Travis Tryan on Loving and Losing Walt, and Beyond

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Travis Tryan crossed the million-dollar career team roping earnings milestone during the 2009 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Appropriately, he was aboard his bay best friend Walt, the reigning and four-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association/American Quarter Horse Association Head Horse of the Year, when he did it. Travis rode Walt at all nine of his NFRs (2001-09). Brother Clay rode him at NFR ’01 too, which also was his first.

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The only time Travis stepped off of Walt at the NFR in all those years was for five rounds at the 2005 Finals, where he rode him in rounds one and two, and rounds eight through 10, after getting on Gold Digger in the others. Trevor Brazile subbed in for Jake Barnes after he lost his thumb in the fifth round that year, and Travis offered Walt to Trevor, so he could finish out the week for Kory Koontz in rounds six through 10. Travis is roping with Michael Jones in 2010, but entered a few of the spring rodeos in California with Kory this year, because their partners both had other business to tend to.

Walt died of an aortic aneurysm April 24 at morning slack in Clovis, Calif. I purposely waited awhile to call Travis and visit with him about that day, because I knew neither of us could make it through it right after it happened. I am proud to say that we only choked up to the point of a complete pause one time during the conversation, and am also happy to admit that I’ll likely simultaneously smile and tear up every time I think or speak of Walt for the rest of my days.

TT: The day I lost Walt kind of felt like a bad dream, really. I don’t know if surreal is the right word for it or not, because I knew exactly what was happening. It was about 9 in the morning, and I had just gotten done warming him up and blowing him out in the warm-up arena, so he was stretched out good. That’s when he felt the best. He came out of the warm-up arena kind of wanting to run off, like he always did. He was always jacked up and ready to go.

I was headed over to the box. They were just calling the team roping to start, and Kory and I were the ninth team out. I was walking Walt over there, and he kind of spooked and started going sideways. I’d never been on a horse when he did that, but I’d seen it. I saw it happen to a horse at the rodeo in Red Lodge one time when I was a kid. Walt was heading toward the tractor harrow, and he lost control. I was trying to get him steered away from it. He never did hit the ground, which was kind of fitting for him. He laid down on the tractor harrow, and I went into the back part of the tractor. I got away pretty clean, really. He laid down pretty easy for me.

It was totally out of character for Walt to spook like he did that day. He spooked at stuff, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had him jump five feet. But then he’s done. When he didn’t stop and lost control, I knew what was happening and that it was over. They lose control and can’t stop. I don’t think Walt could possibly have had a heart attack, because his heart was too big. But apparently, a vein coming from his heart gave way. There’s no way to anticipate or prevent that from happening. It was a bad dream, but I was living it.

Once he went down, it was only a few seconds before it was over. I just laid my hands on him and thanked him for all he did for me. I was numb. All the cowboys were so cool. (Travis’s wife) Hillary was in the stands, and hadn’t seen it, so I went to tell her. Walt was her best friend too. She ran a steer on him this winter when we were at the house practicing. She said it felt like they were floating to the steer. As hard as Walt ran, he felt like he just ran on top of the ground. I’m so glad she got to run that steer. Walt was just so much fun to have around. The roping part was great. Shoot, he was awesome and did things right, no matter what. But he was so much more than that to me. He was just a cool horse.

I was up 10 minutes after Walt died. I got on Clay’s horse, and had a good shot to win first or second, but split the horns. Had it not been a team event, I wouldn’t have run that steer. I’d have left, and wouldn’t have cared. Roping didn’t matter much to me at that particular moment. It takes a little bit of life out of you when you lose part of the family. Kory and I had to run another steer that afternoon, and I beat the steer out of the chute. I don’t know if I was in shock or what. I gave it my best effort when I got in the corner, but I really didn’t care to be there. The show must go on. It always does, and nothing stops. You have to bow up, swallow it and go on.

Some bulldoggers unsaddled Walt for me, and took all his stuff to my trailer. Guys got his shoes off for me, and some of his tail, so I didn’t have to do it. I don’t even know who all did everything, but I can’t thank those guys enough. After the autopsy, Bert McGill buried Walt in a pretty spot under an oak tree at his place.

We drove out of Clovis about 4 that afternoon, with (daughter) Riley’s pony Miss Diggys and my practice horse, Kurt, in the trailer, headed for Guymon, Okla., which is about 1,400 miles away. Those long drives are never easy, but they’re a whole lot easier when you’ve had a good day, that’s for sure. Walt had just turned 20 when he died, but never did act old or start to go downhill. You know it’s coming someday, but how it happened and when was a total shock. He was in great shape and looked as good as he ever did.

I went from having three horses to none. My palomino horse, Gold Digger, had colic surgery last December, and won’t be back. He’s can’t go anymore. He’s done, and will be enjoying the rest of his life out in the pasture. Duke, which is the bay horse I bought from Speed (Williams) last year, died not long before Walt of liver failure.

It all happened at once. But I’m not the only one who goes through stuff like this, and I don’t want this to be a sob story. I had one great horse and two really good ones, and suddenly I was leaving California in April without any. That’s hard to take when you’ve been taking care of business, but you can’t let it get ahold of you and beat you down. You have to move on, go get other horses and do good on them.

Walt has been a huge part of my career. He’s been the best for so long, and I’ve made the majority of the runs on him. The only time he really had off was when we were waiting for his ringbone to fuse, or for him to heal up from colic surgery last summer. We figured the other day that we won over 70 rodeos on him, from Reno to Cheyenne, and ropings like the George Strait (Team Roping Classic).

I had some horses lined up to try before this even happened. I ended up buying a couple horses from Shane Philipp—a brown horse, Scooby, who’s 9, and a sorrel horse, He Man, who’s 13. They’re really nice, and I’m excited about them. They do things right and correct out in the field. They score good, and run flat and hard. It’s a breath of fresh air to have transportation again after being completely out. When you don’t have a horse, it’s pretty hard to enter.

Until you find that horse that fits you, it’s hard out here. I don’t want to ride just anything, and drive up and down the road without being well prepared. It’s a change not to have Walt, but I look at it as a new beginning. I can let it get ahold of me and affect the rest of my career, or I can hold my head high and go on. No horse will replace Walt. He’s got his own special spot forever. But nothing lasts forever, and you have to go on. It isn’t easy, but you have to get back in the swing of things.

I had 10 great years with Walt, and that’s a lot for a head horse. He was sound, and he was healthy. He was on alfalfa hay and Equine Senior. He didn’t need any drugs, and he got to go out on top. He never lost a step, and he loved his job. When he was in his pen after the colic surgery last summer and we’d bring the steers up the return alley, he’d buck around his pen. He wanted to get back to it, and didn’t want to sit around. Horses like him don’t show up every day, much less stick around that long. He left sooner than I expected, and in a different way than I expected. But what a blessing Walt was to me and my family.