It was a siren’s song that Jerry York just couldn’t resist any longer: Balmy, winter days filled with roping in Arizona in the winter.
Work, family and, well, life, had gotten in the way for some time until York finally made a decision.
“I had always heard about Arizona in the winter,” the Nampa, Idaho, resident said. “When I turned 71, I figured, if I’m gonna do it, I better while I still can!”
That was 10 years ago and, at age 80, York still packs up each December for the annual three-month pilgrimage—one of tens of thousands who do so each year.
Arizona has long been viewed as the winter escape for team ropers, but the volume of producers, camps and ropers converging on the Grand Canyon State each winter has grown exponentially in the past few years, as has the diversity of the ropers themselves, drawn by the weather and the chance to compete, to learn and to enjoy their hobby.
Finding your camp
Much like York, Ken Law took up roping later in life, at age 63, training first under the late Rickey Green before his passing. It took a few years to get retired and to remember who Green directed him to before he headed to Rube Woolsey’s in Arizona.
“I finally found him and gave him a call,” Law, 68, said. “He said they were full but if I didn’t mind dry camping for a few weeks, I could come down.”
“That’s been four winters ago,” he said, laughing. “It started out for a month and now it’s all winter.”
While Arizona winters offer a plethora of choices for roping’s snowbirds, both York and Law landed in Casa Grande at the Walking N Arena, owned by four-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo roper Woolsey and his wife, Carrie, drawn by the chance for instruction five days a week.
“I wanted to team rope, and I needed help,” York said.
York spent 42 years working for the Western Livestock Journal, selling advertising to purebred cattle ranchers, working the sales rings and producing post-sale reports. He grew up in north-central Montana, the son of a working ranch cowboy, but only ever did ranch roping—doctoring calves and such—until he retired.
“Someone mentioned Rube, and I wanted to get better at this,” he said of his first year in Arizona.
California cowgirl Kirsty Gibbs also came to Arizona for Woolsey’s coaching. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area riding English—jumpers and dressage horses—Gibbs’ mother saw a flyer for beginner roping lessons at the local feed store.
“My mother was a proponent of exposing my younger sister and I to anything and everything horses, so she signed us up,” Gibbs, 37, said. She was hooked and attended several clinics, including one of Woolsey’s when she was 16.
“Life and school got in the way, but I went back as soon as I could,” she said.
Today, she and her husband, Tristan, a pilot for CAL FIRE, raise and train their own horses and are heading back for their fifth season at Walking N with their entire herd.
“It starts with a long weekend or two, then it’s two weeks, then the next year it’s a month until, finally, it’s like, ‘Screw it; we’re staying all winter,” she joked.
Diverse goals, common passion
The group is a cross-section of what Arizona winter ropers look like: different ages, backgrounds and goals, but a common passion for team roping.
At 80, York isn’t looking for a lucrative competitive career in the sport.
“I quit going to jackpots,” York said. “I just enjoy the roping. I’m having the time of my life with no pressure of competition.”
Law jokes that when he started roping at age 63, he bought a head horse and “scared the hell out of myself.” When his first lessons with Green made it fun instead of “painful,” it set him on a path geared more at competition.
He spent his working years in a variety of jobs, from drilling water wells to selling Kirby vacuums and sheet rock, but he always had horses and says he had the “romantic notion” of making cowboy his profession at one time. Today, he owns a ranch in Blackfoot, Idaho, and brings Woolsey in for an annual summer clinic.
“When Rube comes up and does the clinic, I seem to win saddles,” he said.
For the Gibbs, their time in Arizona helps builds their skills and horsemanship and gives them a shot to season young horses.
“Rube always has a set of fresh steers and some old steers,” Gibbs said. “So we can bring our young horses who haven’t been out of the box yet and be able to rope a steer that trots or even walks down the arena, allowing us to build confidence in that horse.”
Because the Walking N offers full board, and a close-knit community, the Gibbs feel comfortable loading up for Wickenburg and other Arizona communities to jackpot, leaving part of their herd behind, fulfilling their desire to compete and train.
Just looking for a job
The Woolseys were forerunners to the huge Arizona winter explosion when they bought their property in 2001, just about a year after getting married.
The current Walking N Arena is actually the second to carry the name of the family’s brand. Rube’s father put on ropings for 30 years in his Walking N arena in Dewey, Arizona, and passed the brand to his son for Christmas the year they bought the Casa Grande acreage.
Though the property has evolved over time to provide the necessities for hosting a winter camp, the process of improvement is ongoing.
“Hell no, we ain’t there yet,” Woolsey humored. “Every year, we think of something and go, ‘Why haven’t we done that yet?’”
Though ahead of its time with camping and instruction built into one facility, the Woolseys don’t claim any clairvoyance when they started.
“We never really knew what the end goal was,” Carrie said. “And it changed as we grew.”
The original inspiration came from Woolsey’s fatigue with the rodeo road.
“When I decided to quit—you never quit roping—but quit rodeoing to make the NFR and going full time, I was looking for a job,” Woolsey said, adding jokingly, “Like a lot of rodeo cowboys, I wasn’t qualified to do anything.”
Then, when someone asked Woolsey for a lesson and he found he enjoyed it.
“I found teaching accidentally,” Woolsey said, who learned from his father—a full-time jackpot roper—and their neighbor, 1978 PRCA World Champion Header George Richards. “I was fortunate I got to be around guys who roped for a living. Being around somebody like [George] helped a ton because I listened to him way better than my dad.”
Later, while attending Central Arizona College, Woolsey lived at Clay O’Brien Cooper’s house back “when Jake and Clay were Jake and Clay,” and roped with them every day.
Those experiences, plus years of teaching, developed his style to where it is today.
“Like any field, you get better or you’re going out of business,” he said. “It’s a lot of listening and learning…. Now, I find I say something a certain way and it makes sense to them and you think, ‘Why didn’t I say it that way 25 years ago?’”
Team Walking N
With plenty of different teachers hanging out their shingle in Arizona in the winter, Woolsey’s teaching style is the draw for folks like Gibbs, Law and York.
“There’s not a coach out there like Rube,” Gibbs said. “I’ve gone to other clinics and, far and away, he has helped me more. It always impresses me how he teaches the mental side, horsemanship, roping…. He works with your style and doesn’t try to change you to fit his mold.”
“He has the ability to critique without demeaning you, correcting without making you feel less than,” Law said. “I think he can help any level of roper.”
Law appreciates that Woolsey will “ponder” new ways to teach until he can offer explanations that connect to the roper.
“He’s so positive, even when you do something stupid,” York said. “And he’s always teaching, even at the clubhouse when we’re watching rodeos on TV.”
The supportive atmosphere bleeds over to the students, too.
“We’re all on Team Walking N” Gibbs said of her fellow campers. “Somehow, they build that camaraderie, in practice, even at the weekly jackpot. We’re competing against each other, but we’re still encouraging each other.”
There’s more than roping?
“It’s a tough day when you can’t decide if you want to rope, fish or golf,” Law quipped about Arizona winters. “I’m not really a social butterfly, but there’s plenty to do.”
At the Walking N, the clubhouse is a gathering spot in the evenings for dinners, Tuesday night card games, a Super Bowl party, music nights and the occasional educational opportunity.
“Rube and Carrie once brought in a guy with snakes, Gila monsters, scorpions,” York said. “Everything that will sting ya, stick ya or bite ya. It was really informative.”
Arizona ropers across the state are never lacking for non-roping recreation with tons of golf courses, shopping, outdoor adventures and more, whether they’re in Casa Grande, Wickenburg or Cave Creek. Gibbs even pointed out a rare run of wet days in 2022 that left time for a quick ski trip to Flagstaff.
Building a community
Arizona winter roping camps begin to feel like family reunions year after year.
“That’s the trickiest dynamic,” Woolsey said of having several dozen people living together in a small space for months at a time. “You have to have the right kind of people who get along and, more importantly, enjoy each other.”
“The coaching is the easy part,” he concluded. “Everyone wants to get better.”
Gibbs, Law and York say the Walking N nails it.
“That property has a presence,” Gibbs said. “You just take a deep breath and relax.”
“I like it all,” Law said. “They attract a good caliber of people. I feel like I was divinely directed to Rube. They’re like a second family to me. Not just Rube and Carrie, but the core group that’s there every year.”
York agreed, adding he enjoys the slower pace in central Arizona.
“I like Wickenburg, but it’s gotten so busy. I like [the Walking N] because there’s plenty to do, just not the traffic and covered up with so many people.”
Bring the kids, too
While the majority of Arizona’s seasonal residents remain retired folks no longer tethered to a job, more and more families are finding ways to partake in the fun.
Gibbs loves the learning-centric atmosphere and family feel of her winter home and can’t wait to immerse her new baby, who was due this September, in the experience too.
The Woolseys have raised two boys at winter camp: The oldest, Rube Anthony, 22, is working at Merrill Lynch as a wealth management advisor while Nolan, 20, is just about finished with school at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, where he’s training to be a pilot.
“I loved having the opportunity to raise my kids like this,” Carrie said. “They have such great social skills because of it. It ends up being a big family with everybody providing great mentoring.”
An example of that mentoring is the many plane rides Tristan Gibbs gave young Nolan, performing barrel rolls and other moves in his aerobatic plane.
“More than likely, these are going to be people who were successful in their fields,” Woolsey said of the campers they’ve hosted over the years. “It’s such an asset for you in raising kids to have them around those people.”
Love of the game
Stop by any arena in Arizona and there will be ropers with unique experiences and backgrounds united by one thing: a love of roping.
“We have a bunch of different age brackets, people from different fields with different levels of expertise,” Woolsey said. “But you throw them all in that arena at 10 a.m. every morning and they’re all the same. Team roping brings them all together.” TRJ
Get in touch
Rube Woolsey’s Walking N Arena, Winter Roping Camp
7350 North Henness Road, Casa Grande
• RV hookups, covered stalls
• Clubhouse, laundromat, full restrooms
• Daily practices, lessons and training
• Weekly Thursday jackpots, Bob Payne Memorial in February