“Obviously what I had in mind [with the rodeo] was making money. But I was a novice at it,” he says. “I really felt like there was an opportunity for it to become something big, and it did. But it took a long time.”
Business was steady enough that when the adjacent property came up for sale, Neal Gay decided it would be an even better location and purchased it, and began building an indoor arena in 1985. It was nothing like anyone had seen in the sport: an indoor facility with “skybox” suites on the top level where high-profile guests could entertain and be entertained.
“It was something new to everybody, and I was hoping it would work,” Neal says.
The family remembers guests ranging from Dallas Cowboys star Roger Staubach to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, and even royalty, including Prince Rainier and Princess Stephanie of Monaco. The facility hosted numerous private performances for conventions, concerts (featuring performers from Willie Nelson and Randy Travis to George Jones and George Strait) and other events, including the Walt Garrison All-Star Rodeo.
But more than anything, what put the rodeo on the map was television coverage. It started with broadcasts on ESPN and then moved to weekly live coverage on the Nashville Network, about the time the new arena was constructed.
“You could see the transformation of the rodeo,” Jim says. “Our rodeo became more popular than any other rodeo going because of TV.”
For about 10 years the broadcast was one of TNN’s most popular programs, attracting 1.2 million viewers each week, and gave professional rodeo a national audience it hadn’t had before. Donnie hosted the program with Pam Minick and Dan Miller. Not only did the show develop rodeo fans, but it also put the broncs and bulls in the spotlight.
“A couple of our bulls had fan clubs,” Kay says. “We’d have people drive from back East to see these bulls. They would look at them like they were movie stars.”
Donnie says the livestock is “the most important cog in the wheel.”
“Without good quality livestock, the rodeo’s not any good,” he says. “What separates rodeo from all other sports is that when the whistle blows or the checkered flag drops somewhere else, everybody has to stop. When the whistle blows in rodeo, the bull doesn’t care.”
Breeding for bucking stock at the Rafter G, just like breeding horses for a specific discipline, takes both skill and luck.
“Every animal is going to buck a little, but you can’t make one a National Finals quality bucking horse or bull. They have to want to do that,” Donnie adds. “Bucking for a horse or a bull is a lot like boxing for a want to come back sometime,” he says. “That’s really what kept me going, good things that happened. As I look back on it now, I probably wouldn’t advise anybody to try that again! But it worked out perfect for me because I liked what I was doing, and I became pretty good at it after I’d been there a few years.
“I thought I was pretty good at it to start with, but I wasn’t. I learned how to be. And that’s what I tried to instill in the boys: You’ve just got to keep after it. You can’t quit. If something happens and you don’t like it, try something else.”
The Family Way
The “boys”—Pete, Donnie and Jim—heeded their father’s advice. While the Mesquite Championship Rodeo was maturing, so were they. Donnie was 5 when the rodeo started, and Jim Shoulders, a 16-time world champion, was his idol.
“All I wanted to be was a world champion bull rider,” he says. “I guess I talked about it constantly.”
Even when they were small, the boys helped out at the rodeo, whether it was picking up cups left in the stands or helping take care of the livestock.
“It was just part of our daily lives,” Donnie says.
“With the boys, you didn’t have to say, ‘Pete, you do this, and Donnie, you do this, and Jim, you do this.’ They just did it,” Kay says. “They did whatever needed to be done.”
Neal Gay says it was because everybody in the family, along with employees, had the same goals.
“We wanted to get people in the grandstands, be sure they were entertained, and be sure those horses and bulls were taken care of,” he says.
When Donnie and Pete were old enough to start riding bulls, they both quickly proved their talent. Donnie says Pete was more of a natural, but adds that “I made up for lack of talent by just being really hard-headed.” But he also says that growing up in the center of a rodeo and stock-contracting business gave him an edge.
“I never felt like I was really all that much better than anyone else,” he says. “At one time Pete rode a lot better than me. But I always figured that being totally immersed in the things that surrounded professional rodeo, I absorbed some stuff that I probably still don’t fully recognize, and that helped me mature quicker than I might have otherwise.
“And it was also just being around [the livestock] and developing what I call ‘bull sense.’ I can look at an animal in the pasture and tell you whether he feels good or not. I learned that you don’t just pour out a sack of feed when you’re in a hurry to go to a baseball game. Daddy always said he didn’t care if I rode bulls or played the flute, but I was going to give it everything I had no matter what it was, and I wasn’t going to quit.” And he didn’t quit. Donnie says his life revolved around rodeo and bulls. His dedication paid off. He won his first Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world championship in bull riding in 1974, and won three more successive world titles. He qualified for the National Finals Rodeo 11 times. From 1979 to 1981, he again claimed the world championship, and then came back in 1984 for another title. His record has not been touched.
Pete also was a talented bull rider, qualifying for the NFR three times. And Jim had a fair amount of success in the sport, too. Many of their friends who rodeoed were welcomed at Neal and Kay’s home, spending the night after a late rodeo or on a layover between events, and becoming an extended family.
“They’ve raised a lot more than us three over the years,” Jim says. “That’s probably an endless number.”
Whether family by blood or by friendship, all of those boys learned unforgettable lessons growing up as they did, Donnie says. And many other competitors honed their skills in Mesquite.
“There were a lot of guys who were products of [the rodeo], because what you learned at Mesquite is two things: You learned how to win, because that’s different than the physical part,” Donnie says. “And you learned a certain amount of toughness, because the livestock there was, to me, much more dangerous than anywhere else.”
That stock—owned by the family’s Rafter G Rodeo Company—has included bulls like Dodge Durango and Kowabunga. Another bull, Joe Kool, went to Washington, D.C., for a special performance for President Ronald Reagan. The stock contracting company’s bareback horses include Assault, the mare Richmond Champion rode to win $1.1 million at The American rodeo in 2014. Jim manages the operation, and Pete is responsible for livestock transportation and care on the road.
In addition to a number of annual rodeos in Texas and Kansas, Rafter G produces the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo’s 36 rodeo performances each January.
“We’ve been putting on that rodeo since 1979,” says Neal Gay, whose connection with the rodeo goes back to the late 1940s, when he was hired to be the “arena policeman” by Bob Watt, Sr., who managed the event. The job included taking care of the cowboys, making sure they were in the arena when they should be, and keeping them out of the way of ticketholders when they watched the rodeo.
“A lot of the cowboys would be standing up in front of the people who bought tickets, and Mr. Watt didn’t like that, so he hired me,” he says. “That’s how I got acquainted with him. Later, when I got a bit more prominent in the top end of the rodeo business, he hired me to put on the rodeo.”
Now Jim and Pete handle the rodeo production in Fort Worth, but Neal and Kay still often attend, and Neal still rides in the grand entry at every performance. It’s a hard habit to break.
The Mesquite Championship Rodeo has changed hands several times, the first through a partnership with Don Carter, a founding owner of the Dallas Mavericks. It was next purchased by Tom Hicks, then owner of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars. In 2009 Hicks sold the operation to Camelot Sports and Entertainment. In 2015 it was purchased by a group that includes Terry Dickerson, founder of Ultimate Challenge Bull Riding, and Stace Smith, an 11-time PRCA Stock Contractor of the Year.
Regardless of ownership, the rodeo’s history and success has touched the lives of many a cowboy and cowgirl.
“Every cowboy that was somebody has been to Mesquite,” Jim says.
Though the rodeo is no longer a family operation, its success helped build the family’s stock contracting business. On a cloudy day last fall, Jim and his daughter Summer moved a group of young bulls into a set of pens—which happen to be under the old Mesquite arena that was moved to the ranch when the new one was built. Summer is in charge of the family’s saddle horses, which are used on the ranch and at rodeos, and likes raising barrel horses. She and her sister, Megan (who just started a nursing career), are often seen posting the colors at rodeos produced by Rafter G. It’s something that runs in the family, starting with Kay and then going to Donnie’s wife, Terri, and Jim’s wife, Brenda, before the third generation took over. Donnie and Terri have a daughter, Talli, who is a schoolteacher but also has ridden in the rodeo.
The 2- and 3-year-old bulls that were being worked had been bucked with dummies the day before to test their skills. Some might be future superstars in the rodeo arena, while others might not have the talent it takes. It’s all part of the business, which Jim says has changed dramatically in the past decade. More people raise or own bucking bulls, and it’s harder to find the standouts.
“We have some commercial bulls now,” Jim says. “Before, everything that we’ve done has been toward rodeo. Now we’re trying to change that to be a little more diversified. It’s hard when you look at keeping [young bulls] a couple of years, and then bucking them. As a ranch, you want a set of cattle out there that will produce cash flow, instead of the cash flow being two or three years down the line. But you still are raising some bulls trying to get a new Wicked [a top bucking bull].”
Neal remembers going to sales and buying bulls as bucking prospects.
“The bull business has changed so much,” he says. “When I first started, I’d buy cross-bred bulls as prospects to try out for rodeo. If they worked, I’d keep them. As we grew, we bought Brahma-type cross-bred cows and used the bloodlines of good bucking bulls to go on them, and we raised bulls. We’d hope they would buck, but they don’t all buck. And the ones that do, they’re 4 or 5 years old before you can use them in the rodeo business. For a while we were the only ones around trying to raise bucking bulls in our part of the country.
“The first bull I remember selling for quite a lot of money was Dillinger. That was in the 1990s.”
Dillinger was among the last bulls the family bought at a sale barn. Jim says the market is now flooded with bucking bulls, so anything below the top tier doesn’t bring the money it used to. Adapting to those changes but adhering to tradition is keeping the Rafter G going.
Right at Home
Past the old arena, down a gravel road, is the house Neal and Kay built in 1999. Rustic and warm, it is filled with photos, rodeo memorabilia and Western art. Kay’s penchant for painting old-time cowboys, cowgirls, horses and cattle is visible on several lamps and dishes, and even on the tile in a guest bathroom shower and the kitchen backsplash.
Her hand has touched many aspects of the family’s business. A closet in the house is filled with colorful shirts, chaps and outfits used in the grand entry and by pick-up men. She used to make most of the outfits herself, but doesn’t sew anymore. She still designs the clothing, though, and smiles when she talks about her granddaughters carrying the American and Texas flags before the rodeo. A well thought-out grand entry, she says, “will just knock your socks off.”
“It’s part of the entertainment, and that’s what people like to see,” Jim adds. “They see bulls bucking and they see horses bucking all the time. But they don’t always get to see an arena full of horses.”
Neal doesn’t hesitate when asked if he’s retired.
“Jim doesn’t think I am,” he says with a grin.
“There’s no retirement in the rodeo business,” Jim says.
So the patriarch of the family still puts in his two cents’ worth, and seems content to drive around the ranch, offering occasional advice or getting on the tractor. He laughs at the irony of having three sons who gave him three granddaughters.
“There’s a lot of difference,” Neal says, between raising rowdy sons and watching his granddaughters grow up.
The summer of 2016, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, a couple hundred friends came to celebrate with Neal and his family. Those who couldn’t attend sent video well wishes, and their admiration was apparent. If the measure of a man can be counted in friends, Neal is rich, indeed.
“I’ve made some real good friends in those years,” he says. “And when I look back now, I can’t really ever remember second-guessing myself about why I would do something like [the Mesquite Rodeo]. I’ve always loved to do what I was doing.”
This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of Western Horseman.