Keep Your Options Open: Stay in School

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It's the end of May, and we just got back from the Wrangler Junior High Division State Finals out here in California. It was fun to see thewww.slonesaddles.combanners on the arena fence, so I called Tod to say hello. I'm happy for those guys when they head home, but I miss them just the same. Tod roped calves at his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 1987, the year I started working for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association out of college. He made the Finals eight straight years, from 1987-94, and sent his full-time cowboy career out with a bang by winning the average at NFR '94. Tod was always such a consistent calf roper, and a truly nice guy. Tod and Lonna, who live in Cuero, Texas, went home to raise their two cute kids and, as kids do, they've grown up on us. Kailey, 20, is a communications major in the honors program at Texas State in San Marcos and works at church camps across the country in addition to her studies. Tie-down roping young gun Ace, 18, just graduated from Cuero High, and will attend Texas A & M in College Station this fall on a full-ride academic scholarship to the honors program at the Mays School of Business. I was so excited to hear about such a smart and academically appreciative rodeo family that I had to hear more. Here's what Tod had to say:

We went home when Kailey started third grade. That's when our kids got into soccer, t-ball and gymnastics. Before that, we had a special arrangement worked out with the school where they wouldn't get behind. But at that point, we felt they really needed to be in school all year. It sounds like an easy decision, but it wasn't. I'd just gotten a new horse and had just won the NFR. I was at the top of my game. I felt like I was really starting to be competitive, like I was at a new level. But it wasn't the same out on the rodeo trail without them.

About that time, the opportunity for the saddle business came along, and we took over a saddle shop in New Braunfels that was moving its production out of the country. We hired its employees, leased the shop and spent a year and a half learning how not to do it. I never set out to be in the saddle business. And when we took it over, I never dreamed it'd be what it is today. To be honest, Lonna and I set out to make it work good enough to pay the bills until I got something real going.

The story goes back to 9-11-87, when my good calf horse, Freeway, was stolen from behind the chutes at the rodeo in Fort Madison, Iowa. There were a bunch of horses tied up back there, and they turned the lights out while the star went up on stage. When the lights came back on, he was gone. I had designed my first saddle for that horse, and had it shipped to Pueblo. I roped two calves out of it at Pueblo, then my first calf at Fort Madison. It had my name on the cantle. I loved that saddle. I ended up finding Freeway at the slack at Denver in 1995. I never did see that saddle again. But other guys started wanting saddles like it. And the next thing you know, we were in the saddle business.

I had a hip injury in the summer of 1995, and had to stay home and rest. So I worked at that saddle shop just to pay the bills. A friend of mine owned it, and I'd endorsed his saddles for eight or nine years. When I took over the business, it was struggling. What I noticed was that there were two extremes of saddles available. You had your $500 feed-store model, or your $3,500 custom saddle that took two years to get. There was no in-between, and I figured we could build a higher quality saddle in a more efficient manner. I never dreamed we'd be putting alligator seats in saddles, like we do today.

Based on my experiences, I have a pretty high opinion of getting a good education. The biggest thing rodeo does not prepare you for is a future. The majority of kids rodeoing-at least 98 percent of them-will not make enough money rodeoing to retire. So you've got to make a future for yourself outside of the arena. I've seen some of the best cowboys have the toughest transition when they quit rodeoing, because that good money is hard to replace once you quit. Going from making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to an average job is not easy. And a lot of the guys who do make good money rodeoing don't have help managing that money for the future.

You have to be prepared for life after rodeo, and an education is an important way to do that. I also feel like so many people get their (PRCA) cards too young, before they've developed their mental and physical skills to their maximum potential. They get their card when they're half ready, and never really get any better. You have to have a structured practice program and work harder than everybody else if you're going to make it in rodeo and want it to be more than a hobby. That's something that can't be bought or trained into you. Desire is probably the most important factor to success in anything you do, whether you're roping or running a business. It takes quality practice, and that doesn't take that long. You can't quality practice eight hours a day, so why not get a college education while you're at it?