Wade Wheatley is a second-generation Wrangler National Finals Rodeo cowboy from Hughson, California. The son of fellow six-time NFR header Jim Wheatley and his Tough Enough to Wear Pink founder and business boss wife, Terry, is 46 now. Wade and his wife, Lacey, have taken a rather unconventional approach with the next generation. They’re raising recreational ropers by design.
Q: How old were you when you knew you wanted to rope for a living?
A: Being my dad’s son and growing up in that circle, that’s just what I was going to do. By the time I was 12 or 13, I knew that I was at least going to try to make the NFR. My dad rode outside horses, so I got to ride a lot of different horses growing up, and kind of got groomed that way.
Q: How old were you when you started roping for a living?
A: I filled my permit at Red Bluff (California) when I was 18 roping with Steve Northcott. I took off and went to Odessa with Cody Cowden at 19, and roped with Allen Bach at the roping there. Bobby Hurley lived around the corner in Ceres back then, so I got to high school rodeo on his bay horse Chubs, that Bobby won the BFI and George Strait on.
Q: How long did it take you to make your first NFR?
A: It took me about five years to make my first one. I tried ’em on every year, but would go part of the year and just never took off for a full year of rodeo. At that time, I was wondering whether to head or heel. I heeled for (NFR header) Wes Moore at the winter buildings in 1999, then switched back to heading after I got cut heeling at Clovis (California) that spring. That’s when I was dating Lacey, and spending that summer up in Washington with her is what kind of seasoned me out. I headed for Brad McDowell, and we went to a bunch of rodeos—mostly amateur rodeos where you could go twice. I learned how to win up there.
Q: There was a special yellow horse that was part of it all, wasn’t there?
A: Yes, I’d been heeling on Woody, and my dad had headed on him quite a bit, too. When I went back to heading, Woody went with me.
Q: You made your first Finals with childhood friend Kyle Lockett in 2000.
A: Yes, I made it when I learned how to be a professional header and turn a bunch of steers. That horse I had was awesome, and Kyle had gotten Dinero the winter before. Dinero was the (2000) Heel Horse of the Year. We came out of that winter with $20,000 won, and had the Finals made after Salinas (California) that summer.
Q: What stands out now about that first NFR?
A: Winning the round on the first steer I ever ran at the NFR was pretty cool.
Q: Your best rodeo year had to be 2002, when you and Kyle were the reserve world champs behind Speed Williams and Rich Skelton. What highlights stand out about that season 20 years later?
A: The first two years we roped together, I was trying to win rounds. But it wasn’t a controlled aggressive. By 2002, I’d learned the formula. And that to have a chance to win the world you need a top-four finish in the average at the Finals. I figured out how to turn eight out of 10 steers instead of four or five.
Q: Refresh us on your six NFR partners. Your dad’s, too, while we’re at it.
A: I roped with Kyle from 2000-2002; Britt Bockius in 2003; Matt Zancanella in 2004; and Kyle again at my last one in 2005. My dad headed for John Bill Rodriguez from 1973-76, and Stan Melshaw at the 1978 and ’81 NFRs.
Q: What was it about you and Kyle’s chemistry that made him your career partner?
A: Kyle and I roped together when we were kids, so we just knew each other so well—especially in that building (Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas). When we went back to the Finals in 2005, we just picked up where we left off. We won the first round, and were that year’s high-money winners at the NFR ($83,966 a man).
Q: How old were you when you were so burned out that you walked away?
A: Kyle and I stopped rodeoing together in 2007. I went to the winter rodeos with (Cory) Petska in 2008, and Broc (Cresta) in 2009. The last time I rodeoed all summer was 2011, when I roped with Champ (Clay Cooper). The travel wore me out. Once I came home, I couldn’t hardly make myself leave again. By 2015, I’d gotten rid of all my horses and ropes, and completely stepped away.
Q: What have these last few years since then looked like?
A: We’ve been raising kids. Ryan’s 19, John’s 16 and Page is 13 now. We bought my in-laws’ place in Wittmann (Arizona) in 2020, and spend winters there now. I hadn’t been on a horse in six years before 2020, but I head and heel for the boys now at home. I don’t enter, but it’s fun to rope at home as a family. Ryan had ridden some to brand, but John and Page had hardly been on a horse until 2020. It’s been good to be home every day. The boys played football, I got to coach and we do a lot of golfing.
Q: Were you not the guy who swore his sons would not be third-generation rodeo ropers?
A: Yes, and I think I held them off long enough. They’ll hopefully be jackpot guys who have jobs. My boys have the roping bug, but they just rope two or three days a week, and would rather go to a jackpot than a junior rodeo. Page barrel races and breakaway ropes. All the stuff we have is from rodeo, but it’s such a hard game if you think you’re going to build a retirement plan out of it. I still watch rodeo, and I still love it. But I had to step away to get it out of my system. I enjoy roping again now. But I’ve really enjoyed being a regular Joe. Kyle and I didn’t quit because we couldn’t catch anymore. We just both got to the point where our hearts were at home.
Q: So you’re raising recreational ropers?
A: My boys watch the rodeos with me, and see how tough it is. You have to have a big commitment to horsepower to stay on top, and they’re still beginners. Ryan’s a #5 heeler, and John’s a 4+ header. They’ve had a crash course in roping the last three years, but we look at roping as a fun thing to do as a family. When you get away from the rodeo circle, going to ropings is a fun family outing. Some of the NFR guys, like the Minors, are in our Arizona neighborhood. So that’s fun. We listen to good music and rope.