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A Path of Passion: Judy Wagner’s Trailblazing Career in the Western Industry
From the time she was a teenager to her recent “retirement,” Judy Wagner has been able to hang her hat on hard work. Now, she’s reaping the rewards of that work with others in mind.
Judy Wagner presenting NFR Average Champions Derrick Begay and Colter Todd their Montana Silversmiths buckles after Round 10 in 2023.
Wagner, right, presenting NFR Average Champions Derrick Begay and Colter Todd their Montana Silversmiths buckles after Round 10 in 2023. | Jamie Arviso photo

At the age of 16, Judy Wagner and her seven younger siblings lost their father in a December tractor accident on their Western Montana ranch.

“That Christmas, I learned firsthand that the cows don’t know it’s Christmas,” Wagner remembered. “So, my marketing and how I think about things started there. It’s not rocket science: You have to know what needs to be done.”

She graduated from Montana State University and was working as a county agent when Steve Geisler of Idaho’s Cowboy Cordage asked if Wagner was interested in doing business together, marketing and selling ropes. 

“My dad didn’t really live long enough to teach us a lot about roping,” Judy explained. “Everything in our barn was 7/16-scant hard, and it was all you had so that’s what you used. 

“I was doing a roping school with Mike Beers and Dee Pickett and I remember Dee going, ‘What the heck are you roping with that for?’”

A year later at the next school with Beers and Pickett, they had a good laugh when she told them she was starting a rope company. 

“What happened was, as a county extension agent, we learned about fabrics and colors in textiles,” Wagner said. “And it turns out that also affects ropes. So we started experimenting with colors in ropes and how they affected the lay of the rope and how it felt.”

Judy Wagner was meant for marketing

Judy Wagner riding a sorrel horse in front of a river.
Wagner: a born-and-raised Montana Cowgirl.

With her natural tendency toward good humor, the company was named Gator Ropes for the mostly green ropes, but the models that followed were a clear demonstration of Wagner’s equally natural mind for marketing. 

“I started out with a Head Hunter,” she said. “Then I had a Tail Gator, an Intimi-Gator, an Albino Gator. I had an Insti-Gator, and then the Rawhide Gator was named for me when I got bucked off in a branding pen. I broke my femur and had to be life-flighted out.”

As Wagner moves through the story, it’s clear that the trauma of a branding pen wreck now pales in comparison to the significance of a rope being inspired by a woman.

“That was about three or five years into having Gator,” Wagner said of the company she started in 1988. “That was the first time I ever introduced a woman into it. Today, a woman going out there and doing her thing is really prevalent. But, back then, I kept that all a secret. It was me behind the scenes a little bit.”

From her place behind the scenes, though, Wagner made crucial observations and implemented everything from technology to further protect the fibers in a Gator Rope to understanding that Gator was largely attractive to a youth and/or beginner roper. She also had the support of her industry peers in her endeavors, and they made all the difference as far as Wagner is concerned. 

Member of the OG rope makers club

“I was really fortunate when I started in the industry and in the business that the other competitors out there were really my friends,” Wagner said. “Ken Bray (Classic Ropes), Paul Sullivan (Lone Star Ropes) and Curt Matthews (Top Hand Ropes) were all doing ropes at the time, and we were communicating. Just good old-fashioned calling each other up and seeing each other at events.

“I loved that time because it was like steel on steel: we were sharpening each other,” Wagner continued. “We were all learning and navigating and I can honestly say, in business, that taught me the power of relationships.”

Gator Rope endorsees included Clay O’Brien Cooper, Speed Williams and Jake Barnes, who was the inspiration for a series of Gator cartoons illustrated by Montana Cowboy Hall of Famer “Wally” Badgett. Then, when four-time NFR calf roper Shawn McMullan, who was killed in a 1996 car accident, backed into the box for his first-ever National Finals run, it was with a Gator logo on his chest. And when Flint Rasmussen was trying to get his rodeo clown foot in the door for his earliest gigs like the Nile Rodeo in Billings, Montana, it was with sponsorship support from Gator.   

Montana Silversmiths moments

When Wagner sold Gator Ropes back to Geisler in 1999, she had built an invaluable network throughout the Western industry, which made for a rather smooth transition into her initial role as Director of Marketing for Montana Silversmiths. It was a pivotal time for the company then, which had just established itself as the Official Silversmith of the PRCA in 1999. 

“Over the years, I think we really made headway in establishing Montana Silversmiths as a major brand, both in gift jewelry and as a World Champion buckle maker, establishing ourselves as a trusted brand,” Wagner said. 

Partnering with Miss Rodeo America and creative initiatives from Elmer the Horse figurines to elevated packaging for limited products like the Gold Buckles made the brand a household name across the country and eventually opened the door for Wagner to operate from the position of Chief Marketing Officer. 

“I was also really proud of creating the Pursuit of Excellence Scholarship Program with Montana Silversmith,” Wagner added. “It started in 2005, so we’ve given away just over $100,000. First it was funded by Trophy Buckles—a side program I created—and most recently, it’s self-funded by hat feathers. It’s a way to give back and celebrate the future.”

Making magic through mentorship

Judy Wagner heeling
With more time on her hands, look for Wagner’s return to roping. | Ric Andersen / CBarC photo

Giving back has become a sincere focus of Wagner’s, and she encourages everyone to look for scholarship support and mentors. 

“You can’t win if you don’t enter, and there are scholarships out there available for a lot of youth if they look.”

In the most recent developments in Wagner’s career, she has retired from her CMO position and is flexing the best parts of that work as a Montana Silversmiths Brand and Lifestyle Advocate. 

“I love mentorship,” Wagner said. “I’m a big advocate of Cowgirl’s 30 Under 30 and will be a part of that. We were one of the first sponsors to support Tammy Pate’s vision for Art of the Cowgirl, and there are so many things we can do, but if you actually look and dig deeper into things, you can be of more help. So, that’s what I hope I get to do. Some of the fun things like roping and golf, and then maybe helping support the industry and our brand as best I can.”

—TRJ—

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