Formally tracking rope horse earnings is a relatively new phenomenon.
Before the last 12 months, databases like the American Quarter Horse Association’s QData could only track rope horse earnings at judged shows, where pedigrees were verified by judges to ensure rampant cheating wasn’t fudging the numbers. But in 2022, the AQHA teamed up with the Riata Buckle Stallion Incentive Program to infuse some $2 million into the recorded earnings of rope horses.
And, for the first time, the AQHA relied on this magazine’s indexing of the horses the Top 15 rode at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo to funnel another $1.1 million from rodeo’s big show into QData, shifting the all-time earnings list dramatically for team roping horses.
But who cares? Why should ropers care if this type of money is tracked on their horses? After all, they’re roping for millions in Las Vegas and Fort Worth, and you can’t ride papers…can you?
Who’s tracking what?
As announced in early January and on page 14 of this issue, the Riata Buckle Stallion Incentive is aligning itself with the Ariat World Series of Team Roping, the United States Team Roping Championships, National Team Roping and the National Team Roping League to begin a program of databasing rope horse earnings, incentivizing ropers to enroll in the program with details soon-to-be-revealed.
Denny Gentry—operating partner of the Riata and original founder of the USTRC and WSTR—established the alliance across the industry, from the AQHA to the Equine Network’s roping associations and Global Event Management Software—almost by happenstance. Semi-retired from running the Ariat WSTR, Gentry was approached by Chad Beus and Lance Robinson, founders of barrel racing’s $7-million Pink and Ruby Buckle programs, to help them start the roping side of their business. Beus and Robinson already knew what Gentry was about to learn: they energized barrel horse breeding, and it exploded.
The unintended consequence of Gentry’s endeavor? He talked to breeders. A lot of them. More than ever before.
“My phone starts ringing every morning, and they’re explaining every day what a struggle it’s been for them breeding rope horses,” Gentry said. “And I’m seeing first-hand what they couldn’t do and what they had to do to get recognition and to develop the bloodlines. They claw for a spot in the horse industry—for any respect and value—as rope horse breeders. It sounds similar to what we had to do get respect for team roping within the rodeo world. I’m amazed at how little I knew about such a critical part of our sport. Everything starts with the horse. It is such a given that we don’t even pay any attention to it, and just keep roping. But now, all of a sudden there just aren’t enough rope horses, regardless of caliber or price…so we have to elevate the importance of the horse to have a healthy industry.’”
The “how” to get team ropers to participate is probably going to be a lot of fun and no doubt will involve bonus money to ropers. But the how of the rope horse tracking is going to be complicated and expensive. Commitments have been made, goals set and the work is underway. The good news is that, at the very least, there’s true fastest-run-wins money in the databases already. With QData’s interest in the NFR horses, paired with the Riata Buckle’s submission of its massive payout, the industry is seeing the ripples of change already.
Before the Riata Buckle, Dean Tuftin’s Hickory Holly Time (One Time Pepto x Hickorys Holly Cee x Docs Hickory) was 13th in the all-time leading sires list with only $154,180 in earnings. After the Riata Buckle, the former World’s Greatest Horseman champion mount rose to No. 3 overall with $313,228.05—with his offspring having banked $164,200 over those few days in November. Hickory Holly Time had two of the top three highest-earning horses at the Riata: Tuftin’s 2017 mare DT Hickorys Mistycat that Dakota Kirchenschlager heeled on to win the Riata Buckle’s Open Futurity and Twisted Hickory Time, Wesley Thorp and Shawn Grey’s 2017 gelding that Kirby Blankenship won the #12.5 All-Ages Championship aboard.
“In five to 10 years, we’re going to be able to sell team roping horses at a sale as yearlings, and the only way to do that is to prove that the mare won so much, and the stud won so much, just in team roping alone,” Kirchenschlager said. “Then, if the horse has produced in the cow horse and cutting and racing, you can show that, too, but we have to be able to have some sort of paperwork, some sort of backup on these horses to help determine value and make decisions. All of the associations haven’t been working together. I don’t know how much my own horses have won. What we do for a living is no different than anybody you see in the other events—we’re all working to lead a yearling into a sale ring 10 years from now and really make a living.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Pepcid, the ranch horse sire on the Tongue River Ranch—whose offspring have won as much at the ranch rodeos as they have in the show pen— popped into the top 20 in the all-time leader standings for the first time with $145,950.21 in earnings. That’s thanks to TRR Lucky Hometown winning the #10.5 Riata Buckle Futurity on the heel side under Tripp Townsend, as well as TRR Freckles Holidoc picking up two go-round wins under Logan MedlinFastest Yet: Coleman Proctor and Logan Medlin Get Round 8 Win in Fastest Set of the Week at the 2022 NFR.
“This is going to have a huge impact,” Townsend said. “Just like Pepcid, from the Riata Buckle alone, his colts won $82,000, and my mare got another $40,000 on her produce record. You’ll have team roping horses with the earnings matching cutting and cow horses. Team roping is already one of the biggest sports out there. And this will allow our horses to show it, too.”
Why should ropers care?
Roping has been the richest Western sport on earth for decades, with the Ariat WSTR Finale paying $16.1 million in December 2022 with more than $100 million in payouts across the sport annually. “
“The thing I like about this is it’s not a horse show format,” said Clovis Horse Sale’s Steve Friskup. “Other credentials that don’t have real cash value at true jackpots don’t change the value of a rope horse in the sale, but if we can track earnings—from a real live team roping deal—that will really make a huge difference in what we sell these horses for. The futurity programs, the Riata especially, have really changed the horse value already. It’s really evident, and it’s making a difference.”
The QData top money earner and top sire lists are only beginning to evolve. While some sires experienced game-changing years in 2022, others had colts with bad luck in big moments. As the program grows and evolves, more data points will provide an even clearer picture of where the top-performing genetics really come from. That information will fuel breeding and buying decisions for years to come.
“When you go to a sale and you see the cutters and reiners with $100,000 in earnings, it makes more value for the breeders to sell their horses,” the Pitzer Ranch’s Jim Brinkman said. “But for ropers, there’s nothing like that. Like Junior Nogueira’s gray mare, she had more than half-a-million dollars in earnings, but there’s no proof on paper of it. Foreign countries, they have to have proof of all sorts of money won to export them. And all those good rope horses don’t qualify. It will help the breeding, and it will help the rope horses not be the stepchild of the horse world. We win more money than any of those other guys—the only guys who can beat us on money earned is the racehorses. If ropers will enter their horses and put their registration numbers down, this will all change for the better.”
Beyond the people breeding are everyday cowboys who can supplement their families by training and roping. The new emphasis on rope horses is opening up new markets for ranch cowboys and ex-rodeo ropers who have never been big in the horse business.
“Guys my age went to all these rodeos, and they made these horses famous, and they got old and retired and didn’t have much left, and they had nothing to show for it,” Brinkman, 63, said. “If they had rode mares and studs all those years, and they’d had all their earnings, and you ICSI’ed the mares’ embryos and transferred them, you could make a retirement living off the horses they rode rodeoing. When they quit rodeoing, their income is done. While they were rodeoing, they could have been producing a product for their retirement.”
The growing number of online horse sales is increasing horse business that is catching up to the huge “cowboy golf” market. It isn’t an accident that horse-sale descriptions nearly always describe how long the horses have been on cattle, roped on in the pasture or if someone has been heading or heeling on them. Ultimately the horse owners themselves will have to see the value in their own horses. They will have to see the value in the bloodlines and understand what they are worth. ■