Over the past decade, a big-hearted bay gelding named Roundpen and his trainer, Tammy Key, became household names together.
But aside from their shattered arena records, four Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifications and thrilling five go-round wins at the 2002 NFR, what makes them most distinct is the fact that they're still beating the best in the world after 10 years.
Key-Fischer lives in Ledbetter, Texas, with her husband, Brian Fischer. Her son, Riley Key, was killed in a car accident as this issue went to press.
Key-Fischer is a former elementary school teacher and librarian who began training and selling futurity horses in the early 1990s. Her most famous project got his nickname as a colt when his rogue antics forced people to contain him in a round pen.
With Key-Fischer at the reins, he became the highest-earning 4-year-old futurity horse of 1999. He's nothing if not tough, and bounced back from injuries in 2003-05 and again from a torn suspensory ligament in 2007.
Key-Fischer, who partners with Ariat, Wrangler, Wildfire Trailers, Nutrena, PRO Orthopedic, Impact Gel, Sports Saddle, Luans Leather and Soft-Ride Boots, stepped back on Roundpen just before RodeoHouston in '08, where he won all three SuperSeries rounds and $15,500. Then the race-bred gelding won Guymon, Okla., and placed second at Reno, Nev., last year (clocking a 16.99) to help secure that fourth NFR. Roundpen also loves Calgary, where he was second last year for $36,000, including a 17.03 that was just 0.03 seconds off the arena record he'd set six years earlier.
It's easy to say there'll never be another Roundpen, but there literally are no others of his lineage primed for the pattern. Key-Fischer's family owned Roundpen's dam, Easy Little Oak, but the mare didn't produce much after him. And his sire, Victory Dash, was done breeding by the time Roundpen made it big.
In December, Roundpen overcame a respiratory virus in the early NFR rounds to come back and clock a 13.74 on the final night. He then turned around and won the first big rodeo of this year in Odessa, Texas, and at press time, Key-Fischer sat fifth in the world.
Much of the reason 14-year-old Roundpen is running like he did when he was 4 has to do with "Money." That's the nickname of 6-year-old MP Quick Money, the talented horse that's allowed Key-Fischer to save her MVP for his favorite big rodeos.
The only thing Money (by Mel Potter's NFR barrel stallion Dinero and out of a half-sister to Sherry Cervi's NFR horse Troubles) has in common with Roundpen is that he's an outlaw. He still bucks a little, and was hit-or-miss for a long time.
"I like the challenge," Key-Fischer says. "It's about making me a better rider; finding a better way to break it down. That's what it's about for me."
And as much as she loves running Roundpen, Key-Fischer is ready for the world to know she's no one-horse wonder.
"I want to make the Finals on two horses," she says. "I want to run two different horses at the Finals and have them both do good. I want to prove that I've worked hard and trained well-that I can do it."
Key-Fischer, who served as the WPRA's Texas Circuit Director for a number of years, is passionate about training and believes the sport is about the horse, not the rider.
"There are some great horses out there that, with just a little finesse and a little direction, could be fabulous," she says. "I don't want to pay $50,000 for a horse; I want to pay $2,500 for a yearling and turn him into a $150,000 horse."
Winning the Semifinals at RodeoHouston
For me, this picture is perfect. My horse isn't too close and isn't too far from the barrel. He has just enough room to keep his forward momentum without being in danger of hitting the barrel or having to hesitate and readjust his body position.
Everything is moving. I'm starting to come up out of my saddle to get ready to leave the barrel and my hand is out and "leading" my horse around the barrel. It's a nice steady lead around the barrel - not a jerk. Roundpen is fully stretched out and pulling around the barrel, which makes the turn very smooth and efficient.
He ran in a Simplicity 2 bit as a 4-year-old; then I needed less and went to this twisted-wire O-ring when he was 5. He also goes in a homemade chain tie-down. He leaves the barrels hard and uses the tie-down for balance.
Placing Fourth at Rodeo Austin
In this photo, I'm cutting the corner a little closer than I would like. You can tell by the dirt flying near Roundpen's back legs that he's completely committed to the turn and doesn't have as much forward motion as I like.
I'm way forward in my saddle trying to push him forward so we don't hit the barrel. My hand is down and out to lead him around it. The slightest pull or movement back will cause us to hit this barrel.
Roundpen works hard, and anytime a horse loves his job and turns as hard as he does, barrels can get hit. Usually if I hit one on him, though, it's back there at his tail, because he straightens and leaves so hard. Luckily, the more runs he makes, the freer he gets.
In buildings, since he's a very timid horse that's scared of signs and people, he can get really tight. At building rodeos, I have to get there early enough to ride him around and get him comfortable with the signs and walls.
At the 2008 Wrangler NFR
This photo is taken from a different position in the arena than the others. At this moment, we're almost three-quarters of the way around the barrel.
We have plenty of room to keep forward motion and leave the barrel hard and fast. I'm starting to come up and kick to push him out of the barrel.
Here, Roundpen is fully extending his stride and I am looking where
I want to go. Again, my hand is out and down and leading him around the barrel.
The road to the Finals is a long one. When I haul Roundpen throughout the year, I use lots of shavings, wrap all four of his legs and put Soft-Ride boots on his feet to absorb impact.