2023 Pickup Horse of the Year

2023 Pickup Horse of the Year

Tyler Kraft’s “Baby” voted rodeo’s first pickup horse of the year. 

Rodeo pickup man on a horse grabbing a roughstock rider.

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By Kendra Santos for The American Quarter Horse Journal

For the first time in rodeo horse of the year awards history, a pickup horse is being honored as the 2023 Nutrena Pickup Horse of the Year, presented by AQHA. Baby Hes Hot belongs to Canadian cowboy Tyler Kraft and has a whole lot to do with why the world’s best bucking horse riders have chosen Tyler to work his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo as a pickup man.  

“Doug Wilkinson raised ‘Baby’ and is the same guy who raised Kolton Schmidt’s 2016 head horse of the year ‘Badger’ (Tuffys Badger Chex),” says Tyler, 37, who is the Calgary Stampede ranch and stock operations manager. “I started four horses as 2-year-olds for Doug, and he got first and third pick of the four. He picked Baby, but when he later gave me the chance to buy him as a 3-year-old, I jumped at it.  

“I actually bought Baby as a 30th birthday present for my wife, Vanessa," Tyler says. "She has run barrels on him, and he’s a very decent head horse, too. To me, a good pickup horse has to have speed and eye appeal. A pickup man should ride a horse that’s worth looking at, and he’s got to be bold enough to run into a ball of fire.”

Baby, a 10-year-old dark buckskin gelding who stands 15.1 hands and tips the scales at a stout 1,200 pounds, checks all the boxes and then some. He is by Hes Hot N Chexy and out of Vanzis Baby Boots by Haidalenas War Doc.

“He runs strong, stops hard and has great arena presence,” says Tyler, who lives on the 22,000-acre Calgary Stampede Ranch in the bald prairie, hard-grass country of Hannah, Alberta, two and a half hours northwest of Calgary, with Vanessa and their kids, Lathom, 9; Riata, 8; and Dalum, 6. “He’s a little watchy. If the wind blows from the wrong direction, Baby will tell you if a storm’s coming. But he’s a lifetime horse. I’ll never sell him.” 

Tyler started doing day work on the ranch as a teenager and has been full time for 14 years. As the Calgary Stampede ranch and stock operations manager, he runs day-to-day ranch operations, handles the world-famous bucking-horse breeding program, brings on the young horses so they’re rodeo ready and even drives a truck. Tyler also serves as a pickup man at most of the rodeos that buck Calgary Stampede stock. He worked about 75 performances at 22 rodeos in the 2023 regular rodeo season. 

Calgary Stampede’s Xplosive Skies is the 2023 saddle bronc horse of the year, and it’s a pretty cool fun fact that this same horse also took 2021 bareback horse of the year honors. Do great bucking horses and great pickup horses have anything in common?

“I think so,” Tyler says. “The great horses I’ve seen go through the Calgary herd are maintenance free. They take care of themselves, and don’t ever get themselves in a bind. They’re good-minded–easy come, easy go. They aren’t going to squat or lean in the chute, and mud doesn’t matter. It’s the same with a great pickup horse. He does his job day in and day out, no matter what.”

Can a pickup man be great on a good horse?

“Absolutely not,” Tyler says. “It’s no different than any other event. I didn’t get picked to work the NFR. My horses did. They deserve all the recognition, because without them, I’m just another guy. The horses are my favorite part of the rodeo business. Being an all-around hand is what I’ve always strived to be, and I love the horses–the bucking horses, the pickup horses and all the horses I ride. I never stop striving to improve my horses and my horsemanship.”

Tyler will take the max-allowed six steeds to Vegas as his NFR remuda, with the game plan of riding five of them per night–two that switch out during each of the bucking-horse events and one for the bull riding. 

“Being chosen to work the Finals by the best cowboys in the world puts added pressure to darn sure do your job,” Tyler says. “Those guys putting their faith in you to pick up at the biggest rodeo in the world means so much. Working the NFR is a dream come true for me.

“Riding the first pickup horse ever chosen horse of the year is a great honor. I can’t thank (fellow pickup man) Josh Edwards enough for ramrodding this recognition for the pickup horses,” Tyler says.

Josh’s Buckle Set, aka “Wiggles,” finished second in the pickup horse of the year voting. Tommy Pettit’s Driftersdocsclay, who’s best known as “Bay” at the barn, was third.