In this year's balloting for the top PRCA/AQHA Heel Horse, Justin Davis's Take Aim N Fire, or Slim Shady, came in second to Randon Adams's Diesel. The unwritten standard for consideration as a top horse is an established resume from the rider. Justin Davis had never been to the big show in Las Vegas-though he does have one Dodge National Circuit Finals appearance-is only 22 years old and at the time of the voting was teetering on the edge of making his first NFR. (As it turned out, he qualified in the 15th hole.)
Davis grew up in rodeo, his parents own Four Star Rodeo Company in Cottonwood, Calif. As a youngster, he spent nearly every weekend at amateur rodeos, high school rodeos or senior pro rodeos.
Four Star Rodeos bought its PRCA card in 2007 and for the last three years has taken bulls to the Wrangler NFR.
"I grew up roping and my whole family ropes," Davis said. "Both of my uncles are Califorinia amateur champions and circuit finalists. My grandfather is 75 years old and he still ropes to this day."
Justin himself is a two-time California ProRodeo Association Finals champion-winning it once as a 15-year-old.
"Growing up I didn't jackpot a whole lot," he said. "I was always at a rodeo because my parents had a rodeo almost every weekend. I'd exhibition at rodeos and stuff, I rode ponies growing up, I never had a big horse until I was 12 years old. I heeled on three different ponies growing up and I never did anything but heel."
Maybe that experience is why the little 14.1-hand Take Aim N Fire appealed to him.
"He's a little horse, but he's built like a brick outhouse," Davis said. "He weighs almost 1100 pounds. He's little bitty, but he's wide."
Take Aim N Fire was bred by Randy and Sharon Butler of the Broken B Ranch in Gainesville, Texas. His sire, A Chic In Time, has nearly $300,000 in lifetime earnings in the National Cutting Horse Association, National Reining Horse Association, National Reined Cow Horse Association and the American Quarter Horse Association.
But for whatever reason, he didn't make the cut there. Somehow, a roping horse trainer in Oklahoma wound up with the horse and brought him along. Then, fellow California roper Don Gatz, Dennis Gatz's father, bought him as a prospect for Dennis when he made a brief comeback earlier in the decade. As it turned out, however, Dennis never got a chance to try him. Another local amateur roper happened to be at Don Gatz's house when he unloaded Take Aim N Fire.
"The horse walked off the truck and he asked Don, 'What's that horse?' Don said it was a great heel horse. He said, "I'll take him.' He had him for about a month and decided he was too much horse for him," Davis said.
About that time, the winter of 2006, Davis was beginning his professional rodeo career. He tried his hand at the winter rodeos in Texas and after Austin, left and drove all night, arriving home in the wee hours of the morning. His brother-in-law, Robert Staley-who had rodeoed with B.J. Campbell-was going to try a horse.
"I didn't really want to go because I was so tired, but he talked me into it," he said. "We went over there and he rode him, and that horse wasn't quite finished yet. The guy was asking quite a bit of money for him so Robert passed. I asked the guy if he was interested in trading and why he was selling him. He said the horse had too much power and he was looking for something a lower numbered guy could go jackpot on."
It just so happened that Davis had the kind of horse he thought would fit.
"So I told him about my horse to see if he would be interested in making a trade on him," Davis said. "The horse I was talking about was worth about $8,500 and he wanted $20,000 for this one. I took him over there and he run three steers on him and he never caught one. I was thinking the deal wouldn't happen. He told me, 'I'll trade you.' I said, 'Really? How much do you want to give?' He said, 'I'll make you a good deal, I'll just trade you straight across.' I took the horse and got out of there as fast as I could. That's the best deal I ever came across in my life."
At 22 years old, that's no surprise. But it may end up being the best deal he ever gets for the rest of his life.
"He turned out not to be that green," Justin said. "I worked on him for two weeks and I started roping with David Motes the next week and took him to his first rodeo in Laughlin (Nev.) the next week. He turned out to be a great horse, I've turned down a lot of offers from a lot of guys for him."
Even though Davis was new to the game, he knew the kind of horse he had and others noticed, too.
"I was just learning the game, I won a little bit here and there, learning how to win and where to win and come through when the pressure's on," he said. "That horse was a huge part of my success. I'd never really been to any ProRodeos and we kind of learned together. I'd been to rodeos my whole life, but it's different being out there with the big dogs. He's been to almost every rodeo I have."
His only layoff was in 2007 when he pulled his deep flexor tendon on a run at the California Rodeo in Salinas. He was off for the rest of that year and part of 2008, but since then, he's been solid, tough and all business.
"I've had him on since then and every time he shined," Davis said. "He's never screwed me out of a shot one time. Every steer, he makes them as easy to heel as they're going to get, so if I get a leg or miss it was my fault.
"On a long score he can haze. He can run so hard and stop so hard he'll never miss the corner. He never leaves you behind, he's really the ideal horse. If you could think of the perfect heel horse, that's what he is. Short setups, like the NFR, he's gong to be outstanding because he can get out there so fast and I can get out there wide and hold him up out there and as soon as those steers turn-no matter what they do-he's so catty and quick he's going to square up and stop. It doesn't matter what the steer does, he'll never give you a bad throw. He stops so hard and he's so strong for such a little horse and so fast, he makes himself the ideal horse in any arena. Sometimes you only come across one outstanding horse in your lifetime so I'm not getting rid of him. He's only 10 years old and he seems to be sound now, he lasted all year long."
During the winters, Davis stays with Reigning World Champion Randon Adams in Dublin, Texas. Adams, of course, owns the four-time reigning top heel horse in Diesel.
"I've been giving Randon a hard time," Davis said. "I told him when he loses it's going to be to me, and I almost got him this year. We're really good friends. When Diesel goes down, he's going down to Slim Shady.
"When you get on him, it's show time and he knows it. It's cool when you back in the box and people want to watch-not you, but your horse."