Derrick Begay made a name for himself in pro rodeo and paved the way for other Native American ropers in the arena. Today he feels most at home working cattle in the rugged country of the Navajo Nation.
The blaring truck horn sounds in time with the bumps in the dirt road as Derrick Begay shifts to a lower gear on his white crew-cab Ford. In the distance, the Arizona sun sinks behind the summit of Four Peaks, still giving off soft light but without the skin-burning heat that is not uncommon for a June day in Maricopa County. It is 8 p.m., but Derrick is just setting out to check cattle on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation.
Dressed in his trademark starched denim shirt and jeans, the 34-year-old Navajo cowboy leans out the window to look over the cattle answering the truck horn’s call. In the settling dust kicked up by Derrick’s truck, the cattle appear out of the brush like a mirage. He steps out of his truck, climbs atop his trailer and throws alfalfa into the catch corrals.
“We had probably one of the best winters down here that I’ve seen. There was a lot of [grass to graze] this winter,” he says as he looks over the healthy cattle. “There is nearly always water here. Our winter here is like springtime anywhere else. We get green and pretty in the winter. The spring and summer are brown-the desert comes out, things get dried up and burnt.”
Derrick is checking cattle that belong to the family of his girlfriend, Justine Doka, but he feels a sense of ownership of them. These cattle, as well as the ones his family owns on the Navajo Nation to the north, share an equal part in Derrick’s day-to-day livelihood when he is not on the road making money at Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos as half of a team roping pair. On the reservations he is better known for his ability to locate and capture wild cattle, and as a hand at branding, doctoring and working cattle.
These are tasks he craves, but they often take a back seat to better-paying rodeo. Being horseback and working cattle in the desert is where Derrick feels most at home.
“The history I’ve got with horses, it’s what my grandparents did and what I grew up with. I didn’t get involved with it; I was born into it,” Derrick says. “Roping was all part of it. They never asked ifI wanted to rope. I just roped. It started off as a sport or a hobby, but it became a job.”
The professional header may be best known for his seven Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifications and the high-profile rodeos he has won on his way to nearly $1 million in earnings, but to Derrick, that is not what life is all about. He is a proud member of the Navajo Nation and lives by both his family’s and his culture’s traditional values. His heart lies in the land and working with livestock, but his rodeo addiction keeps pulling him back into roping.
Derrick’s family has owned livestock for generations, which is a traditional vocation in Native American culture. Ranching on the reservation, however, is not the same as running cattle on thousands of acres under one owner.
The largest reservation in the United States at 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is home to approximately 250,000 people and is growing. There is not enough land to allow for traditional ranching, where one family owns and uses large tracts of acreage, but it does offer families the opportunity to have livestock, like sheep, goats, a donkey, cattle and horses, a tradition for the Navajo. Often, the livestock is run together, or the family owns only a few of each animal.
Derrick’s mother, Myrtle Begay, says that her quiet little boy could always be found at the sheep or horse corral.
“[Our kids] didn’t have a lot growing up, but they were happy. We had livestock, and something my dad told them as kids was to take care of the livestock and in turn it would take care of you,” Myrtle says. “The animals are going to clothe you and feed you. That was one of our values as Natives. Those cultural teachings become a mindset as you get older.”
There were always chores to do at the Begay home. Derrick’s father, Victor Begay, kept horses that he used to work cattle and also to compete in local rodeos on the reservations and in the PRCA. Victor purchased his PRCA card in 1983, and competed with some of the top contenders at the time, including Clay O’Brien Cooper (who would one day also partner with Derrick).
As a child, Derrick learned from his father how to handle a rope and ride a horse. He and his sisters, Jamie and Brittany, competed in youth rodeo.
“It is just natural on the reservation [to rodeo] because there is not much to do around here,” Myrtle says. “There are no parks or pools for the kids. Out here, the land, horses and cattle are what the kids use and how they hang out. If there is nothing for the kids to do, they will get in trouble. That is why my dad and their dad stressed looking after the livestock.”
Derrick considered himself a cowboy before ever entering a rodeo.
“I like being a cowboy first; that is what I always was,” he says. “I was a rodeo cowboy second. But my dad was my first and very best [team roping] partner. He knows how to win and does pretty good. I grew up heading and heeling for him, and I still rope with him today.”
Though Victor achieved success at PRCA rodeos, he saw his son’s desire to rope and took a step back from competing to allow Derrick to chase his dreams. However, before Victor and Myrtle would fully get behind their son starting down his own rodeo road, they wanted him to have a fallback plan.
Derrick graduated from Winslow High School in 2001, then attended Northland Pioneer College in Holbrook, Arizona, where he graduated with an associate’s degree in industrial arts. In 2004, he purchased his PRCA card.
With Victor’s help, Derrick looked for a team roping partner who had the same goal of making it to the NFR, not just winning one or two big rodeos. Derrick eventually teamed with Victor Aros from Tucson, Arizona.
“Derrick was ready but he didn’t have the nicest horse,” his dad says. “He had a horse, a partner in Victor Aros, a truck and a trailer, and got entered in some rodeos. He was ready, but he said, ‘Dad, what about our money?’ I told him that we didn’t have the money but the money was out there. I wasn’t able to give him $40,000 or $50,000 to rodeo. He started with no money, and it made him try harder and harder.”
What Derrick didn’t know when he started out was that he had an ace in the hole in the form of his home-trained rope horse dubbed “Paint.” The horse soon captured the attention of other ropers and carried Derrick to the pay window.
By 2007, Derrick was starting to make his mark. He and Aros won four major PRCA events and finished 28th in the world standings with $34,855 in earnings. However, the rodeo world truly took notice when Derrick and partner Cesar de la Cruz turned in a blistering 3.31 round time at the 2007 George Strait Team Roping Classic in San Antonio, Texas.
For his first year or so on the PRCA circuit, Derrick rode only Paint. Victor says that Paint earned a reputation starting with the George Strait roping.
“He was so fast and snappy, that Paint horse,” says Victor. “The top guys would stack the leader board with 4.1-, 4.2-, 4.3-second runs. Then comes Derrick at a 4-flat. Pretty soon, people gave that Paint a name, ‘Wagon Burner.’ See, everybody was on the pay window wagon, and then Derrick comes along and burns them down.”
Derrick Begay and Paint turned a few heads at the Classic, including that of EquiBrand Director of Marketing Billie Bray.
“I was amazed at his raw talent,” Bray says. “I asked if I could send him ropes, and that is where we started our relationship with Derrick.”
EquiBrand’s Classic Ropes was Derrick’s first sponsor and still supports him. It is not only Derrick’s roping talent but also his value system that appeals to Bray. For example, Derrick doesn’t smoke and will not drink.
“He has a very good mother and a very good family and very good ethics,” Bray says. “Guys like him are genuine leaders for kids on the reservation, which is completely needed.”
Myrtle says that through the years her son has opened the door for a lot of Native children to pursue their interest in rodeo outside of the reservation.
“They want to be like him but don’t get a lot of parental support. I work at a school and it is sad because we don’t get a lot of parental involvement,” she says. “I think it was his dad that said, ‘Son, go out and do it!’ I gave the motherly love and the care. Dad provided the mentoring. Now, Derrick attracts a lot of people, Natives and people of all backgrounds.”
In his quiet way, from 2008 to 2015 Derrick moved up the ranks, qualifying for the NFR seven times — every year but 2014 — and winning a handful of rounds at the event. Though his fame grew, Derrick’s workmanlike attitude remained the same. He wasn’t overly loud or boastful. He drew fans from across the country and from all walks of life. He became the role model for Native children who wanted to be cowboys.
“Growing up, I remember wondering if a guy like me, like who I am, could make a name for himself and make the NFR,” Derrick says. “To be honest, I didn’t think it was possible.”
Bray recalls the first time she asked Derrick to sign autographs for Classic Ropes at the 2008 NFR, where she practically had to drag him to the table. It was still hard for him to understand why others wanted to meet him.
“The way we are, we don’t brag or don’t tell anybody what we do,” says Victor. “We are a low-profile people and keep to ourselves. We try not to yell around what we do or where we’ve been.”
Bray says Derrick is generous when it comes to giving back to the fans.
“When he decides he wants to sit down and sign, I have never seen anything like it. No one has a following like this,” she says. “Everybody from every walk of life is trying to get his autograph.”
While the crowds in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas are drawn to Derrick and his humble ways, the quiet solitude of the desert calls him back home, where he can step into a well-worn pair of chaps and settle into a rough-out work saddle. He trades his quick, hard-turning arena horses for sure-footed ranch mounts, and he escapes into the Arizona brush.
In previous years when Derrick Begay backed his horse into the header’s box at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, it was most likely a sorrel gelding with a big blaze. “Swagger” and Begay paired up for all seven of his NFR qualifications, with multiple round wins to their credit.
Begay picked up the unregistered gelding in 2008. The horse’s age is unknown, but with so many years competing, the gelding could be nearing 20 years old.
“There’s not one particular thing he does great; he does everything,” Begay says. “I trust him and he is loyal. When I get done rodeoing on him, I’ll keep him forever. But he’s still going strong and is still sound.”
While Derrick Begay has five head of horses that travel to rodeos, Swagger is still his go-to mount for the biggest events. He is a big part of helping Begay earn more than $975,000.
Since joining PRCA in 2004 and qualifying for his first NFR in 2008, Derrick Begay was a fixture at the top of the world standings until moving to Elite Rodeo Athletes in 2016. Here is a highlight list of his titles:
2007 (partner Victor Aros)
28th in PRCA world standings with $34,855
Won Sheridan WYO Rodeo in Wyoming; the Red Desert Roundup in Rock Springs, Wyoming; the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo in Abilene, Kansas; and the New Mexico State Fair & Rodeo in Albuquerque.
2008 (partner Victor Aros)
15th in PRCA world standings with $70,066
Placed in two rounds of the NFR, and tied to win Round 9. Won the Pioneer Days Rodeo in Clovis, New Mexico, and the Turquoise Circuit Finals rodeo in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
2009 (partner Cesar de la Cruz)
15th in PRCA world standings with $84,580
Won Round 7 and placed in one other round at the NFR. Won the Colorado State Fair & Rodeo in Pueblo, and the Prescott Frontier Days in Prescott, Arizona.
2010 (partner Cesar de la Cruz)
11th in PRCA world standings with $104,927
Won Round 8 and placed in three other rounds at the NFR. Won Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming; the Pioneer Days Rodeo and the Tri-State Fair & Rodeo in Amarillo, Texas.
2011 (partner Cesar de la Cruz)
7th in PRCA world standings with $134,043
Placed in two NFR rounds. Won the Justin Boots Championship in Omaha, Nebraska; the Pendleton Roundup in Pendleton, Oregon; and Rodeo Austin in Austin, Texas.
2012 (partner Cesar de la Cruz)
6th in PRCA world standings and 6th in the NFR average
Placed in five NFR rounds. Won Ram Turquoise Circuit Finals Rodeo, Prescott Frontier Days, and the Missoula Stampede in Missoula, Montana.
2013 (partner Cesar de la Cruz)
12th in PRCA world standings
Tied to win Round 10 and placed in three other rounds of the NFR. Won the Justin Boots Championship in Omaha, Nebraska, the Pendleton Roundup and the California Rodeo Salinas.
2014 (partners Will Woodfin, Aaron Tsinigine and Jordan Olson)
23rd in PRCA world standings with $46,469
Won Parada de Sol in Scottsdale, Arizona, with Woodfin; the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo with Tsinigine; and the Andy Devine Days Rodeo in Kingman, Arizona, with Olson.
2015 (partner Clay O’Brien Cooper)
3rd in PRCA world standings with $218,464
Won Rounds 2 and 4, and split Round 5, placing in five rounds at the NFR. Won Rodeo Austin.
2016 (partner Clay O’Brien Cooper)
Won ERA Tour #1, Tour Stop #3, Tour Stop #7, and was one of The American’s $100,000 winners.
2017 (partner Clay O’Brien Cooper)
39th in PRCA world standings with $33,661 as of mid-September.
HUNTING HIS LIVING
Steel-shod hooves clatter across rock as Derrick Begay pushes his gelding up a hill, trying to beat the cross-bred beef cattle attempting to make an escape through the Saguaro cactus-covered desert. He’s been training his dapple gray gelding, “Blue Moon,” since picking him up at a horse sale about four years ago. They are hot on the heels of the herd, while Derrick’s six working cattle dogs head to the side to try and cut off the cattle. It is a race, and Derrick is determined to win.
Brought to a standstill with the dogs’ help, the cow-calf pairs allow Begay’s swinging rope to fall over their heads. With the dogs’ assistance, Derrick can track, stop and then doctor or work cattle. Without them at his side, Derrick has a harder time catching up to and then holding these desert-savvy cattle.
Derrick Begay has become known for accomplishing what others can’t get done—catching feral, or wild, cattle in Arizona’s maze-like desert. He travels the Southwest’s reservations with his horses and dogs to gather wild cattle, says Victor.
“Over here, there are a lot of cowboys. Derrick goes off this reservation to others where they don’t have cowboys,” Victor says.
Derrick keeps a dozen horses that he uses to ranch and to catch cattle. He purchases them from ranches or sales where the horses previously ran on open ground. That way, he believes, they have a better understanding of the perils of this rocky desert landscape.
“It is kind of like hunting. You stalk [the cattle] but when you find them you have to catch one, or have to get them back to the corrals,” he says. “You go way out in the middle of nowhere and cattle have gotten away
[from corrals] for years. Some places you can’t drive to but have to ride back there and camp. The reservations have springs and rivers that [provide at least some] water year-round, but make for rough country. Pretty soon you have mavericks.”
As Derrick’s rope swings out and settles on a black baldy calf, one of the world’s foremost team ropers looks like a champion tie-down roper. He steps off his horse and flanks the calf, but the wrap and hooey he puts on doesn’t stay for only a few seconds; it must be secure and allow Derrick time to tend to the calf.
On most reservations, Derrick says, “most people run their cows together.” That makes identification important.
Fluid with his knife, Derrick ear-notches the calf and castrates it before taking the neck rope off and untying its feet. As the calf trots back to its mother, Derrick whistles his dogs off the small herd.
“When I was younger, I wanted to take the first plane, train or bus out of town. I was ready to go,” he says. “I did that. I went down the road to rodeos and won. At this point in my career, I’m the opposite. I’ll take the very last plane I can take out of the house to go there, rope, and then try and get back as fast as I can. It is crazy how it changes. When you’re young you want to go, but when you’re older you don’t want to leave the house.”
It was the desire to be home and not travel so much that appealed to both Derrick and his current team roping partner, Clay O’Brien Cooper, when they were approached by the group founding Elite Rodeo Athletes.
In 2016, Derrick Begay and Cooper opted for fewer rodeos and more family time, and joined the ERA with its limited schedule. The duo won the first ERA tour stop, setting up what looked like a good year. Yet the ERA’s success was short-lived, and the association was seemingly defunct by early 2017. Derrick has no regrets in joining the offshoot association.
“I got to do a lot of stuff I never got to do last year, being off the road,” he says. “The timing of it was perfect when the ERA asked us to join. I wanted to slow down. I wanted a way out.
“You know when somebody is kind of addicted? I am addicted to rodeoing, but there are a lot of things I hate about it. I love competing and going to the rodeo, but I hate leaving the house and driving down the road. [With ERA] it put me on the wagon and tied me there so I wouldn’t fall off. The wagon didn’t go very far, I guess. One thing I do have to say is we had a lot of good ideas and we tried. It just didn’t work.”
On the Road Again
Derrick’s truck and trailer pulled out of his parent’s house on June 15 and didn’t return until the end of September. Derrick and Cooper were back on the rodeo trail, hitting the summer rodeos and trying to earn a spot at the NFR. It was not the best summer for the duo reentering the PRCA circuit.
“Same old rodeo, different day. I got heck from my buddies, coming back to PRCA [after ERA], but there were no hard feelings,” Derrick says. “There shouldn’t be any bad feelings. It’s not like they hired us to do a job and we said we didn’t want to work for them anymore, then we came and asked for our job back. It is not like that. We had to still drive ourselves over there, pay our own entry fees and our way.”
For Derrick, it is getting back to a way of life he knows well. With multiple big rodeo wins to his credit, he has figured out what it takes to be successful, and that includes hauling the right horse to each venue.
His dad, Victor, is part of his winning team. Though Derrick never mentions the logistics, Victor says that his horses have helped other Native Americans to the pay window through the years.
“He has different horses that he will send to [specific] rodeos. We wore that Paint horse out quick [when Derrick first started],” Victor says. “He said we aren’t going to do that to any more horses, so that is why he has about five heading horses now. He sends this one to Cheyenne and this one to Salinas. He has it figured out.
“He has about five horses that he will send to rodeos. I drive them for him. Through the years, [Native American ropers] Erich Rogers, Dustin Bird and Aaron Tsinigine have rode his horses.”
While he may have been the first to make a national name for himself as a Navajo cowboy in the PRCA arena, Derrick Begay is not the last. He helped pave the way for those who came up behind him.
“It is something that did happen, the media covering me. But there is Aaron and Erich and [barrel racer] Kassidy [Denison],” he says. “I happened to be the first one, but I don’t think it is over, either. There is a lot of talent on the reservation.”
Like an addict who knows how to get one more fix, Derrick is clear on what he needs to do to get one more paycheck. So he leaves the familiar reservations, often for long periods of time, to pursue the dream he opened up for the others that follow him.
“I know he misses home a lot, just being outside around here,” says Myrtle. “He doesn’t say much about it but I know he wants to be home. The thing I can do as his mom is make him a good, hot meal when he does come home.”
Looking at a cowboy closing in on a million dollars in career earnings, it may be hard to understand why the spotlight doesn’t draw him in like a beacon.
“It doesn’t make sense to say that I love rodeo but I hate it, too,” Derrick says. “The best teacher is passion or having fun. Roping and rodeo were never forced. I definitely enjoy it and it is all I want to leave home to do.
“People say I need to think about what I will do after rodeo. They say rodeo will not always be there. But my answer is nothing is guaranteed. If you want to do something, you go do it. ”
So Derrick Begay doesn’t think about the travel. He just heads to the next town and the next roping run, knowing that the rodeo road will always carry him home.
This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Western Horseman.