Top Hand

From ‘Simple Man’ to Top Hand
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Darrell Pino describes himself as a “simple man,” but he’s got a heart for giving—whether in the arena or out—which earned him a Top Hand award in November.
Horns N’ Heroes Top Hand Darrell Pino, with his wife, Anita.
Horns N’ Heroes Top Hand Darrell Pino, with his wife, Anita. | Tammy St. Denis photo.

Darrell Pino describes himself as a simple man. He is also a member of the Navajo Nation, a Marine Corps veteran and an architectural designer in the Albuquerque area. And a veteran bull rider. When Pino’s body aged out of bull riding in the senior pro circuit at 55—he’s 60 now—he traded in his bull rope for a head rope.

A Top Hand’s Honor

Darrell Pino accepts his Top Hand award from Trey Johnson and Charly Crawford.
Darrell Pino accepts his Top Hand award from Trey Johnson and Charly Crawford. | Tammy St. Denis photo

Three years into Pino’s roping endeavors, he earned himself the Top Hand Award at the 2023 Horns N’ Heroes clinic taught by Charly Crawford and Trey Johnson in Decatur, Texas, as part of the Liberty & Loyalty Foundation’s American Hero Celebration.

“I wasn’t really expecting that,” said Pino, whose children also served. “You know, I’m the kind of an individual that it’s hard to talk about myself. I’d rather be in the background. And I’d rather be helping people to be better.

“So I wasn’t expecting that,” Pino continued, “but I was trying hard to learn and trying to remember everything that Charly was teaching us. So every time he encouraged me and asked me to make a change, I would just really try to apply myself the best I could. To receive that Top Hand Award from him, it’s an honor and it means a lot.”

An Exchange of Gifts

Pino and Crawford first met at another clinic Crawford hosted near Belen, New Mexico, and the local feed store, Old Mill, sponsored Pino, securing a spot for him. Pino was so appreciative of the time and attention Crawford gave him, he gifted the 10-time NFR qualifier with an eagle feather.

“Being Native American, legally, I have a permit to have those feathers,” Pino explained. “The way he took the time to show me about the ropings and how to get better, and just the way he carried himself, it meant a lot to me to show my gratitude to him.”

“I gave a couple of feathers for him and his wife. To me, that’s all I can do. I don’t have anything else to give, but I gave that in friendship and to say, ‘Thanks for taking the time to show me these things.’”

Service Runs Deep

In truth, however, Pino gives greatly. Not only did he give our country his service, but he also raised his children to serve and, between him and his wife, Anita, there are 29 U.S. military veterans in their immediate family, including her grandfather, a World War II code talker.

“I have a son that’s a Marine sergeant,” Pino said. “He lives with us. I have a daughter, she’s a Marine veteran, too; she lives in Norfolk, Virginia. And I have another son who just got out; he did two missions with the Navy as a mineman. Then I have a stepson that did 13 years in the Army.”

Pino and his children each carry the tolls of their service, but the horses help.

“All of us, we’ve got some PTSD stuff happening,” he said. “It’s hard, but this roping, it keeps me going. It’s something I look forward to. When I’m on my horse, there’s some serenity and some peace that comes with it.”

A Simple Man

When Pino arrived at the NRS Event Center where the clinic was being held, he couldn’t help noticing the fancy rigs filling the parking lot.

“I’m a simple man,” he said. “All I have is a two-horse, slant trailer—a bumper pull trailer—and this half-ton Ram truck. Parked back here, it’s kind of tiny compared to all these living-quarter horse trailers, but it’s not about that. It’s about enjoying this time while I’m here. For me, it’s a one-in-a-lifetime kind of feel.”

Recognition and Appreciation

When it came time to recognize one of the 16 participants in this year’s Horns N’ Heroes clinic, Pino was an obvious choice for Crawford.

“I really enjoy this award because there’s always someone that just stands out that has something special to them,” Crawford said. “Somebody who stands out and does a lot to help with the clinic; somebody who stands out and helps a lot of other people. And there’s just times, sometimes, you just see somebody that tries so darn hard and just has such a good attitude.

“And, you know,” Crawford added, “he didn’t maybe let some of the gray hair that we sometimes have in our hair right there or the age right there bother him. He tried hard and did everything we talked about and had such a great attitude. He just stood out to me so much and he was my Top Hand. I got to visit with him later, and he’s a great man.”

Pino is looking forward to roping for the foreseeable future, and he thinks it might be less risky than the bull riding. 

“I think it’s less dangerous,” he said. “But I see some guys with missing fingers, so I don’t know about that.” 

—TRJ—

Thank you to Equinety for helping us share stories of military members, veterans and first responders in the team roping community.

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