When the Rodeo Road Ends: Life After Rodeo with Jake Barnes
What happens when the rodeo road ends? Jake Barnes talks reinventing his life at 63.
Grandpa Jake loves his family even more than roping. | Barnes Family photo

At 63, I’m reinventing my life. I don’t go try to make the (Wrangler) National Finals Rodeo (presented by Teton Ridge) anymore. I still rope every day. But at what point do you say “enough’s enough?” And do you cut yourself off from the rodeo trail cold turkey, or just fade away gradually? 

I’ve chased the NFR and world championships since my rookie year in 1980, and I’ve had more than my share of success. I’ve also dealt with major injuries, like losing the thumb on my roping hand, a knee replacement and a major head injury. I’ve always fought my way back, but I’m 63 years old now. At what point do you throw in the towel, and call it a career?

[READ MORE: The View from the Other Side with Jake Barnes]

When I cut my thumb off roping with Kory (Koontz) at the 2005 NFR, it took me quite a while to get back to it. Since the head injury practicing with Junior (Nogueira) before the 2015 NFR, I haven’t been out there full-time trying to make the Finals. My knee replacement was four years ago already. It all seems like yesterday, but time marches on. 

It’s true what they say about Father Time being undefeated. Age catches up with us all sooner or later, and we have to face the fact that the road doesn’t go on forever. It might, but we can’t stay out there on it forever. 

Clay (Cooper) and I have put on roping schools full-time the last few years. We don’t jump in the rig and chase rodeos anymore. But we still rope every day, and I buy and sell a few horses. 

But you never really give up the dream. It’s still in my head that I could have another shot if I came up with another great horse. Reality says that it’s extremely hard to get back in the game when you don’t get into the winter rodeos. And at this point, I’m not willing to pay the price for another Hail Mary. 

[READ MORE: What’s Your Reason for Roping?]

I’m lucky to have pulled off two of those in my career—one with Boogie Ray, and another with Walt Woodard. But you aren’t going to pull unlimited rabbits out of your hat. And I’m looking at having my other knee replaced now, so that’ll be another setback. 

Still, if I’m totally honest with myself, it’s not clear in my head that my rodeo days are 100% behind me. If I could just stumble onto that next great horse, my mind thinks I can still hang with these guys. My body begs to differ. But while a lot of people golf, fish and ski in their retirement, all I see is a lot more roping in mine. 

I still go to the arena every day with the goal of trying to get better. That might sound so silly to some at this stage of life, but it’s how my mind works. And Clay loves it as much as I do, so we’re the perfect pair. To be competitive at the highest level, you have to be all-in. We aren’t going to just suddenly be all-out now. 

I don’t care who you are, there comes a day when you start losing a step. I’ve worked so hard for so long to try and be the best. I don’t want to be that guy people lose respect for. Maybe that’s why the roping schools make so much sense for us now. They let us share our love of the game with people trying to get better. It’s an outlet for everything we’ve experienced and learned that helps others. And helping people has become our passion. 

[READ MORE: Jake Barnes’ 12 Keys to Handling Cattle]

Some people accept the end of their cowboy careers better than others. I admire guys like Ty Murray and Trevor Brazile, who were so clear about knowing it was time to be done. At some point, we all face pulling the shoes and being turned out to pasture. 

Thankfully, there are ways today to stay tied to your love of the game. I’m interested in the rope-horse futurities and see that as an outlet for working hard every day without having to hit the road full-time. Everybody deals with the end of careers differently. I just want to stay thankful and positive, and make the most of it.

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