Charly Crawford stood at the back end of the arena, in the belly of Houston’s NRG Stadium, looking at the scoreboard as he uncinched his green 9-year-old mare. He’d see Nick Sartain and Rich Skelton go out after him with a miss on the head side. He hadn’t ridden the mare at many rodeos, and he was grateful she worked good enough for a 5.8 second run. He’d watch Riley and Brady Minor go, with Brady roping a leg to be 5.6 plus 5. As he bent down to pull off her boots, he looked up at the scoreboard again and watched the last team of Adam Rose and York Gill rope another leg to be 5.7 plus five.
Then, before he had those boots strapped to his stirrups, four-time world champion bareback rider Bobby Mote jumped off the back of the bucking chutes and ran to Crawford with that big Bobby Mote grin, and said, “Charly! You just won Houston!”
“He dang near slapped my hands off!” Crawford said. “Then it just sunk in that I won the biggest rodeo of the year. It was the first time I’d even made the final four there. I couldn’t believe it; I’ve never won anything like that before. When I was uncinching, I thought if I could win third, that would be really cool. Then I saw I had a chance to win second, and I thought, ‘Man, second would be really cool.’ But until Bobby came and told me I won it, I didn’t ever think it was going to happen.”
Through all of Crawford’s disbelief, his partner, 24-year-old Shay Carroll, was standing at the back of the head box with a completely different mindset. Going into the shootout round, he “had a feeling.” As the first team out, he got back to the head box as the last three teams were roping and watched them drop off, with the kind of confidence that comes with knowing you’ve done the best you could on the steer you drew.
“I thought we had a good chance,” Carroll said. “I had a feeling, before the final four, that I thought we’d win it. I just had a feeling.”
For both header and heeler, the road to that $50,000 a man payday was paved with a whole lot of horses. Crawford lost Spin To Win Rodeo Head Horse of the Year Patron in 2014 in the Northwest to colic, and he’s been struggling to find a replacement ever since. He got to the 2014 WNFR on horses borrowed from guys like Trevor Brazile and Dustin Bird, and at the Finals he rode two-time College National Finals Champ Billy Bob Brown’s gelding.
“This is my rebuilding year, trying to get my horses ready to go,” Crawford said. “I sold a lot of the ones I had after Patron died. I’ve been looking for horses that are more dominant in a certain set up. My mare, Stripper, is good inside, good to reach on in short scores. My big horse, Freight Train, is better in longer set ups. I bought a bull dogging horse off of Stan Branco and he’s big and strong and will be good for the summer time. He knows a little bit, he runs real hard. It won’t take him too long to learn to read the run, and because he wants to run, he’ll stay free throughout the summer. One won’t have to take all the heat. They’re all going to be pretty green. It’s like trying to piece together a football team, trying to find out what their strengths and weaknesses are. I don’t have all the money in the world, so I’m not out there buying the first-round draft picks. It’s liking looking for undrafted free agents who might work. I’ve learned a lot about what I’m looking for from riding the good ones I’ve had, so that makes it easier.”
Crawford rode Freight Train, the 9-year-old green gelding, in RodeoHouston’s three-header qualifying round and semifinals. Round 1 of RodeoHouston was, quite literally, Freight Train’s first rodeo. On that first steer, the flag fell in 7.9 seconds to earn $5,000 a man for the round win. They were 9.2 on their second run, and they bounced back at 6.5 to tie for third on their third steer. In Houston’s qualifying rounds, Crawford’s gelding earned $8,700. He rode the horse again in the semifinals to advance to Houston’s round of 10 with a 7.5-second, $1,000-a-man run.
“I never did get a very good start, honestly,” Crawford admitted. “My horses are pretty green, one minute they score a little too good. Freight Train was just green enough that there was a little bit of a delay, but luckily he runs hard enough and the cards fell in our favor that we snuck through the semifinals and final ten in fourth.”
Crawford decided to hop on Stripper, the 9-year-old mare he bought last fall, before the round of 10. They were 7.6, sneaking back to the championship shootout in the last hole.
“I try to not beat myself,” Crawford said of his focus going into that last round. “I try to control what I can control and stick to my game plan. That’s what I did, and it turned out in my favor. I don’t go anywhere thinking about winning, I think about the process. I think about what steer I draw, how I ride my horse, making my run how I want to make it. How it all turns out in the end is how it all turns out. I go home and work on the mistakes I make, and go to the next one. I dang sure won’t walk in there and tell anybody I’m going to win it. You’ve got to learn to overcome your mistakes, and sometimes you’ll not make a mistake and win something. That keeps me from going through the roller coaster.”
On the back side, Carroll has been adjusting not just his horses but his horsemanship, too, for 2015. Spending time with rope horse trainers Jackie Hobbs-Crawford, Lari Dee Guy and Clay Logan changed his riding for the better, and while Carroll adjusts to the changes, he’s riding the only horse he owns that fits his new style.
“I’ve been seeking advice to try to get more control,” Carroll said. “I ask Jackie and Lari Dee—they’re a really, really big part of my team. Clay Logan has been a huge help. In this situation, I’ve been struggling with how to keep them behind the bridle. I’ve gotten help from cow horse guys and reiners, and sometimes in roping it’s different than those disciplines. Clay helped out a lot because he’s been through the same thing that I have. He rides those cutters and reiners and makes them into heel horses and he knows where that fine line is.”
Carroll has stuck with his 14-year-old red roan, Salt, through the transition. He’s had the horse since his freshman year of college when he bought him from Junior Myers in Yuma, Colo., but the horse has suddenly become Carroll’s number-one horse with the change.
“That one does what I’ve been working on, and that’s what makes him so good,” Carroll said, talking about the way he’s keeping his horses behind the bridle and in control. “Now that I’ve got that feel, I can capture it in the other horses. He’s made it so easy it’s hard to get off of him.”
Carroll’s been riding this horse most of the winter—his first winter to hit all of the big rodeos in Texas. He decided to finish school at Tarleton State in Stephenville before hitting the road last year with Crawford, so this is the time he’s gotten to rope in all of the Texas buildings.
“It’s been a lot busier than I expected it would be,” Carroll said. “I think we’ve been to nine rodeos and we won $19,000. Last year when we started at Reno, I had $6,200 won. It’s a good start.”
Carroll predicts that with the changes he’s made in his horsemanship and the team of horses Crawford has assembled, their team will be a consistent force through the summer months.
“We aren’t going to be a team that’s real streaky,” Carroll explained. “I don’t think we’ll go a whole month without pulling a check. We’re going to have so many chances to win. I’m going to pick and choose where to ride that roan. I still have Sportscenter, he’s 100-percent. And I’ve got horse deals in the works that I could have some really good ones by the end of the month on top of the ones I’ve got.”
While Carroll might be buying some more horses with some of that $50,000 he won at Houston, Crawford is busy catching up on bills from the rough go he had in 2014. The team didn’t have the Finals Crawford needed to catch up on the vet bills from Patron’s death. The money is nice—Crawford will be the first to admit that—but for the veteran header, the win was about way more than what’s going in the bank.
“It was good for my confidence,” Crawford said. “It helps a bunch. I don’t know how many times I’ve told (his wife) Jackie, ‘I wonder what I lack? I wonder what Clay Tryan and Trevor Brazile have that I don’t?’ But to be able to do it, it makes you think, ‘Maybe I am good enough now. Maybe it’s something I am capable of doing.’ It’s not like I’ve not gone to the BFI or those big ropings enough times. After a while, you’ve been so close to those ones that could change your life, you come up short and you don’t know what it is that holds you back. You do win one of them, like this at Houston, it’s one of those things you can’t describe where God is able to use you and keep you patient and keep you trying.”
For Carroll, too, the win reaffirmed why he’s spending his life rodeoing. The Colorado cowboy who moved to Texas to pursue his rodeo career did so with a lot more than just big paychecks in mind.
“This was more of a personal challenge on how I handle myself in those situations,” Carroll said. “Sometimes I fail, but when I do good, it makes me feel like I’m really doing well. I’m rodeoing because I want to see how I handle myself in those situations. At the NFR, one night I’d handle it well, and the others I didn’t. It’s up and down and some of my best times were at the NFR and some of my worst times were at the NFR. All the times I’ve had success in those situations, my mental game has been the same. It’s trying to find it every time. It’s the easiest practice run you’ve ever made. Everything slows down, and it’s just slow motion and there’s no nerves or anything. You’re just so focused on your job. That’s when I know I’m at the top of my game. When I fail and it’s not there, I know it.”
The money doesn’t hurt either, especially when you’re a young guy getting married in May.
“The amount of money hasn’t really hit yet,” Carroll said. “All the things I’m going to get to do—honestly, we’re just planning on saving most of it and doing what we’re doing and piecing our place together. We want to try to make it go as far as possible. We’re going to kind pick and choose.”
Though the RodeoHouston doesn’t count toward the PRCA’s World Standings, the momentum Crawford and Carroll gained from the win should propel the duo into the busiest time of year for rodeo cowboys, all with the confidence that 2015 won’t just be a rebuilding year. The RodeoHouston saddles sitting in their living rooms should confirm that they’re team is, in fact, rebuilt.