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Jaguar graduates from good junior rodeo horse

Seeing Tuf Cooper ride into the box on opening night of the 2011 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo aboard a little buckskin horse by the name of Jaguar made me smile. It took me all the way back to a day about a decade ago when I was in Fort Worth for an event, and his ProRodeo Hall of Famer dad Roy invited me across town to watch his then-little boys, Clif and Tuf, rope at a junior rodeo over at Cowtown Coliseum.

Clif was riding Jag that day, and while it was a tough day at the rodeo for both boys a couple things about that day have stayed with me all these years. One missed and one got outrun, but when Roy brought them over to say hello they were so sweet and polite, ending every sentence with, “Yes, ma’am.” The other thing I remember clearly was how dear Roy was with them at the height of their frustration and disappointment. Instead of chewing them out or lecturing them like a bad Little League dad who never could throw a strike himself, he hugged them and told them how much he loved them. There would be another day, the Super Looper assured them. How right he was. All three of Roy’s boys – Clif, Tuf and big brother Clint – have roped at the last couple NFRs; Clint and Tuf are now at four Finals appearances apiece.

Jaguar first joined the Cooper family tree when Grandpa Tuffy (Roy’s dad) plunked down $12,000 for a junior-rodeo horse upgrade for his grandsons. Roy thinks Jaguar was 8 when they bought him in 2002, which would make Clif and Tuf 14 and 12 at the time. Jaguar was a heel horse when they got him, but had only had about 20 calves tied on him so, like the boys,  was pretty green at that event. Roy finished him himself.

“They’d heeled on him, so he could run and stop,” Roy remembers. “He was just a nice little horse for my boys to junior rodeo on. I took him to a few rodeos that year. I cracked him out at Guymon (Okla.), and rode him at Vernon (Utah) and Cheyenne (Wyo.). He was good anywhere back then. He’s got a little age on him now (Jag’s 18), so he’s lost a little speed, but he’s always been a winner and he still lets you win in the right conditions, like the Finals. There are better horses than him, but we win on him.”

Their family lived in Childress, Texas, at the time Jaguar joined the family (they moved to Decatur the year after they bought him), and Tuf has a vivid memory of the day Roy pulled into their yard and unloaded him. “Roy came down to Decatur one day when we lived in Childress,” Tuf recalls. “He was hooked up to a little two-horse trailer with his Excursion. He unloads this little buckskin pony, and tells me and Clif he has us a new horse. He pulled right up to the house and unloaded him, and walked him up on the front lawn. That was the first time I laid my eyes on old Jag. I thought that was so awesome. What kid doesn’t love a new pony? Roy was giving us a talk about opportunity and what this horse might mean to our future, but I was just a little guy, so I was just thinking about breakaway roping at the next junior rodeo.”

I love to tease Roy that I can’t decide whether he’s more of a sucker for a good horse or a pretty girl. The longer I know him, and the older he gets, the more I think the horses have the advantage. Like Tuf said, “Roy loves a young horse with potential – something he can make into a great calf horse. He’s always loved the challenge and the work that goes into young horses.”

Jaguar was Clif’s main mount originally. “Dad was on the edge of retiring, so I thought it was cool when he’d ride my horse at some of the rodeos,” Clif remembers. “Jaguar was my best horse – the one I took to the junior rodeos every weekend – and he was perfect for me. I was wanting to go to the next level with my roping, and he was little, had a short neck, scored and could really run.”

The first twist to this tale happened when Clif traded Jaguar for his current main mount, Money, with their neighbor over the fence, Trevor Brazile, who also happens to be married to Clif and Tuf’s half-sister, Shada (Shada, Clif and Tuf’s mom, Shari Rivera, is 2008 World Champion Tie-Down Roper Stran Smith’s sister). “I was growing, and I thought I got too big for Jaguar,” Clif said of the 2005 horse swap with Trevor. “I liked Money, because he was a little bigger and stouter. Trevor and I traded, and it turned out perfect for everyone involved. Trevor and Tuf both won a gold buckle off of him. I guess it’s time for me to buy Jaguar back again, so I can get one. He’s hard to beat in that setup. He’s phenomenal at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“At this point in his career, Jaguar is good for short scores and big rodeos. Money works at every setup, so I have no regrets at all. I had my time with Jaguar. We had a blast, we had fun together, he made my roping better and it was time to move on.”

Though it’s been years since those junior rodeo days, Jaguar still feels like family to Clif. “In my mind I know exactly how Jag feels when he’s running and when you rope one on him,” he said. “I could get on him right now, all these years later, and he’d be exactly as I remember him. I could ride him right now at the Thomas & Mack and make the run that’s in my head on him. He hasn’t changed in all these years. I remember how he runs and how easy he is to rope on. He hasn’t changed.”

Once Jag moved next door to Trevor’s house, it was a bit of a revolving door. “Jaguar’s just a unique little horse,” Trevor said. “You think he’s too small, not fast enough, and maybe could pull more. You could talk yourself out of riding him at a rodeo, but you’d cost yourself money. I sold him a couple years after I bought him to a high school kid, because I thought he might not be enough horse for me. He was high school rodeoing on him, then I ended up riding him at Ellensburg that fall because I needed something to ride, and set an arena record on him.

“For some reason when the money’s up, Jaguar’s always been just the right amount of horse. He always seems to know what the situation calls for. He was terrible in the practice pen with me. But he was one of the few horses I ever had that I might not rope on for six months then show up on at a rodeo. When you took him somewhere is when he was at his best. He gave you his all. He had no cheat in him. He would run as fast as he could until it was time to stop. He had no counterfeit in him whatsoever.”

Brazile bought Jaguar back just in time to win his first of three gold tie-down roping buckles on him in 2007. “Jaguar’s just a winner,” Trevor said. “That’s the best way to describe him. He does whatever the circumstances call for to make sure you have a chance to win. He’s just been one I’ll always look back on and say that was one of the good ones. He was just a good junior rodeo horse, but at the end of all our careers he’ll end up being something we wish we could duplicate.”

Looking back, Tuf now realizes what a sport Jaguar was to pack him around as a skinny little toe-head. “When we got Jag I was little and didn’t have the horsemanship skills I have now,” he said. “Clif was older, and he was better with horses than me. Jaguar was always calm and pretty much automatic for us. When we were younger, that horse made it so much fun to rope calves because he was so calm and easy to ride and rope off of. I hardly ever practiced on him, but when I rode him at a rodeo he would walk in the box calm and back in there with a little 12-year-old kid poking him with his spurs.

“Jag let us nod and ride, then loped down there perfectly to the calf and put us in easy position right up there close so we could catch. When I started riding Jag I was breakaway roping on him. Clif tied down on him some at the house, but Jag never needed much practice. Jag did it all – tie-down, breakaway, ribbon roping. He was just a good one, and it didn’t take very long until he started getting the royal treatment as our No. 1 horse. He’s had that treatment for a really long time now.”

The next curveball in this happy horse story is that Tuf and Jaguar historically knocked heads – literally. “I was practicing on Jag one day at our arena in Decatur in 2004,” Tuf remembers. “I roped one, jumped off, pulled on the reins as I got off, pulled his face and neck to the right, and as I was jumping off going fast, my face hit Jag’s jaw and the bit. I had braces at the time. It dazed me, pulled my braces off of my teeth, and cut my face all up. It felt like a shot from Holyfield. I was laid out in the arena, and I was so mad I told Clif and Roy I never wanted to ride that horse again. That’s when I started getting a herd of horses together of my own.”

On that dreaded day, Tuf vowed never to ride Jaguar again. Then he found himself in a bind halfway through his second NFR in 2009. Tuf was leading the NFR average race after five rounds when both horses he had there came up lame within 12 hours of each other. “When my second horse pulled his suspensory (ligament) loping half-speed down the arena in the practice pen the morning of the sixth round, I could not believe it,” Tuf said. “I was sad because I knew I couldn’t ride my horse that night, but I was excited for what the Lord had in store for me. I didn’t know what I was going to ride, so I called Trevor.”

Typical Trevor Brazile, he offered Tuf – the kid breathing down the back of his neck over the gold buckle – his own horse. And at the time, that was Jaguar. “Trevor was winning the world, but a few of us were closing the gap,” Tuf said. “Trevor was in the driver’s seat for the world title, and he let me ride the only horse he had out there to try and beat him.

“All I had the night I went out to the Thomas & Mack the night of that sixth round in 2009 was my rope can. I hadn’t swung a leg over Jaguar since that wreck we had at home when we hit heads five years before. Trevor roped on Jag first that night. Then I tied my rope on him, swung my leg across him, and said, ‘Jag, I know what I said last time I roped on you, but I really need you to work for me right now.’ It was a moment, just me and him, one on one, back behind the NFR roping chutes. When it was over, I’d won $87,000 and my first NFR average title on him, Trevor had won his second gold buckle on him and I was second to Trevor in the world. It was awesome.”

Jaguar got hurt in the middle of 2010, so Trevor wasn’t able to ride him at the Finals that year. Trevor won his third gold buckle on the yellow horse he calls Rio, and Clif rode the horse he traded Trevor for Jaguar – Money – at his first NFR. After a year off, Jag came back last summer and Trevor leaned on him in the fall clutch at the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha.

Fast forward to the week before the 2011 NFR last December, when Trevor and Tuf were out practicing right before the Finals in Trevor’s arena and the owner of Tuf’s intended NFR mount, C.R. Bradley, called to inform him that his good red-roan mare Roany was hurt and couldn’t go. “Trevor was loping Jag and Rio,” Tuf remembers. “I didn’t tell him Roany was hurt, but asked how much he’d sell Jag for. He said, ‘You don’t want Jag.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I kind of do.’ If I couldn’t ride Roany, I wanted to ride Jag. Trevor had two horses he’d won gold buckles on, and (kiddingly) asked me how much of a lead I had on him before he sold him to me. He wanted me to win the world. He helped me get through that last lap out there by selling Jag to me.

“Jag had been to the Finals in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and had two gold buckles and an average title won on him. His record out there was amazing, and I’d grown up on him. There’s not a better horse to ride at that rodeo. He’s the one. I’d been setting my foundation on that horse since I was 12 years old. He was the horse to ride. I knew him better than any horse I’d ever ridden, and Jag knows me. I’d been setting the 2011 Finals up since I was 12. Sometimes you get to work on things and they happen years later. You never know what you’re working on now that might help you 20 years from now.

“For a horse to last this long shows you something about old Jag. He’s lasted that long for me, my dad, Clif and Trevor, and won so much for us. That horse is such a big part of our family and where each one of us is in our career. There will never be another horse like him, and he’s still going.”

Clif carved a nameplate for Jaguar in his eighth-grade woodshop class. It still hangs proudly on the front of the little buckskin pony’s pen.

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Tuf, Roy and Clif Cooper treat Jaguar like royalty at the home place in Decatur, Texas. It all started when Grandpa Tuffy bought Jag for the little Cooper boys back in 2002.

ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy Cooper, shown here aboard Jaguar at the 2003 Guymon (Okla.) Pioneer Days Rodeo, took the horse to a few rodeos in the early going while he was finishing him for his boys to ride.

Tiny Tuf Cooper bails off the right side of Jaguar at the American Junior Rodeo Association Finals in Sweetwater, Texas, when they first teamed up.

Trevor Brazile turned to family faithful Jaguar at the 2009 NFR and won his second gold buckle on the buckskin’s back. Tuf Cooper also won the Finals on Jag that year.

Tuf Cooper wins his first gold buckle on the back of old Jag last December.
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