Out West

Fancy Loops and Vaquero Horsemanship

Buck Brannaman throwing a loop at the vaquero roping

 The Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping honors the horsemanship traditions of the California’s revered horsemen.

Brannaman pro-am vaquero roping
Buck Brannaman throws a fancy loop. Photo by Jenny Coxon

Many consider the Santa Ynez Valley to be ground zero for the California bridle horse culture. The history and culture of the area are two of the reasons why horseman Buck Brannaman decided to host his first Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping in 2013. In October, the event was held at the Santa Ynez Valley Equestrian Center for the sixth time.

The Santa Ynez Valley was one of the largest areas of historic Mexican land grants created after the secularization of the California Missions in the mid-1830s. The missions became ranches, and they became the homes of the native vaqueros who had previously worked at many of the 21 missions located around the state. It was during that period that the bridle horse culture thrived. Blessed with abundant grass and pleasant weather, the vaqueros luxuriated in available time to perfect their horsemanship and riding skills.

It was a glorious period that lasted a mere 30 years until the mid-1860s, when the region was struck with devastating droughts and flooding. Over a million cattle were lost and the ranches were broken up. But the skills the vaqueros developed during that era have remained to this day.

Brannaman pro-am roping
Contestants rope at the 6th Annual Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping. Photo by Jenny Coxon

In Brannaman’s mind, there was no better place to hold his event than the Santa Ynez Valley, as it honors those early horsemen and invites new generations to help carry on the region’s unique history of fine horsemanship. Today, the event mimics the act of doctoring cattle outside with three riders, taking care to approach and rope the stock as gently as possible.

It is necessary to state at this point that Brannaman, while consumed by his horses and what he does for a living—traveling 40 weeks a year putting on horsemanship clinics around the country and the world—is also rather passionate about golf. And the game’s structure led him to consider a unique approach to what could have been a typical ranch roping—something he didn’t want. Why not, he suggested, match two-person teams with a highly respected “pro” horseman? Utilizing a draw format, he devised a “pro-am” set of rules similar to those used in pro-am golf tournaments.

The ladies who changed the cattle included (from left) Chris Sobenes, Nita Vail, Karen Haskell, Audrey Griffin and Kristin Reynolds. Photo by Jenny Coxon

In addition, Brannaman wanted the winnings of his roping to be more than the usual offerings of buckles and prizes. By offering a substantial purse of money, he planned to make this roping the richest in the country. After all, most of the ropers that compete were leaving day jobs and heading a great distance to Santa Ynez. Brannaman wanted it to be worth their while and for these past six years, the Pro-Am has earned its nickname as “the richest ranch roping in the world.” This year, the total purse offered nearly $80,000, with $20,000 going to the winning team.

Scott Grosskopf Buck and Reata Brannaman pro-am
Buck and Reata Brannaman (left) recognize the winning team of Scott Grosskopf, Cody Dawson and Coy Shoemaker. John Wright of JM Capriola stands at right. Photo by Jenny Coxon

Today, Brannaman’s daughter, Reata Brannaman, and her platoon of millennial cohorts have pretty much taken over the event—something Brannaman hoped would happen. Reata has broadened the sponsor base to include the likes of Kimes Ranch Jeans, YETI, Twisted X Boots and—with gratitude—this magazine, among many others. In addition, a diverse and talented group of genre-based craftsmen and retailers inhabit the trade show area along with a curated artisan show devised and enhanced each year under the watchful eye of silversmith Nevada Watt Miller.

The Pro-Am has taken on pilgrimage status at this point for many who set their calendars by the third weekend in October to travel to Santa Ynez to reunite with friends and see some incredible roping by some truly unique Westerners from more than 13 states and five countries.

The set-up for spectators is as unique as the roping. The intent was to make the ropers accessible to the spectators to ask questions about their horses, their gear, and just how the heck they make those shots! Event officials figure that the only way a tradition can continue is to invite new people to participate. So spectators enter the main arena to enjoy the roping that is being held in two interior pens, which are 80 feet square. Roping takes place in both arenas simultaneously with 80 teams competing on Friday and 80 on Saturday, with the top 50 returning on Sunday for the finals.

bridle horse
The Pro-Am honors the California bridle horse culture. Photo by Jenny Coxon

Winners this year were in the money to eighth place. First place went to the team of Cody Dawson, Coy Shoemaker and their pro, Scott Grosskopf. See all 50 finals teams here.

In 2019 the Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping will be held October 18–20 in Santa Ynez, California. For more information visit www.proamroping.com

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