If you’ve been to a rodeo at Dickies Arena recently, you’ve seen Jim Gay’s work firsthand.

The way he describes it, he is akin to a talent scout for a football or baseball team. But instead of scouting out an all-star pitcher or quarterback, he has his eyes on athletes with four hooves.

“We’re always reaching out trying to find those special horses,” he said. “We really work at it to put together the best all-star group you can get.”

As the rodeo’s producer, he works with numerous contractors in the U.S. and Canada to ensure that when human athletes arrive at the arena, the livestock they’re competing with are the best of the best. 

If you go

Time: 7:30 p.m.
Date: Feb. 2-4
Location: Dickies Arena
1911 Montgomery St.
Fort Worth, TX 76107
Tickets: Prices vary. As of this writing, the lowest available prices start at $30 on Thursday, $49 on Friday and $100 on Saturday.

Scores for bull and bucking horse riders includes not only their performance, but also the animal’s. It’s in the best interest of the rider to draw a horse or bull that’s ready to buck.

Cullen Pickett, of Pickett Pro Rodeo, has made a name for himself as a rodeo contractor, though he says some of his animals, or stock, are more well-known than he is.

“The stock is crucial … Contestants don’t have to go to certain rodeos anymore so they can pick and choose,” he explained. “So it’s crucial to have the right stock so that you get the right contestants.” 

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The quality of stock has come a long way since the early days of rodeo, Pickett said.

“When rodeos started, it was just somebody had a horse that they couldn’t ride that threw them off as they were trying to ride. And that’s what the bucking horses were,” he said. “There’s 40 to 60 years of genetics behind them now … And same with the bulls. They’re born to buck.”

The late Feek Tooke, a Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee, is largely credited with transforming the industry with his bucking horse breeding program.

“A lot of the horses (today) go back to that program,” Pickett said.

“It’s kind of one of them deals (where) they have it or they don’t. You train them somewhat as far as the process goes and so that they don’t injure themselves … But it’s genetics. If somebody thinks they can train them to do that, then they’re wrong.

Pickett attributes the success of his program to the animals, but, for his part, he says that nutrition and trust go a long way.

“You’re not going to force them to go through a gate because they’re 1,600-1,800 pounds. I mean, good luck,” he explained. “You consider them your equal, basically, is the way I’d put it. They do things that you’re asking because they trust you. But if they don’t trust you, you’re not going to get them to do anything, including buck.”

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Gay, the rodeo producer, agreed that you can’t make a horse buck that doesn’t want to.

“They buck because they like it. They’re not going to be a saddle horse or a riding horse to be ridden in the grand entry, nothing like that. That’s not what they want to be,” he said. “They enjoy their life. You can see it in their eyes.”

He follows contractors like baseball teams, keeping note of which ones are improving each year and which ones aren’t, recognizing that animal athletes, like their human counterparts, all have their off days.

Ultimately, stock contractors want to bring their best animals to Fort Worth because they’re proud of their animals and want to show them off, Gay said.

In 2022, the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo won the Polaris Remuda Award, recognizing their lineup of bucking horses.

They hope to repeat that feat this year.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta FornoffArts & Culture Editor

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...