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Meet cowboy sport’s elite athletes: the Pro Rodeo Horses of the Year. 

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By Lane Karney and Kendra Santos

How vital is elite horsepower to making a living at the timed-event end of the rodeo arena? Just ask the cowboy or cowgirl who has owned that once-in-a-lifetime four-footed partner and is then forced to fight the fight without that trusty steed. The great ones are extremely valuable – priceless, really. 

And because the cowboy culture so values the sport’s animal icons, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Horse of the Year awards, presented by AQHA, are an important and appreciated annual rodeo tradition.

This year’s Horse of the Year winners, which were selected by a vote of PRCA and WPRA contestants, were recognized on December 4 at the PRCA awards banquet in Las Vegas. The owner of the winning horse in each category received an AQHA bronze and a $5,000 bonus check. Second-place horse owners were awarded $3,000 bonuses, and third-place owners cashed $2,000 checks, all in honor of the huge part special horses play in the cowboy sport.


Tie-Down Roping
Little Smart Leo, aka "Big Time"
Owner/Rider: Tyler Milligan

The 2019 Tie-Down Roping Horse of the Year – Little Smart Leo, a 16-year-old sorrel gelding who’s best known as “Big Time” and is owned and ridden by Tyler Milligan – is the lone repeat winner in this year’s voting, as he also was recognized as the best in the business in 2018.

“I’m happy for the horse. He deserves it, and it’s humbling that everybody thinks that much of my horse,” says Ty, of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, who this year qualified for his first Finals. “Actually, the best thing for this horse this year was that I got another horse. Big Time got more rest this year, and he was really good every time I rode him.”

In this case, “everybody” included the posse of fellow tie-down ropers who mounted out on the 16-year-old sorrel gelding just at the Ranch Mission Viejo Rodeo in San Juan Capistrano, California, alone, including 2015 and 2018 world champion tie-down roper Caleb Smidt, Haven Meged, Marty Yates, Cimarron Boardman, Cooper Martin and 2013 world champion Shane Hanchey. 

“I bought Big Time about four years ago from Ronnie Austin, who trained him,” Ty says. “Ryan Jarrett kind of helped set up the deal, and I tried him at R.J.’s house. This horse was a big key in me making the Finals. He was fresher and felt great all year. He’s super user friendly, and I’m humbled by this award.”

Team Roping – Heading
Jewels Smoke Screen, aka “Smoke”
Owner: Brad Lands
Rider: Tate Kirchenschlager

Jewels Smoke Screen has made headlines this year and changed the course of Tate Kirchenschlager’s life and roping career.

“Without (‘Smoke’), I’d be sitting at home training horses. I wouldn’t have rodeoed in 2018 and definitely wouldn’t have made the Finals this year,” says Tate, who turned 27 on October 11 and will be a Finals freshman this December.

“Smoke came through the Lufkin (Texas) horse sale. He was 8 years old and had about 90 rides on him. He rode around pretty good, so I just went to heading on him like all the rest of them. The first place I took him was to the American Rope Horse Futurity as a help horse in October of 2017. I had roped on him for about a year and a half and ran about 25 steers on him there that day. He did pretty good and was better on steer 20 than he was on the first one,” says Tate, of Yuma, Colorado.

“I jackpotted on him quite a bit that fall and the winter of 2018. I rodeoed on him all of 2018, and he has taken to it great. He’s really still a little green for a rodeo horse, I’d say, but the more you haul him and rope on him, the better he is.

As for Smoke turning into Tate’s go-to mount, and one that his professional peers took notice of, “It feels really good to know the other competitors think he’s that good,” Tate says. “Especially when it’s one I trained. That’s huge. I can’t afford to go buy a big-time, finished head horse, so I was fortunate he was good enough.

“He worked great, whether it was at San Antone or out in California this spring. He scores good, runs and faces like the good ones. Then there’s just something about him. He has that look that catches your eye, and he looks good doing it. I’m really proud of him.”

Team Roping – Heeling
DT Sugar Chex Whiz, aka “Sugar”
Owner: Dixon Flowers Quarter Horses
Rider: Billie Jack Saebens 

DT Sugar Chex Whiz and Billie Jack Saebens have transformed horse-show success into rodeo-arena accolades.

“(Dixon Flowers Quarter Horses) bought her as a 3-year-old,” Billie Jack says. “She came from Dean Tuftin’s breeding program. Then J.D. (Yates) had her through her 5-year-old year. He won the junior tie-down on her at the 2015 AQHA World Show and was third in the junior heeling on her. She was the reserve (AQHA) Superhorse that year. We brought her home and bred her and let her carry the next year,” Billie Jack says.

“In 2017, I jackpotted on her a lot. I took her to the NFR as a backup in 2017, and rode her in the run-throughs, but she was still too green. Her owners wanted to show her again, so J.D. showed her in 2018. After that, I got her back and have ridden her ever since,” says Billie Jack, who heeled for Coleman Proctor at the 2016 and 2017 NFRs.

“She has been super adaptable. She takes everything you throw at her and makes it work. She went from the horse show deal the first part of her life, and that’s basically 7- to 9-second runs, to pretty aggressive rodeo runs. … I think she’ll just continue to improve and get even better,” says Billie Jack, a 30-year-old newlywed who married NFR barrel racer Ivy Conrado in October.

Dixon Flowers Quarter Horses has played a role in recent Heel Horse of the Year history, as Jake Long’s horse, Zans Colonel Shine, was voted the Heel Horse of the Year the past three years, and also came from Dixon Flowers. The 2017 Reserve Heel Horse of the Year, Domino Lena, was also underneath Billie Jack and came from Dixon Flowers.

“We spend a lot of time and money taking care of these horses and riding them. It makes it all worth doing when other people think your horses are nice, too. … After winning the world in 2015, it was like, ‘How could it get any better?’ but it does. She’s just such a winner."

Steer Wrestling
Do Get Famous, aka “Rattle”
Owners: Matt & Savanah Reeves
Rider: Matt Reeves

Do Get Famous, who’s best known at the barn as “Rattle,” is the 2019 Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year. Matt and Savanah Reeves’ 7-year-old bay mare has a lot to do with why Matt’s headed to his seventh Wrangler National Finals Rodeo this year, and she also helped a number of other cowboys – Hunter Cure, Tristan Martin, Jacob Edler, Stetson Jorgensen, Canadians Tanner Milan and Scott Guenthner, and Matt’s Australian traveling partner, Kodie Jang – cash key checks this season. 

Yes, cowboys from multiple countries rode Rattle to the winner’s circle, and in all kinds of conditions, too, from the winter buildings in Denver; Odessa and Fort Worth, Texas; to the wide-open grass football field of an arena in Pendleton, Oregon.

“She has been great everywhere all year and with all-sized guys riding her,” says Matt, of Cross Plains, Texas. “She stayed really strong, which is amazing, because she’s not a very big horse. She’s a hair over 14 hands tall, but that’s it. And she only weighs 1,000 pounds.”

This is Rattle’s first Horse of the Year award. When it was time to head to Las Vegas for her first NFR, she wasn't herself, so Matt made the tough decision to leave her in Texas where her veterinarian could keep a close eye on her. However, she was in Vegas by Round 5, when Matt gave Stoli The Show the night off and had Rattle carry him into the Thomas & Mack. 

“She scores really well, and she tries really hard,” Matt says. “I like where she sets your feet, and she has come through over longer scores and at places where you can go stupid fast, like it is at the Finals.”

Matt has felt fortunate to have two teams on the road this year. His other bulldogging horse is an 11-year-old sorrel race-bred gelding, Stoli The Show, or “Roy” for short.

Matt’s hazing-horse herd includes an 8-year-old sorrel gelding, French Kirk, aka “Kirk,” and the 15-year-old bay mare Wicked Moonbeams, aka “Beamer.”

Matt typically pairs youngsters Rattle and Kirk, and elders Roy and Beamer when they’re working.

Matt bought Rattle as a 4-year-old from 2019 NFR barrel racer Cheyenne Wimberley in 2016.

"Cheyenne had started her on barrels, but she hadn’t been bulldogged on or had anything else done on her in the arena,” Matt says. “She could run. You can’t teach that, so I figured we’d give her a try. She loves it. Rattle and Roy race in the pasture.”

Rattle got her big shot a year ago in July, when Roy got hurt and she answered the call.

“We won on her right away,” Matt says. “Rattle stepped up and made us happy. She really hasn’t had any bad days, and a lot of guys have won good money on her. She’s user friendly. She deserves this. I made every horse in my trailer, and I’ve put a lot of work into my horses. None of them had ever been in the box before. A lot of time, effort and work goes into every good horse. I’m pumped for a horse I made to win this award. 

“Rattle is the fourth horse I’ve made that I’ve qualified for the Finals on, so this is a big deal to me. Horses are what make it work. Good horses are how you make the Finals. They let your talent show. I don’t know if you can be talented enough to overcome lack of horsepower anymore. I’ve been fortunate to ride some good ones. These horses are special to us.”

Barrel Racing
High Valor, aka “Valor"
Owner/rider: Dona Kay Rule

Dona Kay Rule’s 10-year-old sorrel gelding High Valor not only takes this year’s Barrel Racing Horse of the Year honors, but he teamed up with 61-year-old Dona Kay for her first NFR qualification.

Dona Kay bought Valor as a 5-year-old from NFR barrel racer and racehorse breeder Lana Merrick.

“He’s bred to be a rocket,” she says of the horse whose sire and dam were successful  graded stakes race competitors.

Dona Kay, who lives in Minco, Oklahoma, is renowned for taking her time when putting foundations on young horses.

“I spent a year and a half just putting Valor into my program of getting him broke and listening to me,” Dona Kay says. “Valor’s one of the kindest horses I’ve ever been on, and he’s happy all the time. But he was a handful. I do a lot of pasture work and teach them how to use their whole body, primarily outside of the arena. Then when we do go to the arena, I might have nine or 10 barrels out there.

“By the time they get to one left and two right (turns), that’s big-time fun, and it’s easy. They have confidence, and that’s really important. My first initial fear was whether or not I could stay with Valor. He’s so strong. It took a while to figure out when to land the jet and when to pull the throttle back. He looks easy to ride, but it takes good timing. He’s so powerful that he’ll run out from under you if you aren’t right there with him.”

Valor is 15.1 hands tall and weighs right at 1,200 pounds. He takes virtually every size of arena and kind of ground in stride.

“This horse has just been a 100 percent blessing. I’ve trained horses my whole life. I prayed to God to let me have one more good one before I was too old. … Valor is the horse we all hope for and rarely get to ride.”

Steer Roping
Mr Blakburn Chex 113, aka “Dunny”
Owner: Rocky Patterson
Rider: Cole Patterson 

The 2019 Steer Roping Horse of the Year, Mr Blakburn Chex 113, answers to “Dunny” at the Patterson family barn in Pratt, Kansas.

Owned by four-time world champion steer roper Rocky Patterson and ridden by Rocky and wife Shelly’s son Cole, Dunny has made a fast mark. Still just 8, this horse helped Cole take Resistol Rookie Steer Roper of the Year honors and qualify for his first National Finals Steer Roping in 2019, where he’ll rope alongside his dad.

“I bought Dunny three or four years ago as a ranch horse at a horse sale in Valentine, Nebraska,” Rocky says. “He hadn’t been in the arena yet, but I just kind of thought he had ‘the look.’ He’s not very tall (15 hands), but he’s pretty wide and stout (he weighs 1,175 pounds). I team roped on him a little bit. Cole roped calves and team roped in college. When he graduated from college in May 2018 (with an ag business degree from Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva), he started roping steers, and he just started doing it on Dunny.”

So, yes, Dunny was a father-son family project for Cole, who turned 24 on November 15, and Rocky, who turned 54 on November 24.

A pretty cool fun fact is that Cole entered his first rodeo on his PRCA card in Rosenberg, Texas, in October 2018. He won it on Dunny. 

“I don’t need any of the credit for this horse, I just own him,” Rocky says. “Cole has a lot of ability. I can promise you, I didn’t make the Finals my rookie year. For him to get it done on this horse is pretty special. Dunny’s a horse that’s pretty laid back and doesn’t get real wound up. He’s really easy to catch on, he rates off really good on fresh steers and doesn’t ever get up in your way. For being just 8, he’s pretty solid and consistent. I’m pretty proud of Cole and Dunny both.”

Come back Sunday, December 8, to read about the rest of the 2019 AQHA-PRCA Horses of the Year.

AQHA News and information is a service of the American Quarter Horse Association. For more news and information, follow The American Quarter Horse Journal on Facebook and visit