Brayden Chee hefted his rope, studying the set of horns on the dummy set 27 feet in front of him. The 9-year-old boy adjusted his loop, the familiar “zip, zip” sound of the rope filling the room at the Plaza Casino in Las Vegas. His roping arm encased in a white plastic splint, Chee took his shot.
Chee lost his thumb just weeks before in a November roping accident. By the time the RopeSmart World Championship dummy roping began in December, he’d already undergone surgery to reattach his thumb and relearned to rope with his pointer and middle finger.
Original Publication: Feb. 2023 issue
For Chee, earning his World Champion title in that final catch at the RopeSmart competition was validation of his intense dedication to his craft—a dedication that’s stretched his entire lifetime and began in the remote, dusty expanses of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.
His tenacity followed him throughout the slate of dummy roping competitions that happen in conjunction with the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. When all was said and done, Chee had garnered another reserve world championship and a top-10 finish.
The feat, however, was not without risk.
“The only thing that’s holding his thumb together is pins and wire,” Chee’s mom Serena Warren said. “I’m not going to lie; I was scared for those pins in that hand. When you’re reaching at 27 feet, throwing as hard as you can, anything could happen.”
Shoestrings and Chickens
Chee grew up in a rural farming and ranching community in Leupp, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. Warren described it as a food desert, with one store and at least a 60-mile round trip to Winslow or Flagstaff for other items. She also explained that approximately 70% of the community is without running water, and approximately 40% of the community is without electricity.
“It’s a simple life,” Warren said. “As simple as hauling your own water and turning on your generator for electricity. It’s mainly dirt—no trees; tumbleweeds everywhere.”
Chee grew up spending almost every waking moment outside working hard helping his grandparents and doing ranch work. His first rope was a shoestring, and his first roping stock were chickens.
“I always tell people the umbilical cord was his first rope,” Warren said. “He was born to rope. When he was 1 year old, we started off with a shoestring, and the rope just got bigger and bigger. He eventually started roping sheep and goats, along with helping his grandparents haul water, feed the animals and turn on the generator to get power to their house.”
At the age of 3, Chee began competing in dummy roping competitions. In 2017, at the age of 4, he won the Reno Rodeo Dummy Roping and brought home his first buckle.
Chee rides and ropes horseback with his dad Brandon Chee, too. At the age of 7, he was roping the dummy off a horse, slowly progressing to cattle. As he improved, he worked on his dally, eventually heading for Brandon. In April of 2022, Chee and Brandon entered a #9 team roping in Gilbert, Arizona, and finished in the top 10—just out of the prizes.
Missing: Right Thumb
It was a brisk day with highs in the mid-40s on Nov. 12 when Chee headed out to rope with Brandon on their family ranch. Chee caught his steer and dallied, but his dally came undone as the steer kept running, catching his hand in the rope. Chee’s reaction after the accident was shock, and Warren thinks the adrenaline kept him composed throughout the doctor’s visits and surgery preparation.
Warren swooped in and took Chee to the Winslow, Arizona, medical center while several generations of family searched for a right thumb in the arena.
“His thumb was gone,” Warren said. “Completely gone. His maternal grandparents, paternal grandparents and his uncle were crawling around inside the arena trying to find it. And it was nowhere to be found, even where the incident had happened.”
[READ MORE: Rodeo Thumb: Research on Whether to Save or Amputate]
As the sun set, the thumb was found severed at the metacarpophalangeal joint (the large joint where the thumb meets the hand) outside the arena about 40 feet from where the accident occurred. It was wrapped in a package of frozen broccoli and rushed to Winslow, where Chee and Warren were airlifted to Phoenix’s Children’s Hospital.
Following an 8-hour surgery, Chee’s thumb was back—just without the nerves and one of the crucial tendons. Next was a 10-day stint in the ICU as doctors worked to get the blood flow back into his thumb. Even then, Chee was forming a plan to get back to roping.
Warren tried to convince Chee that Las Vegas wasn’t going to be possible—that it was unreasonable to put that much strain on his right hand. According to Warren, the only time Chee cried throughout the ordeal was when he was told he couldn’t go compete. His request?
“I just want to rope,” Chee said.
Splint Alterations for ‘School’
Chee’s splint held his thumb rigidly and went up to the middle knuckles of his fingers. With his right hand out of commission following his hospital stay, Chee began roping with his left hand—making remarkable progress in less than a week. For him, Las Vegas was a “go,” he was just going to rope with his left hand instead.
“So, when we went back for the follow-up on Dec. 2, he asked the doctor, ‘Can you guys cut my splint down from my fingers?’ He said it was for school so he could hold his pencil,” Warren explained. “They cut the splint down to his knuckles and even gave him a pencil to test it. But it was [actually] because there was no way he could hold his rope in his right hand.”
Two days before his competition in Las Vegas on Dec. 8, Chee began roping with his right hand again, because he found he had better reach with it.
“I’m better with my right hand than my left,” Chee said matter-of-factly.
Roping With A Few Fingers
When Chee arrived in Las Vegas, he did so with the mission of showing others that anything is possible. His steely determination had Warren both inspired and white-knuckle-gripping people’s hands as he competed.
“Our main reason for going to Vegas was to show other kids that anything is possible, whether you’re injured or not,” Warren said. “Anything’s possible with a thumb or not.”
Chee garnered titles in two competitions: the RopeSmart Rope for the World Championships Dec. 8 and the World Championship Dummy Roping Dec. 9–10.
“I was excited and kind of nervous,” Chee said. “I was nervous because of my thumb, but I wanted to win. I wanted to keep on catching.”
[READ MORE: When the Glove Comes Off: Finger Injuries in Team Roping]
Competing in his age group of 7- to 9-years-olds, Chee finished as World Champion in the RopeSmart competition with a personal best of 27 feet and in the top 10 in the World Championship Dummy Roping. From there, he “roped up” into the 10- to 12-year-old age group and finished as Reserve World Champion. In all, Chee received a RopeSmart dummy of his choice, a saddle, several buckles and rope bags, among other prizes. It was a success for a trip that almost didn’t happen.
Throughout the competitions, Chee prayed to God and listened to Joel Osteen’s message “Ready to Rise.”
Chee still has a long way to go before his thumb is fully functional. Shortly after Las Vegas, he underwent a second surgery to remove pins, dead skin and add a skin graft to the thumb. He still has a third surgery in the wings, too, for a new tendon to make his thumb fully functional. In all, Chee is looking at approximately a year of healing and recovery.
Despite the long road ahead, Chee will undoubtedly face it with a rope in his hand.
Anatomy of a Dummy Roping Competition
Dummy roping competitions are competitive, kid-friendly and not for the faint of heart. There are three age brackets for ropers: 6-and-Under, 7–9 and 10–12. Competitors must make three legal head catches before advancing to a knock-out round. Then, the distance thrown is increased until only one roper remains.