The right spark

Ruth Nicolaus
for Tri-State Livestock News
Jake Wright won the seventh round on the J Bar J horse Special Time at the 2013 Wrangler NFR. Special Time will buck at this year’s Wrangler NFR as well. Photo by Hubbell Photography

The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo doesn’t start for another week, but Sparky Dreesen has been preparing for over a month.

The Circle, Montana, rancher owns J Bar J Rodeo Co., and for the eleventh year, has had bucking horses and bulls selected to buck at the Wrangler NFR next month.

The animals – twelve horses and one bull- left for Las Vegas late in the late evening ,Nov. 23. It’s a 1,300 mile trip, and about ten hours into it, Sparky’s hired man, Garret Fitzpatrick, stops in St. Anthony, Idaho, to unload, rest for fifteen to eighteen hours, and hit the road again.

The Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) requires that all bucking animals be checked in on November 25, but Sparky won’t be in town till the 30th.

Before he gets to town, and throughout the duration of the Wrangler NFR, the horses and bulls are cared for by staff hired by the livestock superintendent. They are given instructions by each stock contractor as to what feed they are to get. Bulls at the Wrangler NFR get a Purina brand, which isn’t normally what Dreesen feeds. He couldn’t find the specific brand of Purina that will be fed, so he got the nutrition test and fed something very similar to his bull – Little Big Man – who will be in Vegas.

The horses have three choices for hay, and three choices for grain: Purina Omolene 300, and dry or wet cob (one-third corn, oats and barley. Dreesen has been feeding his twelve NFR horses the wet cob mixture the last three weeks, to prepare them.

The feeding crew will also feed supplements to animals, if the stock contractor brings them packaged and labeled. Dreesen gives his horses and bulls a supplement that stimulates stomach enzymes so they don’t go off feed, and a second supplement that provides extra “good” fats for them. He’s mindful of the situation they are in. “There is so much stress on those animals that you need to give them every advantage you can.”

He’s also careful to prepare his animals for their pen arrangements in the big city. Little Big Man, the J Bar J bull, doesn’t stand well in his pen by himself, Dreesen said. For the last month, he’s been with a buddy, another bull, who will go to Las Vegas with the others and be in Little Big Man’s pen with him.

Straight Jacket, a bareback horse, is a stud, and the studs at the Finals are penned by individually, so Dreesen has kept him in his own pen for the last month, so he’d be used to it.

Of the other eleven horses, seven are mares, and four are geldings. The geldings will be penned together, and as for the mares, “three mares get along real good, so they go in one pen, and the other four in another pen,” Dreesen said. The crew is given directions on how to pen each stock contractor’s animals. Even though Dreesen and his help can’t feed, they show up at the pens each day to check on things. “I think those guys appreciate it, too, that we’re checking. They know you care.”

Dreesen prepares the animals for feed and pen arrangements, but there is no preparing them for the noise. The Thomas and Mack Center, where the animals are housed and the Wrangler NFR takes place, is right along the flight path for the Las Vegas Airport. The constant sound of planes taking off and arriving disturbs animals and doesn’t allow them to rest, Dreesen said. “The bucking at the rodeo in Vegas is the easy part on the bucking stock. It’s the standing out in those pens, with the airplanes over top. They don’t get a chance to rest.”

One of J Bar J’s horses, Dirty Rags, a bareback horse, has gotten used to the sound. The first few years the fourteen year old mare bucked at the Finals, she “was good but she wasn’t as good as she was during the year,” Dreesen said. “When you’d walk out there (in the pens), she’d hide behind the other horses, or when the planes came over, she’d hide. She was pretty nervous. Now, the last couple years, it doesn’t bother her anymore. She’s not hiding anymore.”

Dreesen knows the distinct personality of each of his animals. Special Time, a saddle bronc horse, is making her sixth trip to the Finals, and she loves it. “She has her best trips of the year in Vegas. You can tell when she walks into the chute. She looks at all those people, and says, ‘hey, just watch what I’m going to do.’”

Dreesen thinks some horses, like some cowboys, are born with the drive to excel under pressure. “Some horses, the really, really great ones, perform their best in Vegas. They get that adrenaline pumping, the vibes from the Finals, just like the contestants do. You see the contestants rise to the occasion when the pressure is on, and it’s the same way with the horses. You can look in those horses’ eyes and you see the same thing as when you look into (world champions) Kaycee Feild or Bobby Motes’ eyes.”

He and his wife Marlene will arrive in Las Vegas on November 30, and be there through the end of the Finals. Then they will drive the truck back home, leaving by 6 a.m. on that day. “Two weeks in Vegas is a long time,” he said. “We’re blessed to get to do it, but when it’s over, we’re ready to go home.”

All three of his daughters will be in Las Vegas as well. Mandy, the oldest, is married to Cullen Pickett, a stock contractor in Fairfield, Texas. Kayla is a radiation therapist in Denver, and Brooke is a student at Black Hills State University.

It’s an exciting time in the rodeo world and for the J Bar J brand. Many of their horses are first-time selectees for the Finals, “which is exciting,” Dreesen said. “It means the breeding program is working.”

The J Bar J Rodeo Company has twice (last year and in 2010) won the PRCA’s Remuda Award, for the stock contractor with the best, most consistent pen of bucking horses, providing the best opportunities to score well.

J Bar J horses selected for this year’s National Finals are bareback horses Dirty Rag, Painted Brush, Bar Bandit, Smart Guy, Pass the Hat, Hell on Hooves, and Straight Jacket. Saddle bronc horses are Special Time, Sweatin’ Bullets, Bullet Proof, Julia, and Painted Canyon. The J Bar J bull at the Finals is Little Big Man.