Huskers Be Smokin (“Chico”), now 14, was a colt with 20 rides when he arrived at the home of Erin and her husband Darnell—a gift from their late Kansas friend who owned Chico’s Leo-bred sire, High Brow Husker. That makes Chico a paternal grandson of the cutting sire High Brow Hickory by Docs Hickory, crossed on a Jody Fairfax daughter. But he also got some speed from his second dam that goes back to Sonny Dee Bar and Jet Deck.
“We had ridden that gentleman’s stallion for him for a few years and, unfortunately, he became terminally ill and gave us several of the colts, including Chico,” she said. “That Docs Hickory line was a bigger style of cutting horse.”
Besides his palomino color and standing 15.1 hands, Chico has another unique trait: practically nobody has ever ridden him but Erin Johnson.
“Our horses have always been homemade,” she said on the telephone, while running the swather. “Darnell and I can’t afford not to make our own. Good ones are expensive and they should be.”
Erin was an accountant for years until she was pregnant with her third baby and the Johnsons bought their farm east of Pueblo. Now they tend crops, raise their kids ages 11, 8 and 6, and Darnell has an excavation business. The Johnsons also raise some horses, and Erin has a 3-year-old she’s training for the Roping Futurities of America slot futurity in February. In fact, she said her practice comes in the form of roping on colts, unless her good ones need a tune-up. She also has her 17-year-old, grey gelding, Bubba, on which she won her first two WPRA gold buckles.
But mostly, her big wins this season have been thanks to Chico, who placed in the top three for Nutrena Horse of the Year last year. She’s been hauling him as her No. 1 probably since 2015, when she won her third WPRA breakaway world title after the birth of her youngest child.
Chico also helped her lead the field into last month’s Mountain States Circuit Finals Rodeo (where the purse was considerably enhanced when she and Darnell donated a foal to be raffled off) and capture the year-end title.
Chico’s speed off the corner is remarkable, and he stops more like a cutting horse than a reiner or race-bred horse.
“Sometimes he does slide a lot, but he just has a way of making it break away,” Johnson said. “His forward motion just ends.”
That’s how he carried her to her current No. 2 ranking in the world, despite a period this summer when Chico basically quit stopping because of a nagging case of scratches on his lower hind legs. He’s sensitive, she said, which is why the horse has never even had a ported bit in his mouth. She rides him in a short-shanked Dutton snaffle or a Gordy Alderson dogbone snaffle. In fact, Chico’s only flaw since he was a colt is his tendency to want to stop early, or get “tight.”
“I struggle with that even now,” she said. “I don’t reach a lot, which is probably why he’s been good for me for so long. I think reaching is when they can start anticipating that stop more and more.”
But at a WCRA roping in Rapid City late this summer, the calves were running and she decided to spank him to one for the first time ever, with money up.
“But the calf didn’t end up running as much as the others, and Chico ran smooth by him,” Johnson recalled, laughing. “I had to get two hands on the reins. It scared the hell out of him. He’s very reactive. He remembered that for weeks. I probably hurt his feelings.”
Johnson said, to her, Chico isn’t little but isn’t too big, either.
“I don’t like little bitty horses,” she said. “They are usually quick-strided and, if the calves are slow to medium or the barrier’s really short, a little bitty horse is okay. But let those calves out in front of you or start entering where they run a little bit in the summertime, and a bigger horse has advantages.”
Chico won the famed RodeoHouston for Johnson this year, and she was able to count half her $50,000 paycheck toward the world standings. He was able to cover a lot of ground right there leaving the box, she said.
“He has a little different style,” she admitted. “He has a higher head-set, but he’s very cowy. He knows where the calves are and is usually always in good position. There’s nothing difficult about him—he runs on his own and wants to stop. He might be harder for a little bitty short girl, just because of his higher head-set.”
Johnson endorses local companies like TM Leather & Saddlery and DreamerHorses.com, in addition to Cinch, Rattler, Mod West Jewelry, 7K Roping and Breakaway Supply Co. She and Chico will be preparing for their first NFBR in the South Point Arena, which won’t pay enough to allow her to catch standings leader Martha Angelone. The latter roped outstanding this season and entered 93 rodeos to Johnson’s 65. Still, a Finals average championship would be a feather in Johnson’s—and Chico’s—hat. For that, she said she needs the right game plan going into Las Vegas.
“Chico will do whatever I ask him to do,” she said with typical humility. “But I have to ask him to do it. Sometimes my head and body don’t do what I want them to do.”
Luckily, its Chico’s way of getting to cattle that makes the real difference, Johnson explained.
“I don’t rope better than anybody else,” she said. “I don’t rope as good as most girls, honestly. I feel like my horse gives me a chance on a lot of different calves. That’s important in that one big average roping at the end of the year. It doesn’t matter how good you rope; if you’re not mounted, you can’t compete with the people who are—in any event.”