Lions of Longevity: Pros Weigh In on the Magic Sticks With Staying Power

A look at the elite head horses that have stood the test of time...

Marty and Clay Smith. | Kirt Steinke Photo

What keeps elite heading horses so sound of body and mind they can live a full decade on the highway? Only a handful have done it. It’s an even shorter list than the number of long-lasting heel horses (covered in our next issue). But we picked some brains on just how the likes of Scooter and Walt, Marty and Bob have done what they do for so long.

Innate

Today’s top 15 look around and agree Clay Tryan’s had more long-timers than anybody. Is it coincidence that the three-time World Champ is also a four-time reserve world champ and the high-money BFI leader?

“I’d like to tell you I know something that other people don’t about finding horses that last, but no,” Tryan said. “It’s really just a horse that wants to be good. And you know when you ride him, because he’s not hard to keep working.”

Of course, Precious Speck—the Hall-of-Famer and four-time Head Horse of the Year known as Walt—belonged to Tryan’s brother, Travis, but Walt took both brothers to the 2001 NFR after packing them to 100 rodeos—a piece—that season. In 10 years, Walt won more than $2 million and 15 NFR go-round buckles under the Tryans (plus a couple under Trevor Brazile, too), and was going strong at 20 until he died while being warmed up for slack at Clovis, California. 

For Clay Tryan, Thumper—the crop-eared 2005 PRCA Head Horse of the Year Dockalickin—was also tough as hell, lasting at least six years. He also got five years and a season earnings record out of Bear’s Cash Partner, Cate. He got 11 years out of 2015 PRCA Head Horse of the Year “Dew” The Dash. Even his current 17-year-old sorrel, Cee How Nifty (Johnson), is packing Tryan for the sixth year.  

READ MORE: Maintaining the Head Horse with Clay Tryan

He can play the lucky card, but Tryan has been quoted in this magazine saying he’s “not a horse-walker guy” and actually rides his good ones constantly to catch soreness right off the bat. He keeps them in his control leaving the box to help avoid injury, and the Montana native never overuses one. He makes practice easy on his good ones so they keep enjoying it.

But to some extent, there’s also luck of the draw. Tryan and Smith—the pair of Clays with five gold buckles between them—agree that humans have no hand in what truly keeps a horse going.

“Those horses that have lasted the longest at a high level, they’re a different kind of horse,” Clay Smith said. “They have so much heart that they keep trying. You can’t breed that into them or train that into them.”

Clay Tryan’s Dew carried the champ to two gold buckles in 2013 and 2014, and he won the Head Horse of the Year title in 2015. | Hubbell Rodeo Photos

Smooth

Over roughly nine years, Speed Williams got a gazillion miles, a record eight gold buckles and a Hall-of-Fame induction out of his two powerhouses, Bob and Viper. Of course, there were two of them. But they had that stocky build that stays sound longer than it should.

READ MORE: Williams is Wowed by the Wonders of Modern Veterinary Medicine

Smith’s grade gray gelding, Marty, has good bone, too. But his style is reminiscent of that other gray: Six-time PRCA Head Horse of the Year Oklahoma Top Hat, or Scooter, ridden by Charles Pogue at a whopping 10 NFRs. Scooter was still going strong when he died at 17 in 2001. It’s no coincidence that no head horse ever made it look more effortless than Scooter or Marty (except maybe Walt).

Hall-of-Famer Tee Woolman said the reason Scooter made his job look so easy was that he never “tried to get real strong.” That, too, puts the 1990s superstar in the same camp as Marty, who has packed Smith to two world titles and $1 million in 11 years. The other veteran who never widens, never ducks: Riley Minor’s Bob—RK Tuff Trinket—who’s still firing hard at 21 after two Head Horse of the Year titles and two Head Horse of the BFI awards in seven years of steady ProRodeoing. 

READ MORE: The Great Tee Woolman’s Iconic Career

“In my personal experience, horses that pull across the arena sideways look real pretty but never last,” said Smith. “Neither Scooter nor Marty would ever win a Quarter Horse show because they never drug an inside hind leg and crawled out of there sideways. Their style is not as cool, but it’s more functional and they last.”

They literally glide across the ground. Also, they’re medium-sized. Walt was 15 hands and weighed 1,150 pounds. Minor’s amazing Bob is another medium-sized immortal. Not necessarily “high-powered”—just pure effort and honesty every time … with a little TB blood mixed in.

READ MORE: Why Running-Bred Head Horses WORK

Walt was out of a half-Thoroughbred mare. Marty’s rumored dam, The Big Fix, is straight Jet Deck and Three Bars. Luke Brown’s late Slim Shady was a full-on Thoroughbred that he rode at seven straight NFRs—after Keven Daniel and the Adams brothers had him. Dew is an own grandson of the half-Thoroughbred Dash For Cash. Minor’s Bob goes back to Mr Bar None by Three Bars on both sides. 

Another great that’s been rodeoing hard for at least seven years? Jake Clay’s Streakin Six grandson, “Sun” Streakin Dew, 17, that just won the BFI for the second time in April.

Luke Brown rode Slim Shady at seven National Finals Rodeos, losing him to colic in 2021 at 28. | Hubbell Rodeo Photo

Double Tough

“Thumper was really tough,” Tryan said. “But Dew was sneaky-tough. He was never sore, except for one abscess one time. He was never hurt until maybe 10 years into it.”

That’s similar to Slim Shady, who never collicked, never was injected, never had a bump and never limped. To Tryan, they’re that way because they’re great horses—like Marty and Bob. 

“I’ve never ridden him,” Tryan said, “but out of all the horses I’ve ever seen go, I think I’d have done the best on Bob. He’s still just as awesome right now at 21.”

The hands-down champ of the longevity contest has to be Swagger, the winningest head horse to ever come out of the Navajo Nation. The gelding’s been in Derrick Begay’s trailer for exactly 15 years, through virtually all nine NFRs, up through winning San Angelo in April for $9,246 a man. 

When Begay got home and watched the TV broadcast of San Angelo, he heard Joe Beaver say, “I wonder how much he’s won on that old sorrel.” 

“I wish I knew that, too” Begay exclaimed. “I wish I knew how old he was. But maybe it’s a good thing I don’t. That way, he’s just a horse.”

Letting him be “just a horse” has worked beautifully for 15 years. Swagger’s never worn a magnetic blanket nor a pair of Soft Ride boots nor been hauled in air-ride suspension. He’s never had a supplement or even Senior feed, save some hock injections last year. It’s just … Begay understands that 45 degrees and windy is perfect weather for a horse, when so many other people blanket one. To him, you can baby a horse so much that “it interferes with them.” But don’t let him fool you. 

READ MORE: Lessening the Load: The New SoftRiders by Soft-Ride Equine Comfort Boots

“I probably like horses more than people—especially the good ones,” he admitted. “I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing. Because I know my horse and the things I didn’t do for him, and he’s still the same as he was the day I got him.”

That means avoiding all-night drives and avoiding stalls. It means giving Swagger a big pen with a big water trough and a mare in it, and just throwing him some hay, letting him be a horse. There’s one thing Begay said he didn’t do: use that horse up. The consummate wild-desert cowboy, Yeti poster-boy and pickup-man never even rode him outside.

“That stuff’s good for some horses, but it doesn’t feel like it’s good for him,” he said. “I knew him, and it wasn’t his thing.”

READ MORE: Begay’s Nephew Hits $55k Gold Buckle Beer Jackpot After Loaning Horse to Uncle Derrick for NFR

Just days before Swagger’s ninth NFR, he wasn’t lame, per se, but definitely “off.” Maybe out of alignment. So Begay got off him and borrowed a horse. Never took Swagger to a vet. Just took him home, jerked his shoes and turned him out. Then, he remembered that old horses tend to go downhill not being ridden. This spring, he got him back in and started riding him. The rest is history. As of late April, Swagger felt great and Begay figured “he still likes it,” regardless of whether he’s 20 or 25.

It’s worth noting, Begay has thrown the same Coats saddle on Swagger’s back for 15 years. And Reinsman surely gets some credit as the only maker of Tryan’s saddles for 14 years. Plus, Marty has a hard-to-fit back but stays pain-free thanks to his own custom-made Tod Slone saddle and CSI pad. 

READ MORE: Cow Puncher: Derrick Begay’s NFR Grand Entry Mount and Gear Honors Working Cowboy Culture

Also, conditions have improved even more than tack and medicine over the decades, considering the steers weigh half as much and the trailers haul half as far. “Tough” is truly a relative term.

“Guys go to 65 rodeos in a year now,” said Woolman, for whom no head horse lasted longer than a few years during his 30-year career. “In 1982, I went to 132 rodeos and turned out just two times. Leo and I flew a lot. But still, that’s double the rodeos they’re hitting now.”

Yesterday’s horses, he said, were just as athletic as today’s superstars but were bigger-boned and colder-blooded. Maybe that made up for their lack of coddling. Tryan can’t believe the story Junior Muzio told him about making the NFR three times in the 1960s. In his car, he towed his one horse in his one-horse bumper-pull trailer, saddled—because there was no place to haul a saddle, much less any hay. 

World Champion Doyle Gellerman, who went to 25 NFRs in 26 years (1973–97), initially said genetics must be the key to longevity, until he thought about it.

“Honestly, it’s just a big ol’ heart,” he concluded.

Quirky

Toughness, it seems, is proportional to heart.  

“The ones that last so long just have a lot of try,” Tryan said. “People or horses that seem to go longer, they’re just wired different.”

That wiring plays into their personalities, too.

“Slim was tougher than nails,” said Brown, who won two of his three NFR average titles on the old sorrel. “He was a little snorty and he never bucked, but he’d run off. He did not like strangers or concrete—you had to shoe him on the grass.”

READ MORE: A Grateful Goodbye to Luke Brown’s Game Changer, Slim Shady

Walt, too, would almost run off going to a steer before he’d ever get quick. Very free, also, was Gellerman’s 15-hand, 1,200-pound dun, Coyote, that he finally retired at 22 or 23 after riding him at eight NFRs. The gelding wasn’t an all-time great, he said, or even the best horse he ever had.

“But he was the toughest horse I’ve ever owned in my life,” recalled Gellerman. “He could take all you could give. The more you used him, the better he was. Jesse James was at my house once when I was practicing reaching on him. He asked me, ‘Do you ever just kick him up?’ I said, ‘No, he gets too free.’” 

Then there’s Bob, the horse that kicked Riley Minor when he walked up to put on a splint boot.

Riley Minor’s Bob has won two Head Horse of the Year titles, in addition to two head horse of the BFI bronzes. | TRJ FILE PHOTO/Jamie Arviso

“We’re buddies, but Bob’s a strange animal,” Minor said. “Some days he’ll snort at you. Not being sweet and kind, I think that’s what makes him tough and good—he’s watchy and catty.”

Swagger, the “friendly and easy-to-catch” sorrel, is the exception to the rule that most long-lasting horses have a distinct “stay away from me” personality.

“The safest place to be around Marty is on his back,” admitted Smith. “He doesn’t want anybody messing with him. All he really wants to do is chase a cow. I feel like the ones that lasted forever all had that little quirk that makes them a little tougher.” 

Marty’s so tough that Smith unknowingly rode him in December’s NFR with a torn left hind suspensory.

“You don’t know he’s hurt until he starts working different,” Smith lamented. “He won’t necessarily stop working, but just works different.”

Lucky for Smith (and his heeler, Jake Long), Marty has made a full 100% recovery. The smooth-moving gray will be in Smith’s trailer this summer. That might be bad news for dozens of other teams, but it’s great news for fans who can rush to the fence or switch on the TV to watch Marty, Bob, Sun or Swagger—and know they’re watching pure legacy.

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