It was with tears of joy that Tana Poppino won the National Western Stock Show Rodeo in 2006 and then went on to qualify for her first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
For more than 20 years, she'd been competing in the WPRA as a wife and mother with an 8-to-5 job, so to reach rodeo's pinnacle on a horse that she trained was truly a dream come true.
It came aboard a bay gelding named Perryman Star ("Amigo") that landed her eighth in the world that year. Tana and her husband, steer roper Marty Poppino, had picked up the cutting-bred Amigo on a trade seven years earlier.
Because of the cow horse's unconventional style, Poppino's success was even sweeter. Amigo slides a little into the turn before pushing with his front end to come around like a cutting horse, which demands perfect timing from Poppino.
Tana and Marty, who have a 19-year-old son, Brodie, buy young horses to train and sell, and they own a trailer dealership called Cowboy Rigs near their home in Big Cabin, Okla.
Tana went back to Las Vegas in 2007, when she finished 14th in the world, but then Amigo was sidelined in 2008 with a bone chip in a hind ankle. That's when Poppino started seasoning another cutting-bred prospect?an 8-year-old gray gelding named Doc Hickory's Cross ("Goose").
The gelding's sire is by Doc's Hickory?the No. 4 all-time leading cutting sire?out of a Poco Tivio daughter. And Goose's mama, Dialas Cross, is by a grandson of AQHA Hall of Famer Blondy's Dude out of a Johnny Dial granddaughter. Goose was raised and started by Larry Evans of Oklahoma, and was a "really ugly little horse as a 5-year-old," Poppino recalls. She wasn't impressed with Goose's dished face or minimal rear end, plus, he was extremely lazy.
Poppino figured the horse would never be able to run, but since anybody could ride him, she anticipated selling him to someone running in the third division at barrel races, which pays competitors running one second slower than the winning time.
But when Amigo went out for six months with an injury in March 2008, Poppino had to switch horses. Goose soon made headlines, winning a round at Fort Worth later that winter. The two were enjoying a breakout 2009 season? until Poppino broke her ankle at Reno.
She healed up, and in February Goose had taken her to number three in the 2010 world standings, which also allowed Poppino to save Amigo for ground that suits him.
Goose had not only handled the heat of professional rodeos, but Poppino reckons the pressure might have been just what the lazy, laid-back young gelding needed.
Now she has her best chance ever to go back to the NFR, and she's doing it with the help of sponsors that include Cowboy Rigs, Total Health Enhancement, EquiPride and Professional's Choice.
Because Amigo runs off when he gets nervous, I use a metal hackamore and tie-down on him. I don't like the fact that it makes him even stiffer, but I've won lots more with it than with anything else.
The ground is hard at Vegas, and it's tough for Amigo to turn there because his back end either sticks or slides too much. Here, he's really using his toes to get a grip and push off. I'm using my right hand to push on the horn and keep my body in the middle of him to not throw him off-balance.
I'm also gripping and pushing with my right leg to help him come around, and my hand is out flat to neck-rein him. My hackamore is really useless once the run starts, but it sure helps in the alleyway!
The ground at Odessa is so heavy and the distance so short between the first two barrels that it's really hard to get a lot of speed built up going to the second barrel.
When Goose gets tense, he focuses more, so I have to be very careful not to override and get in his mouth during a run, or he'll turn too tight or too quick. He tries so hard that I really have to remember to trust him and push him almost past the barrels.
Goose was really focused on turning here, so I have my inside leg in him bending and lifting his ribcage and urging him forward.
My hand is lifting slightly but not pulling. My eyes are looking where I want Goose's front feet to hit next (in my second run, I forgot this step, which caused him to hit the barrel).
Goose was really running hard at Ft. Worth, but you can see his body staying level, so he handled the ground well. His left hind leg is well up under him to allow his front end to come on around without slowing down very much.
His style is to stand up, bend and reach around the barrel, which allows him to make more consistent runs on many different kinds of ground. He's very light-mouthed, and he likes his bridle hanging very low and loose in his mouth.
Normally, I lift with my inside hand, but I dropped my hand here to help guide his nose on around the barrel. I'm really trying to keep my weight in the outside stirrup, as I keep my upper body square and use my outside leg to help bring him around.
For more on Tana Poppino or to read her blog, visit www.tanapoppino.com.