By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (July 5, 2017) — Robbie Stidham knew immediately he had seen something special. And it was all the more special to him, because he saw it in his own son.
People don’t just decide one day to try and throw a heel shot and catch both feet cleanly the first time they let the rope fly.
Of course Austin Stidham, 15, isn’t most people, nor is he your average roper.
It was 2014, and Austin, then in the seventh grade, had only recently relocated to Stephenville from Oklahoma to live with Robbie and Stacey, his father and stepmom.
“We were just out in the arena working and he he said I want to try it,” Robbie recalls. “And the first time he ever roped, he was heeling, and I swung the steer for him and he roped him by two feet and didn’t know what to do.”
Mom knew, because, well, don’t moms always know what to do?”
“I was running into the arena yelling, ‘Back up the horse! Back up the horse,” said Stacey.
Austin was instantly hooked.
“First steer and you rope it by two feet, that doesn’t happen every day,” Robbie stated. “After that, roping was it. We couldn’t keep a rope out of his hands after that.”
Just three years later, Austin is a world champion roper and says he hopes to make a career out of team roping in the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).
“I can’t wait. The day I turn 18 I’m going to get my card and get after it,” he said.
Judges and timers at last week’s American Paint Horse Association 2017 Youth World Show in Fort Worth won’t bet against him making it in the PRCA. They clearly agree he is one of the sport’s most promising young stars, crowning him youth heading world champion at the prestigious event.
In roping, the fastest man – or team – is generally the winner. But APHA shows also have five judges scoring the horse, technical skill and more.
Never mind that as it applies in this instance, however, because Austin wasn’t just the fastest header or the one who most impressed judges.
Instead, the Stephenville athlete was both, winning the jackpot for fastest time as well as the world championship.
The Stidhams are calling it Austin’s first victory in a “major” event, though he has been named an honor roll champion three times for most combined points over the course of a season in heading, steer stopping and breakaway roping.
“This is just a huge confidence boost,” said Stacey as Austin nodded in agreement. “He sees now that if he keeps working hard he can rope with the best of them.”
Among a host of prizes, Austin was awarded a $500 scholarship for his world title and another $400 as reserve champion in steer stopping.
“Steer stopping is a lot like heading, but you just catch the calf and back up the horse so they are in a straight line,” Stacey explained. “You don’t turn him or anything because you don’t have a heeler with you.”
Austin added $150 scholarships for placing fifth in breakaway roping and sixth in goat tying. He earned a total of $1,200 in scholarships at the world show, not enough to pay for a degree by any stretch, but a step in the right direction the Stidhams say.
“We appreciate all the prizes, but the scholarship money is what we are really in it for,” said Stacey. “Anything that can help pay for college, we want to try and get it.”
Austin, of course, plans to be competing professionally while attending college, with all that looming just three years away.
Remember this cowboy roped his first steer just three years ago, and on Wednesday, he was in The Flash Today office sporting a shiny new trophy buckle proclaiming him to be a world champion.
Sponsored by Fast Back Ropes, Simple Minds, Inc. and, of course, his father’s businesses, Stidham Equine Sports Therapy, Austin has had the advantage of lessons and tips from world class ropers living right here in Erath County.
Ropers like world champion David Motes and past California circuit champ Evan Arnold, as well as Michael Jones, Aaron Macy and others.
He’s also practiced and competed alongside other talented prospects on the rise, such as Brodee Shelnutt of Rising Star, who is in the same club as Austin and was the reserve world champion header.
“That was pretty cool with kids from all over and the top two were from our club,” Stacey said proudly. “And they were in there giving each other high fives and celebrating before they even announced which one of them was the world champion and which one was reserve.”
Robbie Stidham applauds such sportsmanship throughout APHA events.
“The sportsmanship at those shows is awesome,” said the elder Stidham. “Nobody there wants to see anyone fail. They all support and encourage each other all the way to the end.”
Heading in an APHA youth show is different than in team roping, but for Austin, even that turned into an advantage. The heeler helping him was friend and roping partner Candice Bowen.
“If you’re doing heading, they have a heeler who runs with you, and that couldn’t have worked out any better because (Bowen) is a good friend and has helped me out before. We’ve roped a lot together and she’s always been good for me.”
The biggest obstacle the Stidhams had to overcome for Austin to win the world title was being allowed to compete at all.
Blue, their competition mare, suffered a bowed tendon, sidelining her after the deadline by which competitors were required to own or have leased their horse for the world show.
Fortunately, the kindheartedness of a child and logical thinking of an APHA executive board came to the rescue.
Darrell Martin is one of Robbie’s clients in the equine sports therapy business, and his daughter, Felicity Martin, 10, had just the horse Austin needed.
“We had a 10-year old girl come up and say, ‘Hey, ride this horse,’” Stacey said.
From the Martins, the Stidhams leased “Smokin Poco,” known intimately as “Biscuit.”
The executive board didn’t see any foul play, approving a requested variance from the deadline for Austin and Biscuit to compete.
Fortunately for Austin, there were others to handle such negations and rulings while he Biscuit went hit the practice arena.
“I just kept working with Biscuit and trying to be patient, and we got a little bit better together every day,” said Austin. “Once I was used to him and we found our spots together, we were fine.”
Better than fine. They are world champions.
Biscuit, by the way, is for sale, according to a Facebook post made by Darrell Martin. He says Biscuit has “earned nearly half a million in roping, (including) world titles and holds several arena records…He still has what it takes.”
With a world title and the beginnings of a nice college fund in place, Austin is shifting his focus back to the other favorite sport in the Cowboy Capital of the World.
Entering his sophomore year at Stephenville High School, Austin hopes to impress coaches and earn a spot on the varsity football team.
“I’m working hard right now hoping to get a backup spot on the varsity,” said the defensive end. “I’m not considered a part of the varsity right now, but that’s my goal.”
After a week off for the holiday, Stephenville resumes summer conditioning for all junior high and high school athletes Monday. For Austin, that means time to get back to work. And if he learned anything in becoming a world champion header just three years after roping his first steer, it’s that hard work pays off.
“The cool thing about roping is anyone can do it, but just like anything else, to get really good at it you have to work hard,” Austin said. “I think that same work ethic that helped me in roping will also help me in football and anything else in life.”