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Rodeo Horsepitality

The secret show within the livestock show

Michelle Casas Groogan
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Joe Ellis, Tucker Knight, Bubba Murphy, Robin Young-Ellis, Corinne Heiligbrodt, Susan Brooks

Joe Ellis, Tucker Knight, Bubba Murphy (from left, back row), Robin Young-Ellis, Corinne Heiligbrodt and Susan Brooks (from left, front row) volunteer for the Houston Livestock and Rodeo horse show at NRG Arena. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

At the heart of all things-cowboy is a rider on horseback. This partnership drives and preserves a too-well-kept secret at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo: the horse show.

Tucked in the southeast corner of the NRG complex, away from the crowds of the football stadium, convention center and the midway, is the NRG Arena, formerly the venerable Astroarena.

Just before and throughout the rodeo, this relatively small building showcases some of the most respected names in the horse world, as well as amateur exhibitors. Here you will find cutting competitions, as well as Western-pleasure, ranch rodeo, mounted shooting, conformation and breed events, like the paint and donkey/mule shows and two American Quarter Horse Association World Championships.

Even if you miss the ropers and barrel racers at the big rodeo at night, you can find horses here every day and can sit and watch the action from just yards away.

Here, and next to the arena in “the horse barn,” lies a culture of real horsemen and horsewomen preserving Western heritage as a way of life. Generations of families have mucked stalls here with little ones passing time lassoing anything that moves.

“I’ve been going all my life. I remember as a little kid sleeping on the hay bales in the stalls,” said Buzz resident Mike Rutherford, a HLSR director who serves on the Cutting Horse Committee. Cutting horses are bred and trained to react quickly on their own, often jumping sideways back and forth, to separate a cow from the herd, like J.J. Watt honing in on a quarterback.

With ranches in South and Central Texas, Mike has ample cattle and horseflesh to keep him away from the city, but chooses to volunteer untold hours at this small arena ramrodding the details of the rodeo’s horse shows.

“We have some of the largest competitions in the nation, but hauling horses in and out of Houston is a logistical hurdle, so we’re famous for making up for it with hospitality.”

There is a committee solely committed to making the trip to the Bayou City more comfortable for horse-show competitors.

“It’s a chore carrying an 80-pound bale of hay from your trailer and walking through the arena to the stall area,” says Mike. “The Horsepitality Committee has tractors there to unload your hay and your tack and set your stalls up for you. Their job is to make everything easier.”

Robin Young-Ellis and Joe Ellis

Robin Young-Ellis and Joe Ellis train and ride cutting horses at their ranch near Cypress. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Buzz resident Robin Young-Ellis has worn many hats volunteering on multiple committees the last quarter-century, including Quarter Horse Committee, serving on the Board of Directors, and as former chairman of the Armed Forces Appreciation Committee. She could have her pick of jobs, but she chooses the grunt work of the Quarter Horse Hospitality Committee.

“The coffee is hot and perking by 5 a.m. as we fire up the kitchen to prepare a homemade breakfast and lunch for the large number of exhibitors and judges each day,” said Robin.

Robin spends long days in the office as president and CEO of her own firm specializing in structured settlements, but considers herself a cowgirl at heart. Her husband, Joe, rides cutting horses, and the couple recently started showing a 4 year old, Pepto Primero de Abril, just one of many horses she is enamored with at their ranch Casa de los Robles, near Cypress.

“I have held a deep-seated, intense fascination with horses. Horses are creatures of beauty, powerful and gentle, strong and graceful, humble and spirited,” said Robin. “Horses relax you and provide emotional support and intuitively seem to know what you need.”

Corinne Heiligbrodt

Corinne Heiligbrodt has many trophies from her cutting days and offers her expertise on the Cutting Horse Committee. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Those who’ve heard of Buzz resident Corinne Heiligbrodt call her cutting royalty. Her legendary horses Red White and Boon and Meradas Little Sue dominated cutting competition across the nation for the better part of the ’90s. Corinne won the HLSR non pro cutting on Red in 1996 and the AQHA amateur cutting on Sue two years in a row.

While these days her focus has turned to thoroughbreds, she still volunteers with HLSR. Starting out as one of five women on the Quarter Horse Committee in the 1970s, Corinne went on to chair the first premier Horse Sale Committee. She currently serves on the Cutting Horse Committee and is a lifetime director of HLSR.

“I grew up on the back of a horse working cattle at my family’s ranches in Matagorda County and started coming to the stock show in the late ’40s and ’50s. We stayed at the Rice Hotel, ate at Kelley’s – stars were there eating as well – and when you went to the Coliseum, Roy Rogers or Gene Autry had their horses tied up for you to walk up and pet.” 

One of the crowd-pleasers of the horse competition is the two-day, invitation-only Ranch Rodeo happening March 4-5, where the hard-scrabble demands of the Old West test modern-day cowboys committed to the craft of frontier-land survival. The competition features calf branding (using chalk), wild-cow milking, bronc riding and pasture doctoring. The Ranch Rodeo event exemplifies what a working cowboy does day to day on a working ranch.

Buzz resident Tucker Knight is in his inaugural year as chair of the Ranch Rodeo committee. While he spends most his days investment banking on the 16th floor of 2200 Post Oak in a suite, the ways of the West have captured his heart and imagination.

“This world is so technologically advanced that you can push a button and a pizza comes to your house in 10 minutes. This (Ranch Rodeo competition) takes people back to our heritage, our roots.”

Joe Sansone

Joe Sansone has become a champion cutter with his horse Rosebud since he retired five years ago. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Tucker’s family has been in the cattle business since the 1800s. And while he grew up a city boy in West U, he comes honestly by his passion for horses, having spent summers in Arkansas on his grandpa’s farm. Now, at the age of 42, he's running his own ranch near Madisonville, embracing the cowboy spirit.

 “The western way of life is not for the faint of heart,” he says. “People don’t work cattle on horses anymore – they use helicopters and four wheelers and ATVs. [The Western life] is something that we really need to hold onto. It’s really the principles this country was founded on, hard work, discipline, faith and values. That’s what embodies the cowboy.”

Buzz resident Joe Sansone volunteers with the Team Penning and Ranch Sorting Committee. He is also a cutting-horse competitor with an impressive showcase of buckles and saddles from his wins. But what is even more impressive is that Joe first climbed in the saddle just five years ago, a fresh calling made possible by the sale of the successful orthopedic firm which he owned and operated for almost two decades. 

“I spent so many hours in the office. There were summers that passed me by because all I did was work. So out at the ranch when I’m on a horse, I love it because when I’m sweating, it means I’m not behind my desk, and I can do that all day, every day,” says Joe.

While these days Joe's just as "loco" about work as the past, he spends his hours training, doing something he loves with the people he loves.

“My daughter basically taught me about horses and how to ride. That is what makes this such a fun event. I get to ride and compete with my daughter, and it’s just fun. There are not a lot of sports you can compete in with your family.”

Susan Brooks, Bubba Murphy

Susan Brooks and fiancé Bubba Murphy spend most weekends traveling to cutting competitions. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Susan Brooks sits on the Cutting Horse Committee, helping raise funds to make prizes as big as possible. She has a vested interest, as a cutter herself. She travels to Brenham from her West University home at least twice a week to train. As the owner of a woven-blanket business, she spent years filling orders for rodeo blankets. When she finally accepted an invitation from her now-fiancé, Bubba Murphy, to visit the rodeo, the impact was life changing.

“I’ve always loved horses,” she says. “When I first moved to Houston a little over 10 years ago, I didn’t know anybody. Being involved with the rodeo was really a great combination for me. I got to meet so many great people who not only loved horses, but gave of their time to help make our event at the rodeo contribute to the overall goal of helping kids.”

And she has no better life partner than Buckles of Texas owner Bubba Murphy, who has been volunteering his time and talent since 1958 – only missing the one year he served in Vietnam.  “Dirt is in my blood,” he said.

And horses. Once they get in your blood, they stay there.

Horse Show calendar

Feb 25-March 3: Cutting
March 4-5: Ranch Rodeo
March 6: Calf Roping
March 7: Team Roping
March 8: Speed Events
March 9-10: Paint Show
March 11-12: Donkey/Mule Show
March 13-15: Ranch Sorting
March 15-16: Youth Show
March 17-20: World Show
Admission is free with admission to the livestock show, which is $5 for kids 3-12, $10 for 13 and older. A stadium ticket is not required. See rodeohouston.com or call 832-667-1000 for details.

Editor’s note: The Buzz Magazines would like to thank Robin Young-Ellis and Joe Ellis for letting us take photos at their beautiful Casa de los Robles ranch.

  • Joe Sansone

    Joe Sansone volunteers with the Team Penning and Ranch Sorting Committee and competes in events with his daughter.

  • Tucker Knight

    Tucker Knight works in investment banking and loves to ride.

  • Mike Rutherford

    HLSR director Mike Rutherford remembers sleeping on hay bales in the rodeo’s horse-show stalls as a child.

  • Susan Brooks

    Susan Brooks hopes to make the finals again this year in her cutting division.

  • Joe Sansone
  • Tucker Knight
  • Mike Rutherford
  • Susan Brooks

Joe Sansone

Joe Sansone volunteers with the Team Penning and Ranch Sorting Committee and competes in events with his daughter.

Tucker Knight

Tucker Knight works in investment banking and loves to ride.

Mike Rutherford

HLSR director Mike Rutherford remembers sleeping on hay bales in the rodeo’s horse-show stalls as a child.

Susan Brooks

Susan Brooks hopes to make the finals again this year in her cutting division.

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