When you’re a kid and just starting to get hooked on roping, like I did, there’s an enthusiasm for it that’s really exciting. And it propels you into throwing yourself into doing it all the time, and constantly learning and striving to get better. All the way back when I used to compete on foot at the ropings as a kid—on dummies or when we took turns heeling each other—there was that built-in enthusiasm and eager, positive attitude toward always improving.

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That enthusiasm pushed me forward through the junior rodeos and early jackpot years. For a lot of people, it rises them up through the high school, college and amateur rodeo ranks, too. The constant goal is to keep climbing the ladder, getting better and moving up into the next level of competition. The attitude you maintain and the way you go about the learning process is a never-ending crawl. People like me get absorbed in it, and become fanatics.

There’s kind of a transition, where once you reach that goal—whatever it may have been for you—you start to wonder what’s next. When Jake (Barnes) and I won our first world championship (in 1985), we went from “can we win one?” to “how many can we win?” We looked to Leo Camarillo and Jim Rodriguez, who each had four championships. That was the record—the mark—at that time. So we kept our work ethic going to see if we could top that.

Listen: 

The Score: Season 3, Episode 8 with Clay O'Brien Cooper

Once Jake and I reached five world championships in a row—which back then meant going 100 miles an hour to 125 rodeos a year, plus all the jackpots, and chartering planes—we had conquered our goal of topping four. From there, our focus was on setting up our lives and our futures. We started investing in property and having families. We started to shift to more of a work-minded attitude, and roping became more work than just the excitement of trying to fulfill our goals in the roping arena.

It was after winning our fifth championship that I found myself trying to manage my outlook on it all. It was a struggle, because it’d been several years of blasting 100 miles an hour down the road. I was tired of the travel and all that goes with roping for a living. If you don’t rope for a living, you might not realize that it’s a 24-7-365 job. It’s not an 8-to-5er, where you can punch out, go home and turn on the TV. There’s so much planning and travel and practicing that it’s actually an exhausting chore.

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It’s pretty easy to burn out every few years when all you do is rope. I’ve burned out several times in the 40 years I’ve roped for a living. When you find yourself in that place where roping feels like work and isn’t as fun anymore, you need to look at the big picture and realize the blessing of getting to do what you love. The coronavirus scare, which basically brought roping, rodeo and everything else to a screeching halt, has been quite the reminder of that.

Back to the timeline of our careers, when Jake and I started getting weary and were needing to spend more time at home with our families, we started cutting back on the number of rodeos we entered and focusing on the bigger, better rodeos and jackpots. The new goal was to strike a balance between our job and our families, so we could enjoy the places we roped to pay for and the people who matter most.

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Clay O'Brien Cooper: Don't Overthink Things

Clay O'Brien Cooper: Keep Challenging Yourself 

I loved spending more time at home, practicing and working with my horses. After living on the road for so long, it’s amazing how easy it is to appreciate and enjoy everyday life at home. After my girls got out of high school and were gone, I was able to go back out there on the road for five more years with good horses and good partners. I got to rodeo the way I wanted to at that later stage in my career, and it was a great blessing to be back out there on my terms.

There are so many blessings in our lives, if we’re just willing and able to look for them. For me, that included taking the time to reset and refocus on life’s overall big picture. It always seems like when I get to that place of gratitude for all the good in my life—and am able to see and enjoy the good—it puts me in the best possible place in and out of the arena.

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