Derrick Begay’s ride to the top of the team roping world was a long shot. Raised on the Navajo Reservation in Seba Dalkai, Arizona, his means were modest to match his hard working, humble outlook on life. Raised in the saddle with sweaty horse blankets, Myrtle and Victor Begay’s son would surely be a spectacular ranch cowboy. But an eight-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo team roper? Enter an ugly, high-tailed paint pony with no papers purchased at a sale barn by Derrick’s uncle for pennies. Against all odds, Paint changed everything. Begay had to put old Paint down this summer. But not without a grateful goodbye.
“My Uncle Aaron (Begay) bought him at a sale barn in Clovis, New Mexico, in about 2000,” said Derrick, who still lives in Seba Dalkai, these days with his fiancée, Justine, and baby girl, Brindle Mae. “He thought he was about 2, but nobody knew for sure. Uncle Aaron bought two horses that day for $700. I’m not sure if he paid that for Paint or for the pair, but at best he paid $700 for him.
“Paint was halter broke and saddle broke when my uncle bought him. He brought him over for me to ride (Derrick was a 17-year-old Winslow High junior then, and is 37 now). Paint was good enough to gather cows on, but nothing great. I just gathered on him and played around on him for a while. Then I took him to the arena and started roping on him. It was 20 years ago now, but I remember it like it was yesterday.”
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Paint’s very first arena runs were basically a reward for working neighbor and stock contractor Roger Keams’s cows and calves. Roger was paralyzed in a car wreck, so the Begays gathered and worked his herd every year. The working pens just happened to be connected to the community arena in nearby Dilkon, Arizona, so when the work was done, the play commenced.
“After we were done branding, we ran the calves across to the arena side,” Begay grinned. “Roger raised bucking bulls, and those calves were dead fresh and turkey wild. I rode Paint in there without any intention of making this small, thin, young, homely horse a team roping horse. Being a ranch horse was his future.
“When the gates opened, the very first calf just walked out of there. Then he took off. Paint took off, too, I roped the calf and slowed him down, and my cousin Rudy (Yazzie) came around there and heeled him. Paint actually faced pretty good. We were just messing around, but he almost acted like he’d done it before. He hadn’t, but he darn sure didn’t mind doing it. Paint did the same thing on the second calf, and just got better every run. The rest is history.”
It didn’t take long. By that next summer of 2001, Derrick was entering amateur rodeos on Paint. And by 2008, Begay completely obliterated the odds and rode Paint at his first NFR.
“He went from green practice horse to rodeo horse pretty fast,” Begay said. “I never took it slow or took my time to try and do everything right on him, because I never thought he’d make it past the practice pen. But he never stopped getting better.”
Begay rode Paint at three NFRs, before allowing the horse to also be a part of 2015 World Champion Header Aaron Tsinigine’s professional rodeo ascent.
“Paint was never a big, strong, stout head horse, but he pulled enough,” Begay said. “He was the only horse I had at the time, so I didn’t know any different. I had no Plan B. All I knew was that he was all I had. So we had to make it work.”
That they did. Begay and Paint—whom Tee Woolman nicknamed Wagon Burner—had all kinds of highlights as teammates. You can watch Derrick and Cesar de la Cruz’s 3.6-second, Round 7-winning run on a walker at the 2009 NFR on YouTube, if you’re interested in reliving a little Paint magic.
“Paint pushed me over the hump in my career,” Begay said. “Before him, I was home going to Indian rodeos and jackpots in Arizona. After I got to riding him, Cesar called me one day and said he needed another run at the (2007) George Strait (in March). I wasn’t planning on going, but I said, ‘Sure.’ I got Clint Harry and Victor Aros, too. The fees were $500 a man. That’s $1,500 and a long drive. I didn’t know anything or have anything. So Victor got a guy to pay my fees for half of what I won.
“I made the top 50 with Cesar, which got you three more steers at The Strait. I missed our first steer. The rounds only paid $1,500, but there was a bounty steer, and if you won the round on the HEB red-wrapped steer, you won a big bonus. Nobody won it in the first round, so it bumped up to $10,000 a man. Cesar and I drew him and won the second round on him. We were 3.31, and that was my fastest time ever. On Paint.”
That one run at the 2007 Strait paid Derrick and Cesar $11,500 apiece. Being a young man of his word, Begay paid his entry-fee-fronter $5,750 and kept only his $5,750 half for himself. He looks back at that particular pay slash as money well spent.
“That’s when I knew,” Begay said. “I was saying to myself, ‘I was that fast and beat some people, and all the great ropers were there. I went there on this paint horse, went as fast as I could and beat ‘em all on one run. Maybe I can make it.’
“That sparked my whole career. It told me I had a chance, and gave me the money to go enter the next one. A couple days later, Classic ropes called and wanted to give me some ropes. Then I won a USTRC roping with Cesar a couple weeks later. Paint gave me my start. He gets all the credit for my rodeo career—every bit of it. If it wasn’t for him, none of it ever would have happened.”
Later that same 2007 spring, Begay entered the Horkdog roping in Vegas in April.
“That’s when the South Point was brand new,” Begay remembers. “We broke that building in with a team roping jackpot. I won the first round with Victor Aros riding Paint, and we were high call, so we were the last team to rope. Speed (Williams) and Clay (Cooper) were second high call. They made their run, and were winning the roping before we roped. Victor and I caught our last steer, and won the roping.
“We won $22,000 a man, and that was by far my biggest win ever. The money was cool as heck, but I was more excited and happy just to be entered at the same roping as those guys. I still wear that 2007 Horkdog roping buckle to this day, because that’s what started my whole career. We got done roping at 2 in the morning, and I remember being at IHOP eating pancakes with Colter Todd and Matt Sherwood at 3 a.m. Then they were headed to (the rodeo at) Logandale, and I was headed home.”
Begay’s first professional rodeo was that May in 2007—heading for Aros—in Guymon, Oklahoma. Remember, this was 2007, the year before Begay made his first Finals in 2008.
“Later that year (2007), I went to a public library in Blackfoot, Idaho, on a Thursday morning,” Begay said. “I walked in there, signed up for a public library card, sat down at a computer, and typed in www.prorodeo.com. I was 24th in the world.
“I thought, ‘You know what, that’s only nine spots away from 15. There’s a chance. That was the first time in my life that making the NFR wasn’t out of the question. You can touch your phone now and see the standings. That wasn’t the case back then. I think I ended up 40-something in the world in 2007, but I started 2008 thinking making it was actually possible.”
The only horse in his trailer at that time was old Paint, who took 2007 Indian National Finals Rodeo Horse of the Year honors. Begay still has the breast collar. And thankfully, Uncle Aaron never did repossess him.
“My rodeo addiction is all Paint’s fault,” Begay smiled.
Paint enjoyed years of well-earned pasture-pet retirement.
“I never did sell him, because even though we sometimes had a love-hate relationship, I owe it all to him for being the one that got me started,” Begay said. “But earlier this summer, all the miles finally caught up with him and he got sore. He couldn’t get around comfortably anymore. There’s a certain point when you know it’s time. And it was time.
“In our native culture, animals are a gift from the creator. They’re here for us to use and to protect us. That’s exactly what Paint did. My dad—who put Paint down himself—taught us that we’re not supposed to be mad or sad about losing an animal. They’re just gifts for us to use; we don’t actually own them. The day we put Paint down, we just said, ‘Thanks for the ride.’
“Then there were no hard feelings. We’re taught not to cry over stuff like that. It was all good. There were times I hated to claim Paint. He wasn’t the prettiest, but he was really, really easy to rope on. He ran with his tail in the air, but he could run pretty hard when he wanted to. He didn’t score the best, and sometimes he tried to help too much. He liked to duck. Paint was like that one crazy uncle everybody has, where he makes you mad one day, embarrasses you the next day, then makes you laugh the next. Then he shows up again the next day, and he’s family, so you say, ‘Come on in.’ Paint was family.”
Begay will never know Paint’s exact age when he passed, but figures “it’s safe to say he was old enough to drink.” Make no mistake, like any long-term relationship, Begay and Paint had their moments. Like the time Derrick tried introducing Paint to a hot-wire pen in Dodge City, then proceeded to chase him up and down the railroad tracks in his truck trying to stop him from stampeding downtown Dodge.
Then there was the summer when Begay set a “personal worst” record and missed 14 straight rodeo steers riding paint. “That might be the record for everybody,” he laughed.
There were also moments of particular pride, like the time Riley Minor was mortified to have his NFR fate come down to the wire at the rodeo in Norco, California, and realized that Paint was all that was there to ride. Petrified, Riley got on Paint, won the rodeo and made the Finals.
“The first time I rode Paint at Cheyenne, I won second in the first round on him,” Begay said. “I rode back up the arena, and Speed Williams said, ‘Dang, that horse is fast.’ That was kind of a proud dad moment for me.”
Paint was clearly not put on this earth to win any halter classes. But that’s the beautiful thing about rodeo’s timed events—they’re timed and not judged for style points.
“An Indian on a paint,” Begay said. “Paint and me were just meant to be. It was destiny. He was definitely supposed to be the one. I owe that horse a lot. He was not an eye catcher or the coolest horse ever, but he’s all I had and all I knew, and he gave me my start. He was short-strided and fast footed, and that tail in the air didn’t seem to slow him down. He was so skinny that it was like riding a fence. But none of that really mattered. Paint proved he was good enough.”