We all make mistakes. But some people are better at learning from those mistakes and using them to get better than others. Take the short-round blues, for example. Everybody has bad luck in a short round sooner or later. But if it happens very many times there can be a dark cloud over your head and you can develop a phobia. That’s part of why I’ve always been such a hard worker. I’ve always been the kind who wants to make my own luck. But there are times when no matter how well you prepare, things won’t go your way. Learn to live with that.
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I’ve never been a very good loser. But whether I was winning or losing, I’ve always tried not to get too emotional. You don’t want losing to affect the rest of your life, because you’re going to lose more than you’re going to win and nobody wins every time. There are times when it feels easy and like nothing can stop you. Then there are the times when it feels like the wheels are falling off. But you don’t want that to affect your attitude and your mood, or you’ll just prolong the tough times. Learn to keep things in perspective.
Another mistake I learned from a long time ago was not to safety up too much when I have the lead. The lead is a luxury, and it’s smart to protect it. But if you get out late and that steer gets a jump on you, things can go haywire in a hurry. Ditto if your heeler decides to track a steer too far, then ropes a leg. Knowing when to stay aggressive and also having the ability to back off a little and lay off the barrier just a smidgen without being late is something we all need to learn. There’s no sense breaking out, but you sure don’t want to get out late and be forced to reach and give your heeler a bad handle.
The most embarrassing lesson I ever learned happened early in my career. Clay and I were up somewhere on Halloween night, and when I went to check the draw we had the best steer on ’em. I saw a Lone Ranger mask in the rodeo office, and decided to be cool and wear it when we roped. I got a good start, ran up on that steer, split the horns and missed. I learned a very valuable and humiliating lesson there that night. It was a humbling experience for me. I guess if we’d have won the round, it would have been cool. But I never risked it again.
Another important lesson I learned along the way was the importance of using common sense. As rodeo cowboys, we’ve all been guilty of driving too fast and making all-night drives when we’re tired. I learned a tough lesson late in my career, that first year I roped with Junior Nogueira in 2014. We were driving from Arizona to Rapid City, South Dakota, and got in a wreck on black ice. There are times when you have to stop and realize that what you’re trying to do is not worth it.
I’ve won the Pendleton Round-Up twice (with Clay O’Brien Cooper in 1994 and Boogie Ray in 2003). I’ve also wrecked there twice. The last time was in 2014, when Junior and I were on the bubble and really needed to win something to make the Finals. We were clean on our first steer, then my horse’s hind end slipped out from under him in the second round. My horse did the splits, and I thought I was going to get torn in two when he got up. Junior went ahead and roped the steer, and we were 10. But we missed the short-round cut. I know a lot of guys love that grass, but I learned that it scares me.
The hardest lesson I ever learned was when I cut my thumb off at the NFR. If I had it to do all over again, I’d let my rope go. A lot of people panic and try to pinch it off in the heat of battle. But if it can cost a seven-time world champion his thumb, it can happen to anyone. I don’t care what title or how much money you’re roping for, it’s not worth it.