With the explosion of opportunity in breakaway roping, the need for top-notch horsepower is as real as ever for athletes at every level of the sport. Leading ropers have honed in on what makes a great horse—from sharp scoring to fast breaks to big stops, to the illusive X-factor that separates them from the pack.
At The Breakaway Roping Journal, we surveyed the top ropers in the game to find out who the elite equine athletes in the sport of breakaway roping are, and then we talked to their jockeys to find out what truly sets them apart. Here's part two in our multi-part series.
Ridden by: J.J. Hampton
His Story: One day in 2015, Hampton's nephew, NFR tie-down roper Marty Yates, told his aunt that the mare she was riding wasn't very good.
"And he'd bought this other horse from Ryan Jarrett," Hampton remembered. "He was good at home, but he wouldn't work at the roping. He told me to try him."
So Hampton obliged, and the rest was history.
"I took the tie-down up, and it was lights out," Hampton said. "I won the UPRA and CPRA three years in a row, and I was the first person to go over $30,000 in that association. He had so much heart and try and he scored so good."
Easy was high strung, Hampton said, and was never the prettiest horse in the barn with a longer head and short body. But man could he break.
"I never rode one as fast and as strong as Easy, but would sit in the box. He was good on fresh ones, slow ones, trotting ones and fast ones. He was the best horse I'd ever ridden, and he could blow."
Hampton let Easy go out on top, with lots of gas left. She sold him to some girls to whom she gives roping lessons, and at 20, he's improving their roping dramatically.
X-Factor: "His scoring. He scored so good. It was just unbelievable how you could get out on that horse."
Height: 15 hands. "He was big for me. I like 14-hand horses."
Bit: Gordy Alderson, with wire tie-down.
Program: Swam three days per week, plus lots of practice calves. "He was my only horse, so he got a ton of runs."
Feed: Nutrena ProForce Senior and alfalfa hay
Ridden by: Lari Dee Guy
His story: WPRA World Champion Guy is always on the horse hunt, and back in 2009, she went looking for her next one in the barn of NCHA Hall of Famer and 33-time AQHA World Champ Bobby Lewis.
"I went there to try some horses, and I ended up bringing him home," Guy said. "We ended up keeping him around and buying him. He was a reiner, sure enough. But Bobby helped me to get his head up and get him out of that stuff."
That was about the same time Guy's long-time friend and partner Hope Thompson showed up at the Guy Ranch in Abilene, so they took turns roping and running barrels on him, too.
"At first, he’d just bridle up and not run. The more we played with him and used him, he just got to where he’d run to the calves mad. Like he wanted to get to the calf."
But just a few months into his stay, Gangster cast himself in his stall and broke his pelvis—picking up some naughty habits in his recovery.
"He learned to crib and bite and kick because be was in there for 9 months," Guy admitted. "And he's torn his deep flexor twice, so basically, he's been on injury reserve half of his life. He’s hard on himself. But he’s real strong-willed. You can’t keep him down. You’d have to figure out he’s crippled because he won’t show it."
Guy rode Gangster some of 2020, helping her qualify for the first-ever National Finals of Breakaway Roping, and Guy expects to have him in the trailer in Arlington for the historic event this December.
X-Factor: "What makes him so good is that he’s got every quality. He scores, he runs so fast to the calf, he kills the rope. He stops the rope. He’s got all the tools. It’s hard to find those horses that have stats like a great baseball player who hits, makes all the plays in the field and can run the bases—he does it all. He can hit the ball, he can catch the ball and he can run."
Height: 14.3 hands
Bit: Randy Reid with the twist and a solid Kerry Kelley Port
Program: "He usually stays at the Aquatred and I ride him once a week and haul him to the rodeos. He only goes to certain ones. I don’t just haul him to every jackpot there is."
Feed: Total Equine and alfalfa cubes
Ridden by: Amber Crawford
His story: Amber and her husband Curt have bought quite a few horses from horseman George Chappell over the years, so when they were both left afoot after losing two good horses back to back, Chappell told them to come ride through his barn full of 2-year-olds.
"We'd bought me a prospect already, so we were looking for a heel-horse prospect for him," Crawford said. "We rode a lot of 2-year-olds that day, and he was definitely the standout. He was super broke, super quiet and everything you'd be looking for in one. We bought him that day, and we brought him home. That same day, Curt swung a rope on him and roped and dragged a barrel out of the arena. He'd just do anything you asked him to do."
Curt started him as a heel horse, and by the time a Caddy was 3, he was the only horse in the trailer going to the rodeos.
"My two good horses I was riding at the time—I had another one from George and one we raised and trained—they both got hurt and they were done. I didn't even have a young horse going at the time. I'd roped on Caddy a little bit at the jackpots, because my roan would get tighter on every run. So I got on Caddy, and I just made it work. When those horses got hurt, Curt just said, 'Here you go.'"
Curt would still jump ride Caddy from time to time—at the big stuff, like the Ariat World Series of Team Roping Finale and the big rodeos—but the horse quickly became Amber's full-time breakaway mount. She won the World's Richest Breakaway in Montana on him in 2018, the year-end in the UPRA and made it to the top 16 in Arlington, Texas at RFD-TV's The American.
"I try to give him back to Curt every day," Crawford said. "But he just says he's mine."
The horse won't ever leave the Crawfords place thanks in part to his absolute gentle nature—perfect for the kids of the family.
"He loves kids. My niece is 13, and he’s 12. She’s been riding him since he was 4 years old. They took him to junior rodeos and goat-tied on him, and she can rope on him."
X-Factor: "How fast he is. I don’t think people realize how fast and how strong he is. You can be off the start, and he still can just catch up so fast. He’s a bigger-type horse than I’m used to riding, but he’s real short-strided in it so your timing isn’t messed up. He gives you that fast shot no matter what."
Height: 14.3-15.0 hands
Bit: "It depends. Whenever it’s a short score, I ride him in a Kerry Kelley dogbone snaffle without a tie-down. If we’re at a long score, I need a little more strength in the box because he likes to go. I’ll put a tie-down on him and I ride him in a Petksa with a port."
Program: "I don’t rope on him a lot, but he is a horse that you have to rope on. If you don’t rope on him, he becomes so strong. He’ll run by calves, he’ll do crazy things when he’s fresh. He gets ridden or put on the walker twice a week, and he’ll get roped on three days, just two or three calves a day, to keep him sharp. If he gets fresh, you won’t have fun. He’ll buck going to a calf. If you miss, he’ll take the bit and run off. He’s just so strong, it’s kind of scary. He really loves to run. He gets ridden out in the pasture when the weather’s crummy. He’ll just run so hard your eyes water. He thinks it’s so fun."
Feed: Nutrena Special Care ("Because he gets a little fat.") and alfalfa
New Mexico's Tibba Smith was just a kid staying with friends during a junior rodeo weekend when her parents came across Diablo—a grade 3-year-old gelding off the famed Spade Ranch in Colorado City, Texas, through the Spade's Tooter Jameson. The horse wasn't registered, but the Spade, an AQHA Remuda Award Winner, was raising Poco Sassy Doc and Peppy Taito horses crossed on Freckles Smoke mares, so there's an outside chance Diablo was of that persuasion.
"We bought two at the same time, and both were really good," Smith remembered. "They had worked some cows on him, and my dad worked cows on him for a little bit. He was so natural though. I remember riding him for the first time, and it was amazing."
But the horse came by the name Diablo—which translates to devil in Spanish—honestly.
"He would hump up, and he was hard to catch," Smith said. "Lari Dee (Guy) always liked him, and she'd ridden him a little bit. But she'd always tell me I had to bridle him. Because he'd wheel around about the time you'd put it on the right ear. It got to the point I'd put the halter around his neck and tie him solid to bridle him. He'd pull back, but at least I wasn't chasing him all over. Once you got on him, that was the safest place."
Smith started hauling him in 1998, and really started winning on him in 1999, the year she won Barry Burk's breakaway, and she followed it up with a go-round and short-round win at the College National Finals Rodeo the next year, propelling her team, Western Texas College, to the women's national title.
"My sister and I both rode him all the way through college," Smith said. "We'd run barrels on him, breakaway and tie goats. He would slide, whenever took a throw away from you, and he made my job real, real easy."
Diablo was named Horse of the Year in the Southwest Region in college rodeo, as well as in the UPRA, CPRA and TCRA. Aboard Diablo, Smith won the WPRA's reserve world title in the breakaway, and was the Windy Ryon's breakaway champ.
He was great to heel on, too, and Smith won the Wildfire Ladies Only on him as well heeling for Barrie Smith.
"He was real spooky, too," Smith said. "I didn’t even like to carry my rope can on him. But I remember when my son Shane was about 3, I was by myself at a rodeo in East Texas, and it had flooded real bad. I had to park 2 miles away from the arena. Diablo was probably 16 at the time, but I didn’t have time to take the stroller. So I said a prayer, and looked at him and said, 'Please for once in your life act good.' And he did! I got on with Shane and made it up there and back safely."
His career spanned much of the early 2000s, and Diablo, at 17, even stepped in for Smith's mom at the Texas Senior Rodeos. He retired at 19, and he died on the family ranch at 20.
X-Factor: "He would score so good. I didn’t even ride him with a tie-down most of the time. He was so low-headed, you could see anything on him. He’d slide. Never once in 15 years did he ever short me out or anything. He was one of the smoothest things I ever rode, heeling and breakawaying."
Height: 14 hands
Bit: "A little snaffle, not much at all. I might put a port on him to heel. I tried to use different bits, I don’t know if he needed it, but we thought it was a good idea. You could ride him in an o-ring in the barrels."
Program: "We worked cows on the ranch a lot, so we used him as a ranch horse. I’m a practice so I loved to practice, so I did a little. He was just as good in the practice pen as he was at the rodeos."
Feed: Straight alfalfa
Stay tuned for the release of the rest of the greatest breakaway horses of all time, as determined by the leading ladies of the sport! Know of one that belongs on the list? Shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and let know! BRJ