Women of the West

Judy Wagner

Montana native Judy Wagner has used wisdom gleaned through her rural upbringing to guide her in business and to inspire others.

This Montana native has used wisdom gleaned through her rural upbringing to guide her in business and to inspire others.

A fixture in the western industry, Judy Wagner of Park City, Montana, has been an innovator and trailblazer her entire life, whether it was in ranching, roping or operating a business. Along the way she has inspired others with her can-do spirit and pearls of “ranch-grown logic.”

Montana native Judy Wagner has used wisdom gleaned through her rural upbringing to guide her in business and to inspire others.
Photo by Jennifer Denison

At age 16, her father died in a tractor accident, leaving the family cow-calf operation in Avon, Montana, in the hands of his wife, Luella, and their children. Judy was the oldest of seven children.
Judy attended Montana State University, graduated in 1976 and went to work as a county extension agent in Teton County, Montana. That same year she married Alvin Wagner. They have two children.
Judy took her biggest leap of faith in 1988 by starting Gator Ropes with a partner. She operated the company for 10 years, and then sold her share and started a small marketing firm called WIT (Whatever it Takes).

One of the first competitive women team ropers in Montana, she helped establish the Rocky Mountain All-Girl Rodeo Team, a pre-rodeo event that was held before the Last Chance Stampede in Helena, Montana. She also created several family roping and rodeo events in the area that still exist.

Additionally, she was the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Rookie of the Year in team roping heading in 2013 at age 60 and the WPRA Montana Circuit champion in heading in 2014.

For 19 years Judy has worked in marketing at Montana Silversmiths and is now the company’s vice president of marketing and communications. She will receive the inaugural Western Horseman Women of the West Award for her dedication to the Western industry at Art of the Cowgirl, February 8–10 in Phoenix, Arizona.

About a week before my dad passed away, he put his arm around me and said, “Look at those cows out there in the pasture. That is what I love to do, but I don’t care, Judy, if you want to do something different. Whatever you do, I’ll always be proud of you.”

When my dad died, we had to learn responsibility and grow up fast. We jumped in and did what we had to do, and we learned to work as a team. One thing that really sticks in my mind is that we learned that the cows didn’t know when it was Christmas; we fed and took care of the animals first.

Horses have always been part of my life. It started with a buckskin ranch horse named Smokey. All of my brothers and sisters and I would crawl up and down his legs and ride him at the same time.

I started team roping competitively after Alvin and I married. There weren’t a lot of women ropers, and I’m proud that I was one of a handful of women ropers that blazed the trail for other women in the state of Montana.

We started Gator Ropes in 1988 with no real understanding of how to start a business, but we jumped in and followed our passion and did whatever it took. I was the first to name ropes, give them personalities, and partner with endorsees to tell our story.

Our first trade show for Gator Ropes was during Cowboy Christmas at the National Finals Rodeo. I thought it’d be a good idea to go to my family’s ranch before we left and get all of my brothers and sisters to help me cut boughs so I could make a rope rack that looked like a Christmas tree. I decorated all of the ropes with boughs to look like wreaths. I didn’t sell one rope wreath, so I cut off all the boughs and then I sold out.

The first thing I do in the morning is look out my bedroom window at my horses. I just like watching them, and there’s nothing like getting on them and forgetting everything else for a while.

I don’t care if I’m competing or just watching an event, I’m always the one standing up and cheering for everyone.

Horses teach us so much about life and business. One time I was helping my brother gather cattle and was riding a challenging horse named Shine, who refused to cross a 3-foot-wide ditch no matter what I tried. My brother rode up and told me to look up. Sure enough, when I looked up the horse jumped the ditch. Focus on your vision and look up, not down, at where you want to go.

It feels like I keep breaking trail with my ranch-grown logic leading me, and I’m learning now more than ever through faith, family and friends. I’m always looking for the next step, and in this phase of my life it’s all about mentorship and giving back to the industry.

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of Western Horseman.

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