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Let Fly the Loop

When the chute opens and the steer charges, there’s no place Jimmy Steve Martinez would rather be than on his horse, with a rope in his hand.

By November 2016Comments

Photograph by James H. Evans

At a Van Horn arena on a late-summer afternoon, speckled steers bawled in the chute as Jimmy Steve Martinez flight-checked his horse Yoshiki. Martinez, a 42-year-old team roper, takes his time with the same routine before every event. Brush Yoshiki’s coppery coat. Braid his coppery mane. Strap skid boots on the gelding’s legs. Throw aboard the saddle stamped “Big Bend Cowboy Hall of Fame.” In his mind, Martinez envisions the perfect run.

“I visualize everything,” he said. “My horsemanship, my swing, my position, delivery, and dally. I go through the steps in my head and try to do exactly that.”

Twenty minutes later, Martinez was one of two ropers angling their horses into boxes on either side of the steer waiting inside the chute. When the chute clanged open, the steer charged forward. The ropers waited a moment to give the animal a head start and then roared after it. Ruben Brito, the header, closed in on the steer and threw a loop over its horns. As the loop settled, Brito quickly dallied his end of the rope around his saddle horn and hauled the steer along in a leftward arc. Martinez, the heeler, focused on the rise and fall of the steer’s hind feet. Yoshiki slowed automatically, and Martinez swung his loop overhead, taking aim. When the timing was right, he let fly the loop, caught both hind feet, pulled the slack, and dallied. Both horses spun to face the steer strung between them. The complicated feat was over in seconds, accomplished at a gallop.

“The horse, the rider, the steer—it all has to be in sync,” Martinez observed later.

Ropings like this 4-H fundraiser occur nearly every weekend across Texas. These are family events that can last all day, with kids and horses everywhere. In Van Horn, a father warming up his horse led behind him a pint-size cowboy on a pint-size skewbald pony. Middleschoolers in 4-H shirts hawked Gatorade and brisket burritos at the concession stand. “What 4-H projects are you boys doing this year?” a customer asked, and the answers rang out in bright unison: “Goats!” “I’m raising a hog!” “Wildlife!” A pair of ten-year-old girls, their mouths stained with alarming snow-cone colors, wove through the parking lot riding double on a patient, slow-moving gray horse. A smattering of folks fanned themselves in the shade of the covered stands. As is fitting with West Texas demographics, the crowd was mostly Hispanic. Joshing among ropers was conducted primarily in Spanish; the ohhhhs for misses and whoops for great catches were more nondenominational.

Amateur ropers are drawn to this type of roping contest, known as a jackpot, which typically features friendly competition among local contestants, as well as a payout for winners. These events are distinct from professional ropings, held at sanctioned rodeos, which feature pro ropers who relentlessly roam the country, chasing hefty payouts and a chance at the end-of-year National Finals Rodeo. Martinez used to be a pro. He earned his pro card at nineteen and left his hometown of Marfa for an itinerant life, pulling all-nighters with his roping buddies as they drove to the next arena, the next crowd, the next set of steers.

“I did eighty to one hundred rodeos a year,” said Martinez. “You pay your fees, warm up your horse. You go into the arena, and once you perform, you’ve got to unsaddle, water, feed, and get on the road to the next one.”

Those were good times. He was young, with loads of friends and no attachments or responsibilities other than to his horse and his truck. Every rodeo town had buckle bunnies and bars. People wanted to be around a real cowboy. People knew his name.

But the road requires money for fuel, cheap motels, cheap eats, entry fees. Money for alfalfa, horseshoes, truck repairs, tires, ropes, rent. Martinez has won eighty saddles in his career. Now he’s got only three; the rest sold for quick cash to get a little farther down the road. Over time, the travel wearied him, his ambition diluted by distractions along the way.

“I was on the road for eleven years, roping,” he said. “I’d be home maybe two months of the year. It came to a point where I started going for the wrong reasons. Instead of going for what I loved, it was the rock-and-roll lifestyle. I lost my way. And I didn’t care. What changed everything were my girls.”

During a visit to Marfa in 2003, Martinez started seeing a woman named Lorinda Carrillo, and the two of them began a life together. She briefly joined him on the road—“I didn’t like it,” she said—and then they set up a household in Midland. He was gone a lot, juggling his home life and roping. Money got real tight. He recalled a time when they were down to their last $11. Carrillo was seven months pregnant with their first child, a girl they’d call Charlize.

“We lived off eleven dollars that whole week,” he said. “That was the low point.”

The family moved back to Marfa; Martinez gradually quit touring and dropped his pro status. The transition from roping’s nomadic existence to a more mundane life, however, wasn’t easy. For a long while, Martinez cowboyed, managed a ranch in Pyote, groomed polo ponies, or cooked for hunters, jobs that kept him away for days or weeks at a time. Eventually he landed a steady position on the city’s utilities crew, working on roads and maintaining the water system. He rode and roped only sporadically, on borrowed horses. And he was miserable, unfulfilled.

“How do you go from one hundred miles per hour down to fifty?” he said. “I felt like everyone owed me. I felt sorry for myself.”

Some tenets of horsemanship are difficult to master. Never get angry at a horse. Anger stalls their progress. Horses need patience. A stubborn horse is a teacher of patience. When Martinez started treating himself as he might treat a horse, something changed.

In 2013, around the time of the birth of his second daughter, Jade, an idea took hold. Nine years had passed since Martinez had ended his pro roping career. “One day I realized, ‘Listen to yourself. You’re not sick or dead or crippled. My lady wants a house of our own. We ain’t gonna get that on our nine-to-fives.’ I realized, ‘I’ve got to get back to roping. I’ve got to practice.’ ”

The day he stopped feeling sorry for himself, he became a better roper, a better horseman, a better family man.

“It made me love Lorinda more,” Martinez explained. “I couldn’t really love her until I could love myself.”

He began to rope seriously again—this time as an amateur. Things started looking up. Yoshiki—a Japanese name that means “glory”—entered Martinez’s life. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” he said. “A roper is only as good as his machine, and he’s a fine machine.” Martinez attended roping practice, gave lessons, picked up partners. He entered amateur ropings, but only on weekends and in places not too far from Marfa. Roping became joyful.

“I’m eyes-wide-open now,” he said. “I’m having way more fun than I did when I was younger. My patience has grown tenfold. I can really break things down and know what I need to do. I’m back, and this is my second coming.”

There’s real money to be made in team roping, at least for good ropers. The purse at jackpots is tied to entry fees. A small town’s jackpot can generate a win of $500 to $700; bigger events with more entrants might have a purse of $5,000 or more. Even more enticingly, in recent years a number of national organizations have sprung up offering prizes at amateur events that are as attractive as the pro circuit purses, but without so much travel. The World Series of Team Roping championship, for instance, held in Las Vegas, paid $320,000 last year to the winning header and heeler team in Martinez’s division. Martinez and his heading partner, Lino Barragan, of Fort Stockton, qualified and came home with forty-fourth place, splitting $6,000. The pair has qualified again this year and will rope there in December.

Martinez used to have to drive and rope all year to make ends meet. These days he travels to 25 or 30 jackpots per year, about 15 of which, like the Series qualifier, really matter.

“You can make a living now team roping as an amateur,” he said. “The prizes are so good, if you do well in two or three, you’ve made your year. I’m going to prove to myself, to my family, that I can make a living doing this. I’m glad for the job that I have and where we live. I love it. But I’m going to win. I’m going to buy the house that this woman wants. That’s the goal. Every day I get on a horse and swing a rope I get closer.”

If he wins the Series, they’ll buy a house. If he wins the Series, he and Carrillo will marry.

“I want her to have the dress she wants and the wedding I want,” he said.

In the meantime, there was roping to be done. Afternoon thunderheads built up on Van Horn’s tawny horizon. Steers darted past. Horses gave chase, and graceful loops circled the sky for a moment before snaring horns or hooves. Carrillo sat in the stands with twelve-year-old Charlize and three-year-old Jade. Martinez roped consistently and flashed Carrillo a grin after a particularly snappy catch.

“I told him the other day, you don’t know how to multitask,” she said. “And he goes, ‘Try roping—you got to ride right, swing right, position right, dally right, and do all of it in six seconds. Try that and then you can tell me about multitasking.’ ” She laughed at the memory. “Okay, babe! You’re right.”

Martinez and Yoshiki flew from the box again and again, for about twenty runs. Martinez caught almost every time. At the end of the afternoon, the scorekeeper announced Martinez had won second and third places with two different partners. A payout awaited.

He stepped off Yoshiki and loosened the gelding’s cinch. The horse rubbed his sweaty forehead against Martinez’s arm. Jade ran to her father. He set her atop the horse and started for the trailer. His roping friends clapped him on the back as he walked.

“I missed a few—that’s team roping—but I’m not leaving here empty-handed,” he said. “It’s still satisfying. It doesn’t matter how many times you win, it still feels great.”

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