Let’s face it, that Pendleton grass can be glass. And despite the best plotting, planning and strategizing—and ice nails in your horseshoes—you can bust your ass. There’s no good time to go down and get a grass stain—or worse. But when you’re a bubble boy fighting for a National Finals back number…yikes. After seeing some of the wild-ride videos posted this week by ropers and worried wives, I called three cowboys—Kellan Johnson, Patrick Smith and Spencer Mitchell—who now know what it’s like when it’s your turn to Let ’er Buck at Pendleton. Please rest assured up front that though these pictures are graphic, none of these horses or cowboys were hurt. And we’re all very grateful for that.
Wyoming brothers and reigning National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team roping titlists Kellan and Carson Johnson are ranked 18th and 17th in the world, respectively. It was their first trip to Pendleton, and Kellan’s #1, Root Beer, went down on their second steer in Tuesday morning slack.
“We didn’t do any good on our first steer, so we were just trying to place pretty deep in the second round after Erich (Rogers) and Paden (Bray) went 4.2 (for a new Round-Up record),” Kellan said. “We had a steer that was a little stronger and came left. I got the start I wanted. My horse is athletic and wants to stay on the left side of the steer, which is a good thing. But he kind of stumbled, and his back end basically vanished. His left hind leg went straight, and his body went down on it. After watching the video, I’m surprised he didn’t break his leg. But he tucked it right before he lost his back end, and that’s why we slid so far.
“It felt like slow motion. I could feel it happening, and thought he was going to land on his side. I tucked my leg, so I wouldn’t break it. Next thing I knew, I was looking straight up at his ears up in the air.”
How does getting blown out the back of the buggy affect his feelings for roping at the Round-Up?
“I think Pendleton is super sweet—it’s everything I’ve ever heard,” Kellan said. “It’s a cowboy rodeo. You have to have a sure-footed horse, and you have to draw good. But I love it. It’s at the end of the year, and everybody’s taking a deep breath. It’s a good time for everybody to get together, have a little fun and do some Western stuff on grass, like we do out in the pasture at home.
“I’ve roped a lot of cows and calves in our pasture at home, and there’s a lot more sagebrush there than in that grass arena at Pendleton. Knowing how to get away if we do fall gave me some peace of mind and reassurance. Dad (Jhett) laughed, because I fell off. Of all the Johnsons who’ve roped at Pendleton, I’m the only one to hit the grass.”
They are good sports to make light of it, but we all know it’s not a laughing matter for those who don’t walk away. My NFR header friend Mike Boothe fell and broke his leg at Pendleton in 1995 after roping at the 1993 and ’94 NFRs, and died suddenly and unexpectedly of rare complications in a Pendleton hospital bed.
National Finals Steer Roping qualifier Neal Wood dislocated his knee stepping off on the grass in the steer roping yesterday, and was flown to Portland for MCL and ACL surgery. Northwest cowboy Tygh Campbell got bucked off running cattle out yesterday, broke his pelvis and also was flown to Portland for surgery this morning. I’m so thankful when horses and humans get up and walk away, and pray for positive outcomes for Neal and Tygh.
“Root Beer has a little bit of a grass burn on his left hind leg, but it’s not a big deal,” Kellan said, while driving on to the next one in Utah. “He never took a lame step, and hasn’t since the fall.
“Yes, it’s terrible timing to fall right now. But we can’t be mad. It’s just part of it. Nobody wants it to happen, but if it does, you just have to brush yourself off and go on. I could kind of feel it coming when I pulled my slack, but I thought I’d hit flat and not slide like I did. In hindsight, I maybe could have taken an extra swing to line that steer out, so my horse didn’t have to make such a hard move left. But to have time for that, what I really should have done is a better job on my first steer and not put myself in the position of having to go fast.
“I could hear my grandma scream from the grandstands (Jhett’s mom and dad, Judy and Jamis, were there) as we were going down, so I knew I had to get up, so she wouldn’t worry. ‘Anxiety’ might best describe roping on the grass at Pendleton. But if you wear a cowboy hat, you’ve got to be excited to go out there and do cowboy stuff. I’ll absolutely be back next year.”
World Champion Heeler Patrick Smith has been taking a run at it in 2021 with 2020 Resistol Rookie Header of the Year Tanner Tomlinson. Tanner and Patrick are 30th and 31st in the world this week, and Pendleton is traditionally one of the last hurrahs for big money at regular season’s end. Tanner turned their first steer in Monday morning slack, and Patrick and Turbo took a tumble.
“The first thing we did was draw terrible,” Smith said. “We had one of the stronger steers in the pen, and we knew it. Speed is what creates grass stains at Pendleton, but we didn’t have a choice. Tanner did a phenomenal job of turning the steer to keep us in good position for the average. That steer was just too fast to place on in the round.
“I had already talked myself into not chickening out. Turbo did his job perfectly, but when he jumped into his stop, we were going so fast. When his hind end went out from underneath him, neither one of us saw it coming. I face planted. I have grass stains on my straw hat. What saved me from a big injury was my toe dragged the ground as he was going down, and it bent my leg all the way back to the cantle. If my leg had stayed under him, I don’t think there was any way around breaking something. So I’m grateful for that.”
In all these years, it was Patrick’s first fall at Pendleton.
“This will be my first picture from Pendleton of me laying on the ground,” he said. “I slipped down on Amigo when we were running the steers through one year before it started, but he got back up. Amigo was the greatest heel horse ever on the grass. He knew how to handle his feet. Turbo’s good there also, but going wide open and having to rope on the gain because of being in the position of needing to win created the perfect storm.
“It happened so fast. You can sometimes feel a fall coming when a horse stumbles, but there was no warning this time. We went instantly from upright to Turbo on his side. It’s just a risk we take when we rope at Pendleton, and we all know it. I’m so grateful that my horse and me are totally fine. I hit my head pretty good. And it knocked the wind out of me. But when I realized my leg wasn’t broken, I jumped right up.”
Patrick had shoes with ice nails on Turbo’s feet, and is contemplating going barefoot next time.
“I told the horseshoer the ice nails didn’t work, but he wouldn’t give me a refund,” Smith smiled. “I might try going shoeless next time, because you don’t see a lot of bucking horses fall at Pendleton. Pendleton is a prestigious, cool place to rope, and it’s exciting. It’s just a thrill to compete there. Skydiving’s dangerous, too, and people do it for the same reasons.”
The bright side of having their bubble burst for Patrick was driving straight through to New Mexico to bow hunt elk.
“We’re outside of the bubble now,” Smith said. “But I’m excited about the new year. Tanner’s talent is off the charts, and we’ve really been working on building our run together. We’re looking forward to big things in 2022.”
Veteran NFR header Spencer Mitchell is also outside the 2021 bubble. He made the trek north to Oregon from California to rope with past Pendleton champ Dalton Pearce, because the Round-Up’s on his don’t-miss list. Like Patrick and Kellan, it was Spank’s first time to hit the turf. And his fall on their Round 2 steer in Tuesday morning slack—and subsequent rollover of Jason Duby’s head horse Darcy on top of him—gets the 2021 heart-stopper award so far.
“We didn’t do any good on our first one, so we were trying to win something on our second steer,” Spencer said. “That steer came hard left, so I had to reach over in front of my horse, and as I was trying to get over to the left of the steer, I could feel Darcy’s front end start to slip. That’s when I knew what was coming. As we started down, my only other thought was that I could feel her start to roll, so it was about where she was going to land after that.
“I knew what was coming. For me, the best thing to do was get my feet out of the stirrups and try to get flat. I’ve slipped on the grass before, but have never gone down. I love roping at Pendleton. And I feel like the more you hesitate on the grass, the greater chance you have of getting hurt. Where my little wreck happened, the grass wasn’t quite as torn up as in some other places. I’d go at it the same way again next time, just hopefully with a different outcome. Roping at Pendleton is a rush.”
Darcy had her shoes tacked on with ice nails. Spank’s gone barefoot there before, too.
“Every horse is different on what works best for them,” Spencer said. “All I know is I was very fortunate to walk away from a wreck like that, and that Darcy’s fine, too. Her butt missed my head by about eight inches, and I was lucky that the saddle went up over the top of my legs instead of over my back. Considering what happened, it couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Good luck to all, and Let ’er Buck.