When they handed that gold buckle to Tyler Wade at the close of the 2023 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, it was a ceremonial gesture. Nothing’s ever been handed to TWade, and his first world team roping title was actually the culmination of a lifelong journey that was anything but easy. He was not raised with privilege. His was a path paved with potholes that included trading a college education for a lesson in getting his ass handed to him straight out of high school, and hard life choices that bucked peer pressure and weren’t always popular with the cool kids.
TWade’s parents, Jerry and Raelyn, have a commercial roping arena in their hometown of Terrell, Texas. They built an indoor arena in 2000, but before that had a modest outdoor about 100 yards from their trailer house.
“My room faced the arena, and I can remember being sent to bed because the roping was on a school night,” Tyler said. “It was right there outside my bedroom window, so I had a front-row seat, and always watched the roping into the night.”
Little Tyler was rarely seen without a rope in his hand. When he started roping horseback, he was all about heeling. Being a consistent catcher catapulted the happy-go-lucky kid up the roping ranks. Then came the screeching halt at 19, when teen TWade had to make a complete career pivot.
A Tough Transition
“I was a 9+ heeler and a 7 header that first year I started heading, in 2011,” he said. “I naturally heeled pretty good at the high school level, because I could catch two feet. But going straight from high school to the amateurs and pro rodeos was a rude awakening for me.
“I was not prepared, most of the heelers out-roped me, and I wasn’t getting the runs (headers) I wanted to get, because I heeled half as good as the guys at the amateur rodeos. My number was so high that the numbered ropings were out the window. The 15s were about all I could rope in, and I couldn’t survive on that. I was broke, and I completely started over and started heading on all my heel horses that were big enough.”
It was a tough and total transition, but TWade’s will found a way. He said yes to more work and a hard no to distractions and excuses.
“When I was 19 and switching over to heading, I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing,” said the now 31-year-old husband to Jessi and dad to 5-year-old son Weston; the Wades are expecting a baby girl on April 1. “It was probably the biggest blessing ever that I finished short (of making the NFR) a few times (three times in the top 20) before I ever made it. Those letdowns showed me that I wasn’t putting in enough effort.”
Making Positive Changes
At 20, TWade did manage to top all heading newcomers as the 2012 Resistol Rookie Header of the Year. But he finished short of his NFR goals in 17th. That was it. The beer drinking and all the other bad habits had to go. Changes made, Wade made his first NFR in 2016. Coincidence? He thinks not.
“The year I made my first NFR is the year I stopped drinking, started getting up early to feed my horses and clean all the stalls and the trailer, and going above and beyond in all aspects,” he said. “I also made more of an effort to keep a good attitude. Changing those bad habits into good ones paid off, and I’ve stuck with the better version of me ever since.
“I changed literally everything about how I was going about it, and even if you go back and watch me head in 2016—when I made my first NFR—that’s not even the same person I am now. I was 20 pounds heavier, and everything from my loop to my horses and mental game weren’t as good.”
TWade made that first Finals as a fifth-year pro in 2016 heading for fellow young roping rat Dakota Kirchenschlager. Tyler roped with Cole Davison at the 2018 and ’19 NFRs, Trey Yates in 2021 and ’22, and of course Wesley Thorp at NFR ’23.
After being second and third partners at the jackpots the past few years, Wade and Thorp joined forces just in time for the 2023 Clark County Fair & Rodeo in Logandale, Nevada the first week in April. At regular season’s end, TWade rolled into the 65th annual NFR ranked second in the world, and Thorp went in No. 1 on the heeling side for the first time in his career. It was a proud second for Tyler behind Kaleb Driggers.
“I think Driggers stepped the game up so much that it made everybody else do the same,” Wade said. “I still think him and Junior are the best team. Those are the guys you have to get around day in and day out, and they’re good in every scenario.”
Standing on Business
But in 2023, center stage belonged to Team TWade and Thorp, who are both now team roping millionaires when it comes to career earnings.
“On the roping side, Tyler’s as fast as anybody going. So when we get on a roll, we win big checks pretty fast,” said eight-time NFR heeler Thorp, who also won the world in 2019. “His greatest strength might be his mental game. He keeps a good attitude even when things aren’t going his way, which makes it easier to ride the wave and turn it around faster. He’s not out there with overrated expectations hating the world when it’s not going perfect.
“Tyler stays on top of his business. He writes all the steer numbers down, knows what they all do, and keeps his horses prepared. Our goals match up well inside and out of the arena. We both have families, we want to make a living doing the best we can, and we do whatever it takes to give ourselves the best chance. Everything just aligns.”
About Those Head Horses
Imagine the three-ring cowboy circus when Weston Wade, 5, and Matthew and Charlie Thorp, 6 and 4, hit town. And about those head horses. Wade’s now had two bay heart horses in his career. First, there was Fonzie (Down Wind Dash). Now it’s Spur (Espuela Bro, who got his start under the guidance of NFR header Joe Murray).
“I rode Fonzie from 2016-18, then at the 2019 winter rodeos before he just couldn’t go anymore,” TWade said. “When he was done, I tried getting by on just OK horses. But that doesn’t work. I bought Spur from a guy in Deadwood in the summer of 2019, after trying him in a grass arena with no tractor on five fresh steers that had never been roped.”
Tyler then took Spur to Steamboat Springs, Colorado to try him at a rodeo, but he was too sore to rope on. The bad news: Spur needed surgery to remove a bone chip. The great news: The surgery and Equinety saved the day. Also, Coy Brittain and Coleman Proctor loaned Wade horses to finish the regular season and make another Finals, and refused mount money.
“Fonzie and Spur (who he’s ridden at the 2019, 2021-23 NFRs) were my game changers,” TWade said. “They both have the speed of barrel horses, do their job pretty sharp and aren’t one-dimensional. They just adapt, and let you do whatever you need to do. Heck, Fonzie let me win Cheyenne (in 2016).”
Wade is perhaps proudest of the versatility he’s worked so hard to achieve, because coming through consistently and in all conditions is key to making a living with a rope.
“When I first started heading, I could maybe beat the best guys at a Tuesday jackpot for $150,” he remembers. “But not at the big ones on the weekends, when the chips were down. The best guys turn a switch on, step up and shine when the big money’s up. I feel comfortable winning in all scenarios now, too. But it took a lot of losing, and there were a lot of learning curves.”
This is a world champion who didn’t dare count his roping-dream chickens before they hatched and he actually backed in the box at the Thomas & Mack. Nothing’s changed there, by the way.
“It’s dang sure true that I didn’t really know if I could,” he said. “Then I thought if I could just make it once and prove I could do it, it would be cool. Now we just won the world, and I’m still concerned about making it again. It’s such a rough road out there. You can make all the plans you want—partners, horses, rigs—but still never know how it’s going to work out. We just won the world, and I’m still concerned about getting enough money won to make it again.”
This is all still so unbelievable to him that there’s a goat roping buckle on his belt.
“It hasn’t hit me that I’m a world champion, and I don’t know if it ever will,” TWade said. “I won this goat roping buckle in Guymon (Oklahoma), with the plan to wear it as punishment until I won a worthy one. I replaced it with my rookie buckle, then waited six years to replace that with my first NFR go-round buckle in 2018. When we won the gold buckle the other day, I put the goat roping buckle back on.”
From late nights watching the roping out his bedroom window in that trailer house to wearing a goat roping buckle instead of the gold, don’t ever accuse Tyler Wade of forgetting where he came from or the army of people who helped him get to today.
“I think about all the people it took to get that gold buckle—the partners, people who let me stay at their house, the buddy who would drive a horse to me and not take a dime, guys who come over to just open the gate, the people I call for advice, the sponsors, not to mention my wife and mom and dad,” TWade said. “Nobody makes it out here alone.
“Wesley and I are pretty tight, and we both work really hard to be versatile. My plan is to just stay at it, and work to set myself up to not have to work a 9 to 5 when I’m 50 if I don’t want to. We have some good horses, and the morale on our team is strong. I still have a lot to learn, but it’s pretty cool to know I keep getting better.”