A workhorse, not a showhorse: Area contestants ride skilled, competent horses for National Finals Rodeo competition

By Ruth Nicolaus for Tri-State Livestock News
At this year’s Wrangler NFR, Jr Dees will ride “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” the affectionate nickname he’s given his sorrel head horse Dillon. Dillon is friendly outside the arena and really fast inside. Jackie Jensen | Courtesy photo

In less than two weeks, the eyes of the rodeo world will be on the cowboys and cowgirls who compete at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, but their equine counterparts deserve just as much attention and glory.

For area Wrangler NFR timed event contestants, their horses are what carried them through the rodeo season to NFR qualifications, and are an equally intrinsic part of the competition Dec. 1-10.

Team roper Jr Dees will be taking “Clifford the Big Red Dog” to Las Vegas with him.

At this year’s Wrangler NFR, Jr Dees will ride “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” the affectionate nickname he’s given his sorrel head horse Dillon. Dillon is friendly outside the arena and really fast inside. Jackie Jensen | Courtesy photo

That’s what the Aurora, S.D. man calls his eleven-year-old sorrel, Dillon.

Famous Dillon, “Dillon,” “is a freak,” he said. “He’s really fast and really strong up the wall, which is a big thing” at the Thomas and Mack Arena, where the rodeo is held. “He scores really good and is real fast across the line.”

But Dillon is gentle as can be when he’s not in the arena.

“He’s real chill and easy going,” Dees said. “He’s the biggest kid horse I’ve ever had, the biggest pet. I call him ‘Clifford, my Big Red Dog.’ He always has a good attitude, is the friendliest, and is a really cool horse.”

By Lions Share of Fame, Dillon didn’t start team roping till he was six years old. Dees did most of the training of the gelding, with Matt Zancanella putting some rides on him.

“He’s been a blessing ever since I started riding him,” Dees said.

Dees enters the Wrangler NFR in ninth place in the world standings.

He’ll be heading for Levi Lord, who, like Dees, is competing at his second Wrangler National Finals.

Lord, Sturgis, S.D., has two horses he will ride for this year’s NFR.

Pauly, a nine-year-old bay gelding, has been his mount all year long, and will be on the trailer to Las Vegas.

A second horse, Birdy, a small eleven-year-old bay purchased this fall from Jake Minor, will also go with Lord.

Birdy is “short-strided and stays out of your way,” he said. “He’s pretty quick and is a solid, easy horse.” He’s easy to get along with, and “no matter what spot you put him in, (in competition), he handles it well.”

Sturgis, S.D.’s Levi Lord will have two heel horses at the Wrangler National Finals: Pauly (pictured at the 2022 Cheyenne Frontier Days), and a newer purchase, Birdy. Jackie Jensen | Courtesy photo

Birdy is a registered American Quarter Horse but Pauly is grade. Either way, it doesn’t matter to Lord. “A good horse is just a good horse. You can’t ride the papers,” he said.

Lord enters this year’s NFR in ninth place in the world standings.  

“It’s unique for me,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It was nice to have it in Texas, because for a while, we didn’t know if we’d have it at all (due to Covid). But Vegas is something everyone looks forward to.”

Dees’ horse might be a big gentle puppy, but Timmy Sparing’s steer wrestling mount has some spice to him.

Oscar The Gully, “Oscar,” will be ridden by both Sparing and fellow steer wrestler Dirk Tavenner. Owned by Tavenner, the fifteen-year-old brown gelding “to be honest, is a jerk,” when it’s competition time, Sparing said.

“He’s real gritty. He runs hard and runs aggressive and there’s not any baby in him. When it’s game time, he gets amped up, gets a little clench in his jaw, and he can be something else.”

The Helena, Mont. man rode Oscar for most of the summer, using a different horse, Rooster, at the rodeos where he could see the start. Oscar is best for fast set-ups, like the NFR.

“He’ll run all the way to the back end (of the arena),” Sparing said.

Sparing and Tavenner will be the only two cowboys to ride Oscar at the NFR, and they will haze for each other.

Horsepower is more important in the steer wrestling at the NFR than it is in the team roping or tie-down roping, Sparing said. “Unlike the team ropers or tie-down ropers, we can’t reach with the rope. Speed kills, and the horse has to be pretty dang fast, and on top of that, you have to have a haze horse that keeps up. Finding that special team is key to winning out there, and I’m pretty confident in what I’m on, and who’s hazing for me. I’m pretty excited about it.”

Sparing is fourteenth in the world, heading into the Wrangler NFR.

For Haven Meged’s fourth consecutive Wrangler NFR, he’ll be on Casanovas Cowgirl, “Beyonce,” his twelve-year-old black mare that has carried him at his last three NFRs (2019-2021).

She was his mount for only about ten rodeos this year, spending part of the time in the breeding barn and suffering an injury in July.

“She’s had a pretty light year, as far as rodeos,” he said. “The plan is that she’ll be ready for the Finals.” The 2019 world champion enters this year’s Finals in third place.

Rickie Engesser’s breakaway horse has a unique disability but it doesn’t stop him at all.

Breakaway roper Rickie Engesser aboard Rollo, whose blindness in his left eye does not affect his abilities. Chuck Miner | Courtesy photo

Lavaca Sting, “Rollo,” has no vision in his left eye, due to moon blindness.

But he’s learned to accommodate. “He cocks his head different, and has to stand in the box different,” she said. “If I square him, he can’t see the calf.” Once the calf is out of the chute, Rollo is fine.

This is the first time for Engesser, Martin, S.D., to qualify for the National Finals Breakaway Roping.

For Lisa Lockhart’s sixteenth National Finals, she will have three horses in her arsenal, the same three she’s ridden all year: Prime Diamond “Cutter,” Promise Me Fame Guys “Levee,” and Rosas Cantina CC “Rosa.”

Jessica Router, Buffalo, S.D., will be aboard Fiery Miss West, “Missy,” for her fifth trip to the National Finals in the barrels, and Clay Tryan hasn’t decided which horse he’ll ride, to head for Jade Corkill at Tryan’s nineteenth Wrangler NFR.

Three-time world champion Clay Tryan’s mount for the 2022 Wrangler NFR is undecided; the Helena, Mont. native will compete at his nineteenth NFR this year. Jackie Jensen | Courtesy photo

Other timed event qualifiers from the area include steer wrestler Ty Erickson, Helena, Mont., and breakaway ropers Samantha Fulton, Miller, S.D. and Joey Williams, Broadus, Mont.

The Wrangler NFR is the championship event for the PRCA, where world champions are crowned. It consists of ten nights of rodeo action, running Dec. 1-10, with performances beginning at 6:45 pm Mountain time each night.

Rodeo action will be broadcast live on The Cowboy Channel and RFD-TV. The Wrangler National Finals Breakaway will take place Nov. 29-30 at 2 pm each day and will be livestreamed on the