Clarke Gordon

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story by Kristina Domitrovich
photos by Lindsay Pace

When it comes to rodeos, bull riding is probably the first thing that comes to mind for a lot of people. But not for Clarke Gordon and his family.

“It’s been around in our family for a long time, and it’s what we do,” he said. “Every day, when we wake up, we go feed the horses and start saddling.”

Gordon grew up around rodeos, because they run in his blood. He said his great granddad “always had horses,” but that was on a farm and “back in the days of pulling a plow on his horse.” But Gordon’s grandfather had other ideas.

“My granddad, my mom’s dad, really kind of started the roping legacy in her family,” he said. “He started up when he was a teenager, and pretty much made his living riding horses for people and roping.”

Gordon has two uncles on his mother’s side, who ride, too, and Gordon grew up going to his uncles’ college rodeos.

“About the time I started getting fairly big enough to remember, I went to their college rodeos all the time,” he said. “I always loved being around rodeo, and all the sights of rodeo. Everybody knew who I was, because I was always with Bart and West.”

Gordon said that the rodeo regulars would call him his uncles’ coach. He said his favorite part of rodeos growing up was getting to feel like he was helping, though he was too small to do too much.

For Gordon’s family, roping is usually what comes to mind for rodeos. While there are several standard rodeo events — bull riding, for sure, bronco riding, barrel racing (that’s what his mother used to do, and what his sister does now) and a few others — for Gordon, his uncles and granddad, roping is the niche.

There are several different roping events, like the ones Gordon does: team roping and calf roping, sometimes called tie-down roping. Each comes with its own challenges. For most rodeo events, and for all the roping events, it’s all about time. Whoever finishes their run in the least amount of time wins.

The standard rule in roping is to let the steer get a head start. If the roper comes out of the gate too quickly, that’s called “breaking the barrier,” and it comes with a 10-second penalty. After the steer gets a head start, the rider must rope it around the head. There are a few different throws that are legal in roping, like both horns.

In 2020, Gordon was the header, the one who lassos the head, in his team-roping event, where he and his teammate won the World Championship at the National Little Britches Association. Once the head has been roped, the other roper (called a heeler) then secures its feet in some fashion. For teams, that’s just a quick throw of the lasso around both of its back legs, but when Gordon’s riding individually, he’s got to hop off his horse and tie three of its legs. The leg ties have to hold for six seconds for it to count.

Gordon learned the ropes when he was 6, and by the time he was 7, he had won his first saddle in Duncan, Oklahoma — in rodeos, wins are measured in saddles, buckles and cash. But it was a hard sell for him initially; he kind of drifted away from rodeo and started doing team sports. He tried basketball, football and baseball.

“I figured out I wasn’t any good at any of that,” he said with a smirk. “So I decided that I was going to go back to rodeo all the time.”

There’s a lot of training that goes into each run. Of course, the rider has to know what they’re doing, but there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that may not be visible to the nonrodeoed eye. The biggest aspect is probably horse training.

Gordon’s family, like his uncles and grandfather, still train horses to this day. One uncle’s stable usually has upward of 35 horses being trained, some are his own and others he’s been hired to get into shape. Gordon’s stable is a little more modest, for now, with nine horses, though sometimes he takes a few to his family’s farms to help ride during peak rodeo season when he knows he won’t be home much, like during the summers.

The horse Gordon rodeos with the most is Chocolate Chip, which he traded another horse for a few years ago.

“He’s definitely been a blessing,” he said. “He’s one of the best horses I’ve ever owned, and he’s a good one. He gives me a good chance to win every time I take him somewhere.”

Gordon said he more or less keeps his relationships with his horses as a team partnership. While both he and the horse trust each other implicitly, he said he thinks they both want to win.

“I guess we both know what we’ve got to do, and we both expect the other to do what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “Very rarely does Chocolate Chip mess up, but when he messes up, he knows before I have to get on to him, and it’s kind of the same (for him). I feel like sometimes, when I go somewhere, when I mess up, I feel like I can feel him (think), ‘Oh my goodness, what is he doing?’”

Another grueling aspect is the travel. Gordon, 18 and headed to the University of West Alabama on a rodeo scholarship, was homeschooled throughout high school because the schedule is so demanding. He said almost every weekend is spent going to a rodeo, and when every rodeo is usually at least a five-hour drive from his home in Tupelo, which can easily turn into far longer when he’s going to Oklahoma or Nebraska, it can become a lot to handle.

“You’ve got to definitely control your mind for all the travel and everything, to not get down on yourself when it’s not going good,” he said. “It’s definitely a lot more fun to win, but the way up, I think, the way to master rodeo is not necessarily winning, but just loving the rodeo. To have fun, even when you’re not winning.”

Along with keeping his emotions in check, Gordon, like any athlete, has to remind himself where he needs to improve. Every rodeo, before he gives the nod to come out the gate, he’s thinking of what elements he’s had to practice that week to make sure that’s the last thing on his mind before his run starts. At this point, he said most of his runs are muscle memory, so he really has to fight to make those improvements. But he still has fun.

“For a guy like me that’s not very athletic, you get a major send when you’re going so fast,” he said. “You feel like you’re not going to be able to stop, just to be able to be running that fast and being pulled down the rope at Mach 9, it’s just a feeling like — I guess it would kind of be the feeling like when you just hit one and you know it’s gone, like you hit the ball and you know it’s a homer all day. The rush is definitely a major part of why a lot of people do it.”

Luckily for Gordon, he usually enjoys getting there, too.

“I don’t necessarily like to drive, I’d just as soon sit in the passenger seat and let somebody else drive,” he said. “I just turn the air conditioner way down, get the music really loud, get me a cold Coke, and I make it pretty good. It’s definitely lots of late-night traveling, and it’s long, hard hours,” he said. “When you’re winning, it doesn’t take 30 minutes to get anywhere it seems, but when you’re losing, it takes an hour and a half to get to Pontotoc.”

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