Studying the past decade of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, we list our top horse in bareback riding, barrel racing, heading, heeling, saddle bronc, steer wrestling and tie-down roping.
At an event where contestants are gunning for thousands of dollars each night for 10 consecutive go-rounds, every competitive advantage matters. Many athletes will tell you that no factor is bigger at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo than horse power.
Whether it’s a fleet-footed gelding in barrel racing, an explosive bucker in the saddle bronc or bareback riding, or a snappy, cow-smart mare in roping events, a world-class horse is the key to success under the bright lights of the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
During the past decade, from 2011 to 2020, thousands of horses have streaked, slid and stomped through the small arena in Vegas (with the exception of last year, when the NFR was held at the expansive Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas), helping cowboys and cowgirls win millions of dollars at the most prestigious equine event in the world.
Here, we have selected our top NFR horse in each event—bareback riding, barrel racing, heading, heeling, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and tie-down roping. With the help of experts such as rodeo contestants, horse trainers, judges and commentators, the Western Horseman staff built a list and tabulated votes to help determine which horses have shined brightest in December during the past 10 years.
Jackyl made a good name for unregistered horses. As the story goes, the dun gelding was rescued from a kill pen and wound up with some ropers in Oklahoma. Eventually Oklahoma roper Ryan Miller sold the horse to a then-15-year- old Travis Graves, who later sold him to Tyler Magnus, who then sold him to Kory Koontz. Each heeler had great success with the gelding, and though he was a bit of an outlaw (it wasn’t uncommon for him to rear out of the box, pin his ears or bite people), he was tough, gritty, aggressive and athletic.
“Jackyl is the greatest heel horse to ever be ridden in the Thomas & Mack, in my opinion,” Graves says. “He knew how to put you in the sweet spot where you could catch. And he finished the run better than any horse I ever saw—so strong on the horn.”
The late, great gelding earned more than $2 million in his rodeo career and took heelers like Kory Koontz, Jim Ross Cooper and Jade Corkill to wins at the most prestigious ropings, such as the Wildfire, Cheyenne Frontier Days and the NFR. At 25 years old, he took his last owner, Cooper, to win Cheyenne, a taxing set up for a horse of any age. That same year, he and Cooper won Round 10 at the NFR, his final appearance in Vegas. Jackyl passed away in December 2018.
“Scooter” is synonymous with legendary. The 16-year-old sorrel gelding, whose registered name is Canted Plan, is out of a Crystal Gambler mare named Gambler Speed Line, and sired by Up In Your Face, who traces to Dash for Cash. Scooter has carried many notable cowboys to the pay window, from Tyler Pearson and Kyle Irwin, who co-own the gelding, to Luke Branquinho, Riley Duvall, Ty Erickson, Justin Shaffer, Timmy Sparing and Tyler Waguespack.
The steer wrestling horse was named PRCA/AQHA Horse of the Year in back-to-back years, first in 2017 and again in 2018—and with good reason. At the 2017 NFR, Pearson, Erickson, Waguespack and Irwin rode Scooter in the steer wrestling and finished first, second, fourth and fifth in the world, respectively. In 2018, the same four rode Scooter again, and Waguespack won his second gold buckle.
“If I could describe Scooter with one word, it would be ‘winner,’” says Pearson, who has won more than $600,000 on the gelding. “He would let you win on the runners as well as the stoppers. It didn’t matter what steer you drew, you always had a chance with Scooter. He was easy but he was strong. He was fast but he was smooth. Scooter was flat-out a game changer!”
After winning more than $2 million in rodeo earnings, Scooter was retired in September of 2021.
You would do well to be suspicious of a sweet-natured orphan. At least that’s the case with a sorrel mare named Killer Bee, owned by Beutler and Sons Rodeo Company of Elk City, Oklahoma.
“She just stands there and licks her lips in the chute,” Rhett Beutler says. “But then they pull the gate and the fight is on. She bucks so hard. There have been times I thought she was going to do a front flip, she kicks so high.”
Usually working out of the NFR’s “eliminator pen,” Killer Bee has wreaked havoc as both a bareback horse and a saddle bronc. The 16.3-hand mare was named PRCA Saddle Bronc Horse of the National Finals in 2013 and 2014, and then she won Bareback Horse of the National Finals in 2018, as well as Bareback Horse of the Year in 2019.
The mare inherited her vicious bucking style from her sire, ProRodeo Hall of Fame bareback horse Commotion, and her dam, bucking horse Molly Bee. However, she developed her mannerly, outside-the-arena demeanor as an orphan foal. She was a young foal when Molly Bee colicked and died, so the Beutler crew bottle-fed her and handled her for several months until she was turned out to pasture.
Although she has found success in both saddle bronc and bareback riding, Beutler says her wild style of bucking seems to work best for bareback riders.
“She gets the most oohs and aahs in the bareback riding,” he says.
There’s no mistaking the eruption from the crowd when Lisa Lockhart and her famed buckskin gelding, An Oakie With Cash, come flying down the alleyway. For the past decade “Louie’s” presence in the arena has nearly always been accompanied by the song “Louie Louie,” made famous by The Kingsman in the 1960s.
“When I hear the song start and the crowd cheers, it’s almost deafening,” Lockhart says. “I so appreciate the fans that Louie’s had [throughout his career].”
Bred by Tim and Kelly Bagnell of Polson, Montana, Louie started his career earning money in reined cow horse competition. The Bagnells sent the gelding to Lockhart to train him in barrel racing for their daughter, Lexi. Soon, Lockhart and Louie began gaining national attention, winning the Canadian Finals Rodeo and qualifying for their first NFR in 2010. Not wanting to pull him from Lockhart, the Bagnells sold Louie to Lockhart in 2011.
Lockhart has qualified for the NFR nine times aboard Louie and with him claimed the NFR average title in 2014 and 2016. The latter year Lockhart set a new NFR average record with 137.98 seconds on 10 runs.
From 2011 to 2020, Lockhart and Louie have won more than $803,970 at the NFR, according to EquiStat, the statistical division of Cowboy Publishing Group, making Louie the highest-earning barrel horse at the event during the decade.
While Louie is now 18 and retired from pro rodeo, he’s left his mark on the industry, in fans’ hearts and in Lockhart’s life.
“I’ve always said that his reputation far precedes mine, and I couldn’t be more proud to follow him in what he has accomplished for us,” Lockhart says.
Dustin Bird bought My Frosty Cocoa, “Dolly,” over the phone in 2007 from Dennis and Teri Dahle with the hopes of making her his transition to the heading side and the big leagues.
“She came at a perfect time in my career,” Bird says. “We grew together.”
By the time Bird qualified for his first NFR, in 2012, Dolly split second and third in the PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year voting — a peer-selected award. Bird figures she amassed $75,000 in earnings during her career. She carried him to a win at the Spicer Gripp Memorial Roping and third-place finishes at both the Bob Feist Invitational and the George Strait Team Roping Classic. Bird rode her at three NFRs and won three go-rounds. Her biggest accomplishment, however, was taking Bird’s friend, Erich Rogers, to the 2017 heading world title.
“She was a special, one-of-a kind horse—super quick feet and strong,” Bird says. “She never needed any practice. She read what you were doing and reacted to that. Whether you were reaching or making a jackpot run, she knew what you needed and did it.”
Bird retired the mare in 2018 and she’s had three colts—the oldest being a dead ringer for her mother.
Saddle Bronc Riding
Heath Stewart was certain he had a superstar horse on his hands when local oilfield workers asked him about Medicine Woman.
“They didn’t know anything about rodeo,” recalls the manager of Frontier Rodeo Company, based in Freedom, Oklahoma. “But they were doing some work near the ranch and asked me where Medicine Woman was.”
The big bay mare has been named PRCA Saddle Bronc Horse of the Year four times (2011, 2014–2016) and has placed between second and fourth for Saddle Bronc Horse of the National Finals four times (she won the award in 2010). She has helped multiple cowboys secure go-round wins, including a 92-point ride in Round 10 in 2018 that helped Coburn Bradshaw claim the NFR average title.
“She’s been phenomenal at the NFR,” Stewart says. “A lot of horses when they get in little arenas aren’t as good. But she’s always bucked [in the Thomas & Mack Center]. She’s smart enough to know where the fences are, and is just honest in bucking in real tight circles — no ducks or dives. She’ll buck people off, but they’re going to [score] either 90 or zero.”
Stewart remembers the first day she was bucked at the age of 4 and says, “you could tell she was going to be special.”
At last year’s NFR, she helped Zeke Thurston score 87 points in Round 10, earning him a fourth-place check for $8,885. It made for a nice farewell for the now-18-year-old mare.
“She’s by far the best horse we ever raised,” Stewart says. “We didn’t retire her because she was getting old. She’s just taking it easy in our pasture now, raising foals. She’s earned it.”
This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue of Western Horseman.