angle-left Dear Younger Me: Billy Steele

Dear Younger Me: Billy Steele

Choosing roping and horses instead of baseball changed AQHA Professional Horseman Billy Steele's life, he says.

Billy Steele illustration by Jean Abernethy

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In 2018, The American Quarter Horse Journal asked AQHA steward Billy Steele to write a letter to his younger self. That article appeared in the November 2018 issue of the Journal, the same month when Billy was selected to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of AQHA Professional Horsemen.

By AQHA Professional Horseman Billy Steele with Katie Navarra


Dear 18-Year-Old Billy,

High school graduation is coming. Your dad is going to give you two choices: You can go to a professional baseball training camp or you can have a new roping horse.

You’ve really missed sports your senior year. There’s this funny rule that if you’ve won money, you’re ineligible to play on school teams. That includes rodeo winnings. Somebody will soon figure out it’s a crazy rule, but in the meantime, it means you’re ineligible to play football, basketball or baseball your final year of high school.

Billy, choose the big gray horse named “Sleepy.” And the rodeo program at Texas A&M. It’ll be a tough decision – you really love sports. You can enjoy sports later in life – even try a few new ones, like golf.

Classes start at 8 a.m., and you’ll be in the barn before sunrise making sure Sleepy has been fed and watered and that his stall is cleaned. You’ll be back at the barn after classes end so you can perfect your rope swing, catch that calf and get it tied every single time. The long hours will pay off. You’ll qualify for the Collegiate Finals twice and win the title your senior year.

Sleepy will become the barn favorite. You’ll even let some teammates ride him and, to your dismay, find that a handful may even do so better than you.

Don’t spend all your time riding. Join the Aggie livestock judging team.

You’ll learn how to evaluate cattle, sheep, horses and swine. In 1955, your senior year, you’ll travel to the Chicago International Livestock Show and the American Royal in Kansas City. In Kansas City, you’ll be crowned the second highest-scoring individual in the horse division.

That’s going to inspire you to stick with horses for the long haul.

Two months after you walk across the stage to receive your diploma in animal husbandry, Uncle Sam comes calling. The draft is still in effect, and for the next two years, you’ll wear green fatigues for the U.S. Army. Your compulsory time in the service falls at the height of the Cold War.

After boot camp, the commanding officers will make everyone in the company line up alphabetically. They’ll yell out the names of soldiers who will be heading overseas. You’ll hold your breath the entire time, even feel your knees wobble, hoping that your name isn’t going to be on that list.

Luckily, they stop calling names before they reach “S.” Your job is stateside, and you’ll work as a company supply clerk. Your college education and advanced typing skills will earn you promotions, first to company headquarters clerk and then to battalion headquarters clerk. Being stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, also means that you’ll get to keep Sleepy nearby and ride when time allows.

Hold onto your passion for the horses and agriculture. Two years compulsory service is an eternity to a 21-year-old kid, but better times are coming. There’ll be a job at the Texas Agricultural Extension Service in Harris County waiting for you. As an assistant county ag agent, you’ll help develop the first 4-H horse judging program. It’s going to be such a hit that you’ll earn a promotion to county ag agent in Polk County. You’ll replicate the horse judging experience there. Parents and kids alike are going to embrace it like you’ve never imagined.

The days are long. The first eight, nine or more hours a day are at the office. The next three, four or more are at the barn, training clients and personally owned Quarter Horses. Before you know it, the training business is interfering with going to work every day.

Write that letter of resignation to the Extension Service and jump into your training business full time. You’ve got a barn full of nice halter, pleasure, reining and roping horses awaiting you. The industry emphasizes the versatile, all-around horse.

Training and showing isn’t going to completely satisfy you, though. You miss standing in the center of the pen as a member of the Aggie livestock judging team. So in 1964, you’ll apply for your AQHA judge’s card. It’s going to be overwhelming trying to find the 10 breeders and judges to provide the required recommendations. Louis Pierce was a mentor to you during your time at the Extension Service. He’s going to introduce you to influential individuals who will help you get that coveted card.

Judging will take you all over the world, but it isn’t going to be easy.

Legendary calf roper Lanham Riley is going to offer his advice to you on judging. Listen to him. He’s going to tell you that as a judge, you’ll meet a lot of people who will try to persuade you to choose their horse. Do what you think is right and don’t let them influence you. When you’re fair and honest, you can go home and sleep at night. Because of your patience and integrity, you’ll be invited to judge the best shows in the industry, the All American Quarter Horse Congress, the AQHA Youth World and the youth world in Australia, multiple times. The first time AQHA approves a show in Rome, Italy, you’ll be the judge.

Two horses are about to change your life. Be ready for them.

Stallions Zan Parr Express and Bostons Tally Man will arrive in 1983. Zan Parr Express will slide to the AQHA high-point reining horse of the year title, and you’ll put nearly 100 pleasure points on Bostons Tally Man, a black stud colt who will reconnect you with sports. His owner and breeder is Terry Bradshaw, who will win four Super Bowl rings as the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Training and showing will take a toll on your body. Your back will ache; your knees will throb. The cartilage in your shoulder will wear out from all the swinging of the rope. Eventually, you’ll have shoulder surgery, but it’ll never be quite the same. Think about what the rest of your life might look like in the horse industry.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a role at AQHA you can fill. You’ve served on the judges committee for several years, and you know Cam Foreman well. Let him know that if an opportunity ever develops, you’d like to throw your hat in the ring.

It’ll take a few years, but that unwavering patience you learned from your mother will keep you from getting antsy.

That call will finally come in 1994. You’ll be hired as a regional representative. You’ll have a chance to travel the country to talk to trainers, exhibitors and breeders. The travels will take you onto the most prominent ranches in the west. Listen to what the ranchers, breeders and owners have to say and learn how they’re looking for AQHA to meet their needs.

Sell the barn, the horses and the house in the country and move into the suburbs. You’re going to need to rent an apartment in Amarillo while your wife, Cheryl, holds down the ranch while it’s on the market. Lean on that patience you inherited from mom. It’ll take two and a half years for the ranch to sell. You’ll about wear out a car driving from Amarillo to the ranch. Thank goodness for Cheryl: She has her hands full keeping the place maintained and ready for potential buyers.

Making the transition from ranch life to city life isn’t going to be easy at first. Growing up in Streetman, Texas, with a population of about 200 meant there was plenty of land to roam and never-ending chores on your family’s ranch to keep you busy. Your family and friends will worry that you won’t be able to adjust to the slower pace of life.

Learn to play golf. Keep up with the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers and Texas A&M Aggies. Before you know it, life off the ranch isn’t so bad after all.

Cam’s going to ask you to become the Association’s first director of judges. Say yes!

It’ll be challenging to define the role you’ll play, but other judges will trust you and call you for advice on difficult situations because you’ve walked in their boots. They aren’t always going to like your answers, but they’ll know you’re right.

In 2009, it'll be time to retire from AQHA, but you’ll stay active as a judge and a steward, even at age 85. It’ll be time to take things a little slower and stay closer to home, to Cheryl and your stepdaughter, Deena.

When you chose Sleepy over baseball all those years ago, you were uncertain where life would take you. But it has been an unbelievable ride. Along the way, you’ve helped countless riders achieve their show ring goals, including your daughter Sherry’s son, Reno Gonzales. He has multiple AQHA youth breakaway world champion titles to his name and is now making it in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

You’ve brought out the best in the horses in your care. Most importantly, your passion for the industry and judging has sparked a passion in the next generation.