Thomas & Mack Lessons

Time flies, and the NFR rolls around fast. I’ve qualified for 27 National Finals—22 of them at the Thomas & Mack in Vegas. With all the new guys backing in the NFR box this year, I thought it would be fun to share a few things I learned along the way about roping in that building.

This year’s NFR field is really interesting to me because two NFR heelers—Clint Summers and Quinn Kesler—will head there. Header Coy Rahlmann is a first-time National Finalist, and Ross Ashford and Douglas Rich will heel at their first NFR this month.

I never felt like scoring was really required since the Finals moved to Vegas, because it’s basically a bulldogging start. When I roped at the Thomas & Mack, as long as that steer took a step, you were out.

That said, if you try to sit there and score—and that steer gets a jump on you—things get hard in a hurry. The chase is on, and those yellow bucking chutes come so fast. I always gambled that my steer was going to leave and took a downtown start. If you get a good start, it’s easy to rope in that building. A broken barrier was worth the gamble versus how ugly it gets if a steer takes off and runs there.

You sure enough need a horse that’s strong enough to come back up that left fence that will still face. Some headers who stick it on steers really fast on a long rope in that arena only give their heelers a jump or two before they’re stuck in that corner with nowhere to go. Headers that set the run up in the middle of the arena have a lot better consistency there.

A little bit of right in that arena isn’t too bad, but a lot of right is really hard on a header. If that steer gets a jump on you and starts to get away because he beats your heeler over to the right fence, it makes it easy to miss the right horn.

It’s been awhile since any team’s caught all 10 steers, so it’s almost like you get a mulligan in the average. In defense of the NFR team ropers, when they rope big, strong steers in that small arena, it’s hard to catch all 10.

When it comes to trying to predict who will win the world, I’ve always looked at who seemed strong to place high in the average. Without fail, the NFR average and world championship race conversations become intertwined before it’s over.

The NFR’s not like any other rodeo. All those people are packed in that arena right on top of you, and they buzz that rodeo off so fast. Team roping is the third event, so you’ve got to have your game face on and be dialed in. You go from the grand entry to the other end of the building and straight onto center stage, so you better be ready to rope. The pace is fast and the pressure is high.

The NFR team ropers get to run the steers a couple days before the rodeo starts. That’s a great ice breaker, when you can get a feel for that arena and get the jitters out. I always took that pretty seriously. I took my downtown start, and tried to see how fast I could rope them. Then I let my horse go a couple more jumps, and just work nice and easy.

I noticed over time that sometimes horses that are green to that fast-setup situation and haven’t been reached on much work great in that arena for the duration and let you dally all 10 days. The year Clay and I set the NFR average record (59.1 on 10 in 1994), I rode a horse I bought the first of November that hadn’t been rodeoed on. Dirty duckers are no fun there, especially with the importance of that average in the end. I never got to do it—and it takes a lot of extra effort—but in the perfect world you’d take your horse somewhere and free him up every morning between rounds.

With all the demands and distractions, there’s so much stress on humans and horses at the NFR. You’ll be ready for a vacation when the 10th round’s over. And you’ll have earned it.