”
Francis also has little patience for anyone who doesn’t respect Mathews, even if they’re answering to Francis during the day-to-day work.
“If Oren says go dig a hole with a spoon,” Francis pushed, shaking his head, “you go get a spoon. He’s the boss.”
What those now-gone employees may have mistaken as blind devotion is anything but. Between Mathews and Francis there is trust and understanding—you take care of me, and I’ll take care of you—and it applies to every employee on the Mathew’s Land & Cattle payroll.
At each event produced by Mathews Land & Cattle, a crew shows up to handle the chute operations. Made up entirely of Navajo men, Mathews, Francis, and Passig sing their praises.
“It’s the same crew at each event,” explained Passig, who can be found behind the announcer’s microphone when he’s not catching heels. “We tell them where we’re going and they meet us there, and we don’t have to worry about them.”
“They really go above and beyond,” Francis said, remembering when one of his crew, Rocky Ramone, was gifted a belt buckle by a roper because the advice Rocky had offered him resulted in a win.
“And then they get to go to Vegas with us,” added Mathews, who has been known to outfit the Vegas qualifier crew in new silverbelly hats and jackets. “Going to Vegas is a treat. If they’re not getting it done throughout the season, they’re not going to Vegas.”
Mathews’ operations were no quick-fix money-makers. Rather, they are the result of lifetimes of hard work and endless efforts to turn once-imagined possibilities into reality.
A fourth-generation rancher at Mathews Land & Cattle, Mathews takes immense pride in his perfect pitchfork brand. Placed on the right rib of his cattle, he put up a hefty fight in defense of the brand that has been in the family for more than 130 years when his father moved to sell it for an impressive sum. Mathews, however, was not impressed. He dug in his heels and kept the brand, and when the old ranch house burned down, he built his new house right where it stood.
Still, Mathews walks a fine line between his roots and the future. When an endless drought forced the sale of the last of his family’s Angus line, Mathews knew the potential of corrientes and brought them on when the grasses returned. He understands the appeal of working horseback but knows beyond a shadow of a doubt how much more can be accomplished in a day running side-by-sides on the 40,000-plus acres he operates not only in Las Vegas, New Mexico, but also just south in Milagro, as well as in Andrews, Texas.
“I remember the first day we were down in Milagro and Chris said, ‘I’m taking my horse,’” Mathews recounted, chuckling. “What did you last, maybe half a day before putting your horse up?”
Mathews also chuckles when he thinks of the times Francis has pushed for change, like updated branding equipment, as it brings to mind the era he spent convincing his dad that the old branding irons in the fire weren’t cutting it.
“Chris got these new irons and I so wanted to be able to say they sucked but, the truth was, they’re really nice. So that’s what we use now,” Mathews admitted.
On the cattle, however, Mathews and Francis both maintain a progressive view.
“They’re athletes,” Mathews stressed, explaining that he won’t lease out his cattle because so few people regard the steers as such. “They come back underweight and ruined,” he continued, lamenting that, more often than not, the only viable destination for them is the feedlot Mathews runs on the ranch. “We’ve got great grass right now, so the herd is out on it, but we also feed cake with 32-percent protein and 11 percent fat throughout the year. That and Cattle Active supplements make them excellent performers.”
Mathews goes on to communicate his absolute intolerance of cruelty, noting the difference between motivating a steer with the aid of a prod and being downright abusive with it. He and the team also maintain a record of how many runs each steer makes throughout the season, making sure they are afforded a break before they’re shipped to another roping.
“It’s a bit of a guessing game,” Mathews confided, “because you don’t actually know how many people are going to show up to rope, but I’d rather take an extra set of steers that I may not need than make my cattle run 10 or 12 times each.”
Of course, hauling extra cattle is no big shake for Mathews, who offers transportation services from his Las Vegas, New Mexico, headquarters, which is also home to his gravel company. When Mathews began his roping venture some 20 years ago, it didn’t take him long to realize the value of diversification.
“I remember Denny Gentry telling me I couldn’t be a stock contractor and a producer,” Mathews said of an early conversation he’d sought out for advice. “He said you have to pick, and I said, ‘No.’ Now, he says the best producers will be the ones with their own stock!”
And certainly, in a time when rope horses are endlessly exceeding expectations and arena records are being shattered with faster and faster times, it makes sense that the cattle provided ought to set new standards, as well, and Mathews is happy to meet that challenge.
“I don’t ever want my name associated with a bad deal,” Mathews proclaimed. “I want to be remembered as having the best cattle, putting on the best ropings, and building the best roads.”
Mathews also gets to claim a payroll which is dense with some of the sport’s best ropers.
Francis, a 9-header and 8-heeler, and Passig, a 10-heeler, are household names these days, particularly after their BFI win, which—as was printed in a Team Roping Journal follow-up story—really shouldn’t have been too surprising. Francis’ wife, Kenna—a full-time nurse specializing in home care prior to daughter Karstyn’s arrival and who also runs the Mathews Land & Cattle office—ropes daily with the crew, too.
“Chris and I take turns roping and watching Karstyn,” said Kenna, who, in the midst of her first year of motherhood, was bumped up to a 6.5-header this September and, by November, had raked in $15,735 for the 2018 season, “which is good, because I just love to rope.”
Kenna’s sister, Kodi Armitage, manages the Milagro operation with flagger Trey Paul and, at press time, had earned $24,835 as a 6-header and $14,410 as a 5-heeler in 2018. Passig’s fiancée, Kersti Davis, a 5.5-header/4-heeler rounded out her 2018 season with an even $19,000.
As a father of three daughters, Mathews has no qualms giving credit where credit is due.
“All the girls around here are just as handy as any of the guys,” he stated factually. “They can do it all.”
Finally, 29-year-old Crowell, the 7.5-header who just joined up with Mathews Land & Cattle in September, took second at the 2015 George Strait Open with Camish Jennings for $109,060, just under half a second behind Clay Tryan’s and Travis Graves’ 13.95-seconds-on-three head win.
When Mathews says he surrounds himself with the best, there’s nothing hyperbolic about it, but what solidifies Mathews Land & Cattle as a powerhouse crew is Mathews’ commitment to creating even more opportunities for his team to excel. Win or lose, Mathews regularly covers the entry fees for his key staff, who transport their horses in his trailers, pull said trailers with his trucks, and rope more of his cattle each year than most average ropers will in a lifetime. If they win, Mathews gets half.
The deal seems to suit each side of the table. Mathews, in supporting such an A-team of ropers, is arguably making a pretty safe, low-risk bet, while his staff, not wanting to waste their good fortune of getting paid to compete, are motivated to win.
It’s a model Passig, 24, is well-accustomed to, having grown up being homeschooled by his dad, Shotgun, while they rolled around the West, roping for a living.
“Cade won because he had to win,” Francis explained about his partner, whom he’s known since they were 2 and 16. “If he had to eat, then he had to win. Those other high school rodeo kids wanted to win, but…”
“There’s a big difference between wanting to win and needing to win,” Mathews finished.
Francis and Passig have been roping together since Passig was 12, and working together since he joined the crew five years ago. When they won the BFI, Francis was quoted saying he needed to win the event for Passig. It’s a sentiment he echoed after clinching the Turquoise Circuit Finals and year-end circuit titles.
Heading into the final round of their circuit finals, Francis hadn’t clinched the number-one spot. If the standings stood, Passig would be competing in Kissimmee, Florida, at the Ram National Circuit Finals come March without Francis.
“I don’t hardly ever set a lot of roping goals,” Passig admitted, “but I told Chris, ‘I really want to win the year-end this year.’ It wouldn’t have meant as much to me if I would have won the year-end if he wasn’t there.”
In other words, Francis was once again on the hook for Passig and, once again, he delivered—with a 17.2-second on three average win that netted the duo $6,059 each and moved both ropers to first in the circuit.
Balancing his career as a producer and a team roper didn’t come naturally to Francis.
“It took me a while to learn how to work and to win,” Francis confided. “It’s really only been the last two years or so that I’ve felt like I can go compete, especially because the people we have in place are dependable. I know they’re going to be there.”
Francis, whose roping career began in 1992 as a 2-header, also never imagined life would come together as it has, though he held tightly to parts of the whole.
“I knew I wanted Arkie Kiehne announcing, and Philip Murrah flagging,” Francis said, revealing the parts he did imagine for himself as a producer. “And for Trey Johnson to do the church.”
Now, Francis, Passig, and Mathews have set their sights on a new goal—making the NFR.
“We’re going to rodeo more,” Francis offered matter-of-factly, answering the question that few haven’t asked.
“And I’m going to do everything in my power to let them go,” Mathews declared.
Like the businesses themselves, this part of the journey didn’t manifest overnight. For years, Mathews Land & Cattle has been structuring this opportunity by hiring the people Mathews and Francis could each rely on, by taking ownership of each aspect of the operations so as to minimize potential risk, by raising high-quality corrientes, and roping them at every opportunity.
“You have to line things up,” Mathews stated. “That’s what I’ve been doing all these years, and now that they’re ready, I sure don’t mind stepping up and filling in so they can have the time to go.”
So the next time you enter up at a Mathews Land & Cattle roping, or cross paths with Francis and Passig on the rodeo road, be sure to wish them luck as they pursue a position among the top 15 ropers in the world, even though Mathews is certain they won’t need it.
“They’re not going to be lucky,” Mathews determined, leaving the statement hanging, and looking on with a knowing gleam.
They’re going to the NFR.