By Lindsay Keller
Earth, Texas, rancher Tripp Townsend realized how much he liked Pepcid bloodlines after he asked a number of well-mounted cowboys at ranch rodeos how their horses were bred. After being repeatedly told, “He’s a Pepcid,” Tripp decided he’d like to throw a saddle on one, too.
Both Tripp and his son, Trail, have had considerable success with Pepcid-bred horses, including two AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse world championships and Trail’s World’s Greatest Youth Horseman title, won aboard TRR Lucky Playgun (Pepcid-TRR Ms Lucky Gun by Playgun), aka “Motown.”
In November, Tripp (shown at left with roping partner Brooke Wilson) added to his horses’ accolades by winning the team roping handi-lo #10.5 slide futurity aboard Motown’s full brother, TRR Lucky Hometown, at the first Riata Buckle team roping at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
The Riata Buckle stallion incentive program is intended to be a game-changer for the rope-horse industry, tracking earnings and giving ropers the opportunity to analyze top bloodlines. For Tripp, who has always been interested in pedigrees, this adds another layer to his research.
“Even before I won anything at the Riata Buckle, I would catch myself adding ‘Riata Buckle-eligible’ to my list of criteria when I was looking through sale catalogs,” Tripp says. “Now that I have gone to the inaugural event and gotten a better idea of what it is all about and what it can do for the industry, Riata Buckle eligibility definitely is on my list. And I am working hard to get my own stallion on their roster. Stallion owners, breeders and ropers alike are going to benefit greatly from this program.”
The “Buckle” concept has been proven by Chad Beus and Lance Robinson with the Pink and Ruby Buckle stallion incentive programs for barrel racing and breakaway roping. The Pink Buckle has paid out more than $10 million since its inception in 2018. The Ruby Buckle program guarantees $3.1 million in payouts at three barrel races in 2023, plus $120,000 in breakaway roping.
Seeing an opportunity in the fast-growing sport of team roping, Chad and Lance reached out to Denny Gentry to pair his knowledge of the team roping industry with their connections and expertise with stallion owners. That was the birth of the Riata Buckle. Denny, who has spent more than 30 years working in the team roping industry, is the operating partner of the Riata Buckle.
To be eligible for Riata Buckle incentives, horses must be sired by a stallion that is enrolled in the Riata Buckle program and be a registered American Quarter Horse. If your horse is sired by a Riata Buckle stallion, you pay a $200 annual nomination fee per horse for it to remain eligible to compete in Riata Buckle events.
Denny says in terms of volume, participants and horses, team roping is the largest segment in the horse industry.
“Outside of horse racing, the team roping industry has the highest-paying event in the world,” says Denny, referring to the Ariat World Series of Team Roping Finale that runs in December at the South Point Arena & Equestrian Center in Las Vegas during the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
“The team roping industry is like a pyramid,” he says. “The top one-third consists of the professionals, and the bottom two-thirds represents everyone else and has always been the bulk of the industry. The horses that the bottom two-thirds have ridden have always mattered to them, but the Riata Buckle is making sure that the horses they are riding matter to the industry, too, by recording their earnings. Our biggest winner at our first event (in early November) was a No. 5 female header who took home more than $50,000, all of which was credited to the earnings of the horses she was riding.”
Before the Riata Buckle, most of the recorded earnings for team roping horses were either through AQHA shows or rope horse futurities, where many of the horses are ridden by professional horsemen. This made the leading team roping sires a bit ambiguous and not inclusive of many of the bloodlines the amateur team ropers were winning on.
“I feel like the Riata Buckle will change things for stallions like Pepcid, who in my opinion is very underrated,” Tripp says. “Tracking earnings from lower-numbered ropers like myself could really change the game for stallions that are producing great, user-friendly offspring, but maybe aren’t the ones the professional guys are gravitating toward at the time.”
The Riata Buckle’s inaugural event had a guaranteed payout of $2 million, making it the fifth-richest team roping in the world, and organizers kept track of all of the horses that earned that cash.
“Because we actually confirmed the horses the ropers won on at our event, we completely changed AQHA’s QData all-time leading sire list for team roping,” Denny says. “As we expand Riata Buckle opportunities in 2023, this list will continue to change, and ropers and breeders will finally have a clear picture of which stallions produce the highest-earning rope horses.”
For example, Hickory Holly Time, owned by professional team roper Dean Tuftin, was 13th on the list of rope horse stallions. After his offspring won $150,000 at the inaugural Riata Buckle, he moved to fourth.
“We basically shook up the whole list of stallions with one event because we paid well and kept track of the horses everyone was riding,” Denny says. “We want to help ropers create a breed of rope horse, rather than just classifying their horses as the cutting, reining, racing horse rejects. In 2023, we want to include mainline team roping events in these numbers to give ropers a more accurate picture of the bloodlines that are rising to the top.”
Because AQHA’s QData system is being used to keep track of those horses and their earnings, AQHA’s support and partnership of this program is crucial to its success and its service to the industry, Denny adds.
Christi Christensen, breeding manager of Highpoint Performance Horses in Pilot Point, Texas, says more than half of the 34 stallions standing at Highpoint are enrolled in the Riata Buckle.
“We have a lot of husband-wife breeders, where the husband ropes and the wife runs barrels. They have already seen how successful the Pink and Ruby Buckles have been for the barrel racing industry. Now that the ropers can also get a part of those big payouts or even have the potential to compete in all three programs with the same foal is huge,” Christi says.
She says the Pink and Ruby Buckles have been game changers for the barrel racing breeders, and she is sure the Riata Buckle will follow suit.
“If you are a Quarter Horse breeder, breed to a Riata Buckle stallion. If you are looking to buy a rope horse, buy a Riata Buckle horse. It’s that simple. I’ve seen the Pink and Ruby Buckles take off in the past few years, and it is exciting to offer these same kinds of incentives to ropers,” she says.
Chad and Lance have procured a stallion list that includes more than 150 horses from a wide variety of bloodlines. The lineup includes well-known cow horse bloodlines such as High Brow Cat and reining horse lines such as Smart Chic Olena. Or, if you prefer something with some speed, there are well-known racing and speed horse sires A Streak Of Fling and Shawnee Bug Leo. In addition to well-established stallions of all genetics, there are also up-and-coming junior stallions on the list that come at a more affordable price.
“The barrel racing industry has extensive data available to owners and breeders to help them make their purchasing and breeding decisions. The roping industry hasn’t had access to this kind of data. When the Riata Buckle came to be, it was a no-brainer for us to jump on board and enroll our stallion,” says Dr. Zach Bruggen, who co-owns Riata Buckle junior stallion Smooth Ivory with Jason Eagle. “The roping industry has always understood the importance of horsepower, and the Riata Buckle is going to help them quantify the bloodlines that rise to the top consistently. We are excited to be part of this movement that has the potential to really change the team roping industry.”
Denny says he has seen a similar pattern with working-class ropers in his circle of friends.
“We saw the price of Riata horses rise before we even had our first event,” Denny says. “I know two amateur ropers who work for a living that went from not caring about the bloodlines of the horses they rode to specifically going to look for Riata Buckle horses because of our event. The team ropers are a huge segment that have flown under the radar as far as their horses are concerned.”
Denny admits that as with all new things, there is going to be a learning curve for both the people involved with the Riata Buckle program and team ropers. He adds that he is very excited to see how the program will change the industry in the next three to five years.
“Quarter Horses have always been influential to the growth of the team roper,” says AQHA Chief Strategy Officer Aaron Enget. “Ask any roper out there and they are quick to give credit to the horse they rode in the box on, and there is a 99 percent chance that horse is an American Quarter Horse. The Riata Buckle program is going to give ropers another avenue to create more value in their horses and allow them to be part of a larger movement in our western industry.”
To learn more about the Riata Buckle stallion incentive program, visit riatabuckle.com.