The way Ryan Motes sees it, he’s had two once-in-a-lifetime-caliber heel horses in his career. The fact that CD Rockstar, who’s 17 now, and CD Starbucks, 22, are full brothers his family raised and trained is pretty cool. But that little fun fact is nothing next to how happy Ryan was to have Rocky return to the active roster right before the 2019 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo—which was Ryan’s fifth and Rocky’s first—after nearly escaping a life-threatening case of pneumonia.
“Coleman and I won the first round at Sikeston (Missouri), then won Lawton (Oklahoma) on Friday and won the first round and average at Lovington (New Mexico) on Saturday night, all with me riding Rocky,” said Motes, who also was riding Rocky when Ryan and Coleman Proctor won $433,333 a man at The American earlier in 2019. “Then Coleman headed home, and I headed to the Northwest. When I got to Jake and Jessie Telford’s place in Caldwell on Sunday night (before Monday morning slack on August 12, where Ryan roped with Lane Karney), I turned Rocky out in a little trap. He trotted off, and seemed completely normal.
[Read more: Motes’ Tricks to Maintaining A Healthy Horse]
“When I went out and fed 30 minutes later, he didn’t act like he wanted to eat. Another 30 minutes later, he was shaking and cold. We took his temperature and it was high, so we took him to Idaho Equine Hospital in Nampa. They checked him for colic and a bunch of other things. He was really sick. Rocky had pneumonia, and a bad infection in his pleural cavity (the thin, fluid-filled space between the two pulmonary pleurae of each lung).”
Rockstar didn’t leave Idaho Equine for about five weeks while the veterinarians there tried various drugs to fight the infection. Ryan’s wife, Courtney, stayed with Rocky to provide the TLC due a family member and make sure he was never alone. Ryan finished out the Northwest run on Starbucks. By the third week in September, the Idaho Equine team felt Rocky was stable enough to take the trek back to Texas.
[WATCH: Motes’ Rocky Beats Brutal Case of Pneumonia to Make Last-Minute NFR Trip]
“We loaded him up and headed for home after Pendleton,” Ryan remembers. “We stopped every two or three hours and let him out for at least an hour. It was nerve-racking. Rocky wasn’t contagious, so we weren’t worried about other horses. But he had an infection in his lungs, so we were worried about him making the trip.”
When they got back home to Weatherford, Texas, after Pendleton in September, Ryan took Rocky straight to Dr. Charlie Buchanan at Brazos Valley Equine Hospital in Stephenville.
“Charlie pulled blood on him, kept him on a nebulizer and tried another antibiotic,” Motes said. “We ended up having to put tubes in his pleural cavity to drain the fluid. The infection in his lungs finally started to clear up, but it was sure enough a gradual process.”
Ryan and Courtney got to bring Rocky home on October 14, after a month at Brazos Valley Equine. With the 2019 NFR set to start about six weeks later, Ryan revised his plan on what to ride in Las Vegas. Starbucks and his bay mare, Goldy, would get the nod in Rocky’s absence. Then Rocky made the most amazing rebound.
“I didn’t know I was going to get to take Rocky until two or three days before we left for Vegas,” Motes said. “My thought was that if he was borderline ready, I wasn’t going to take him. I was only going to take him if he was 100 percent. If I didn’t think he was ready to ride in Round 1, I wasn’t going to risk hauling him out there to just stand around.”
Ryan roped three slow steers on Rocky at home, and another four steers “slow enough you could ride a 3-year-old on” at a friend’s house the week before setting sail for Vegas.
[LISTEN: The Score Season 1, Episode 6 with Ryan Motes]
“We’d been ponying him once he was feeling better, so he was in pretty good shape, but I didn’t get to run any on him full contact before we went out there,” Ryan said. “I think the fifth time I saddled him since he got sick was when we ran the steers through before the NFR started. I ran two steers on him during the run-through, and he worked outstanding. That was the first time I got to dally on him since August.
“Rocky came really close to dying. They say infections like the one he had happen when you haul horses a lot. I’ve had a lot of people tell me it’s happened to their horse, too, since this happened to Rocky. But it was basically just a fluke deal. The vets and vet techs at Brazos were awesome, and Courtney (who headed on Rocky when he was younger) drove over there every single day to help nurse him back to health. I sure appreciate all they did to save him and help me have him back to ride.”
What’s a horse like Rocky worth to a guy like Ryan who makes his living with a rope?
“You find out how valuable these horses are real quick when you try to live without them,” Motes said. “Successful careers are based on great horses. It’s like a franchise quarterback in football. Great horses are everything. They allow us to succeed. They are our living, and we can never take these great horses for granted.”
National Reined Cow Horse Association Hall of Famer Teddy Robinson placed on Rocky and Starbucks’ mom, Cari Me Starlight, at the Snaffle Bit Futurity in her youth. Ryan’s stepdad, Winston Hansma, won the National Cutting Horse Association World Championship Futurity on Rocky and Starbucks’ dad, CD Olena, in 1994.
“It’s pretty cool that the two best horses I’ve ever ridden are full brothers,” Ryan said. “This was Rocky’s first year to get to go to the NFR, and I’m so grateful he got to, because it was close.”