Carl “Wolfy” Wilken grew up in the small, Southwestern town of Hillsboro, New Mexico. The son of ProRodeo Hall of Famer Lefty Wilken has lived life with a rope in his hand. Wolfy Wilken, 68, and his fellow lifelong roper wife, Pam, raised their now grown children, Carly and CR, on the Central Coast of California, which they continue to call home.
Q: Tell us a little about what it was like to be the kid of a notorious cowboy character like Lefty Wilken.
A: My dad competed in the team roping and calf roping way back in the Cowboys’ Turtle Association days, back before there was a Rodeo Cowboys Association or Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. He had CTA card #74.
Q: Your dad was a legendary horseman and pickup man, too, I’m told.
A: Yes, my dad was a pickup man at the first NFR (National Finals Rodeo) ever held, in Dallas in 1959. He worked for Beutler Brothers Rodeo and picked up at the Finals 10 times. There were years he qualified to team rope at the NFR, but had to make a choice. You either competed or you worked, and he couldn’t take a chance on not getting paid if he didn’t win, so he took the job as the pickup man.
Q: You’ve ridden and sold so many horses in your lifetime. What was your dad’s best horse advice?
A: We always rode his made horses when we were learning to rope horseback. Dad always told us, “Let your horse tell you when to throw.” Those good old horses of my dad’s taught us everything. There’s a lesson there that still stands today.
Q: Jake Barnes says he grew up in awe of your rope tricks. Tell us about the professional trick roper days of your youth.
A: Us four kids—my older twin brother and sister, Don and Donna, my younger brother, John, and me—had a contract act called The Wilken Youngsters. We were trick ropers. It’s just what we did. It was our way of life. Our mom (Barbara) made our costumes, right down to every rhinestone. We camped out all summer, and my older brother and I stayed in hammocks in the back of the horse trailer.
Q: You qualified for three NFRs, right?
A: Yes, but I only roped at two of them. I roped at the Finals the first time with my brother John when I was 19 and he was 17. Those were the days where half the rounds were team tying and the other half was dally team roping, and we switched ends. When it was team tying, I headed and tied the knot. When it was team roping, John headed for me. We were 6.4, and set the NFR team roping record in the 10 round that lasted a few years.
Q: And your second NFR?
A: In 1970, I roped with my dad at the Finals. It was still half team tying and half team roping, and because my dad roped left-handed I headed the whole time. We were 9.5 in the fourth round, which was the fastest NFR team tying run ever made and will now never be broken, since they don’t have team tying anymore.
Q: Why didn’t you rope at that third Finals?
A: I qualified for the Finals in 1971 also, but I was in Vietnam. The Army agreed to give me a leave to come home and rope, but the planes were all full, so I couldn’t go. I was planning on heading for Gary Gist at the NFR that year. When I couldn’t get there, Gary roped with Bucky Bradford instead.
Q: What do you consider the highlight of your roping career?
A: Winning second twice at the BFI, with Bronc Pryor in 1985 and 1988. The BFI is the most prestigious roping you can go to, and all the best teams are there.
Q: What was the highlight of your horseshow roping career?
A: Riding Mr. Bar Par to the senior heeling world championship at the World Show in 1991. Herschel and Shannon Reid owned him, and his family owned Hallmark Cards. That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been roping, because they were paying me to make their horse a world champion.
Q: Where did your nickname “Wolfy” come from?
A: It was way back before cell phones, and we used to use CB radios to get around everywhere. When we drove all night, I loved listening to the Wolfman Jack Show. I still love that guy’s voice. Instead of Wolfman, they shortened it up to Wolfy.
Q: What was the story behind that trademark chain around the ankle of your left boot, and where did it go?
A: A good friend of mine named Cy Remington, who worked all the events, was working at the Snure Ranch in Skeleton Canyon down by Douglas, Arizona. He was shoeing a horse one day, and he randomly stuck a chain around his left boot. He asked me if I wanted one, and I thought he was cool, so I said yes. He stuck it on me that day, and I wore it 45 years—from 1971 to 2016—until it got so paper thin that it was about to break. Now it just hangs on the wall in our house.
Q: What was it like growing up in an era when all ropings were open?
A: There were no numbers when I was a kid, so it was sink or swim. I got a contest/contract act RCA card when I was 15. My first pro rodeo was Scottsdale with my dad. I got my first RCA check heading for my dad at the second one I ever entered at Tucson at 15. It was “enter up and go at ’em” back then.
Q: What’s your number now, and what was your last big team roping outing?
A: I’m a 5.5 header and a 6.5 heeler now, and my last big roping was the World Series (of Team Roping Finale) in Las Vegas last December. I heeled for Reno Eddy in the #13 and Pam (whom he married in 1973) in the #12, and headed for Brian Arave in the #11. We didn’t do any good, but there’s no way I could ever imagine team roping would get this good. Today in a #9 roping on a Sunday afternoon, you can win what Bronc and I won for second at the BFI. It’s crazy.
Q: Got any roping goals left?
A: I want to win a World Series roping in Vegas. I’ve accomplished everything else I set out to do. That’s my next goal.
Q: How big a deal has roping been in the grand scheme of Wolfy Wilken’s life?
A: It’s been my whole life. I’ve made a living at roping all my life. Before, it was in the arena. Now, it’s outside the competitive arena—training horses and teaching people roping and horsemanship skills.