By Storms Reback
If you were asked to create the perfect young cowboy, you would give him a name that evokes dusty trails and cattle drives. You would give him a backstory that included a bull-riding dad and a barrel-racing mom. And you would create stories about his single-minded devotion to rodeo that read like tall tales.
Meet Pecos Tatum, the 11-year-old rodeo star who is already a longtime veteran of the American Junior Rodeo Association (AJRA) and the subject of not one but two documentaries -- one by CNN's Great Big Story, the other by a film crew from a children's network in France.
While he's competed at the National Little Britches Rodeo Association finals several times in the past, Pecos' main focus is the AJRA circuit, where he's won seven championships in four years. He'll be at it again in this week's AJRA finals in Sweetwater, Texas; the event runs through Saturday.
Pecos hopes to add to this total -- and to the growing legend surrounding him.
Destined to Be a Cowboy
Pecos' father Brett is a byproduct of cowboy culture. Both of his parents rodeoed. Three of his cousins were professional bull riders. And his grandfather was inducted into the PRCA Hall of Fame in 1989 for his work as an independent stock contractor.
After his family moved from Oregon to Arizona when he was 10, Brett started riding steers in the Arizona Junior Rodeo Association before graduating to bulls, which he rode for 13 years. "That's all I knew growing up," he said. "That's all I've done my whole life. I've always wanted to be a cowboy. I've never had any other desires."
Pecos' mother Keylie, who grew up on a ranch just outside of Durango, Colorado, comes from similar stock. Her dad was an all-around rodeo champion in high school, her mom a barrel racer. A rodeo star in high school, Keylie went on to compete at Cochise College in Douglas, Arizona, where she twice qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in breakaway roping.
Brett and Keylie's storybook meeting took place at -- where else? -- the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2001. They got married in May 2003, and three years later they had their first and only child. Searching for a name for their son, they turned to the internet, where they stumbled across a photo of the mythical cowboy Pecos Bill.
"He rode a tornado and invented calf roping and the six shooter," said Keylie. "We figured if we gave [our son] the name Pecos he was destined to be a cowboy."
Pecos first sat on a horse when he was two weeks old. As a one-year-old, he would use a wooden dowel to "herd" empty Capri Sun boxes around the house, while he said, "Hup, hup, hup."
When he was two, he won his first check at a barrel race in Wickenburg, Arizona. "That was his first competition," said Brett. "He won like three dollars and a set of reins, and he was just tickled pink. As he got older, he wasn't real enthused about being a barrel racer. He'd say, 'I'm not a barrel racer, I'm a calf roper.' That was him to a T."
After retiring from bull riding, Brett worked as a judge at PBR events as well as a travelling equine dentist, while Keylie competed in WPRA events. When the itinerant lifestyle began to wear on them, they decided it was time to settle down.
"We prayed a lot about where God wanted us to raise Pecos. We wanted to move somewhere where it was still cool to be a cowboy," Brett explained, before describing the conversation that led them to the Lone Star State.
'I've got to live somewhere we can ride year-round," Keylie told him.
"That means Texas or Florida," responded Brett.
Keylie settled the matter: "I'm not going any farther than Texas."
They prayed and spun a map around and blindly put a finger on it. The finger landed on Llano, a small Texas town perched on the banks of the Llano River. When some of their friends told them they should take a look at the town, it confirmed what they'd mutually come to believe: "That's God telling us where we need to live."
Keylie, Brett, his mother Vickie, and two-year-old Pecos headed south in a motor home hauling a trailer full of horses in November 2008. Along the way, they stopped at the WPRA finals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Keylie won the world championship in team roping.
After Brett and Keylie put down roots in Llano, they shunted aside their individual pursuits in favor of supporting Pecos' single-minded devotion to rodeo. "Pecos is just different," said Brett. "He's never played with conventional toys or been into video games. He's got video games that have never even been out of the wrapper."
Pecos played basketball one season and loved it, but the next year he had to choose between hoops or rodeo and rodeo won out. He started competing at AJRA events when he was seven and enjoyed immediate success. He won one championship (breakaway roping) in 2013, then followed it up with three in 2014 (calf riding, breakaway roping, and all-around cowboy), one in 2015 (steer riding), and two last year (steer riding and all-around cowboy).
Heading into this year's finals, he sits in second place in the race for the all-around title behind Dax Reed of Clint, Texas.
Pecos typically competes in every AJRA rodeo of the season and every event at each of those rodeos. "We always told him, 'It will probably make you a lot better cowboy in the long run if you do every single event they'll let you do," said Brett.
As much pride as Pecos takes in being an all-around cowboy, he is particularly devoted to roping, an obsession he acquired at the age of three after Lawrence McCullough, a longtime cowboy from Hempstead, Texas, gave him a piggin' string.
A typical day for Pecos involves four hours of homeschooling in the morning and nearly as many hours roping in the afternoon. When he's not competing in Ultimate Calf Roping Championships with his dad or picking the brains of calf-roping legends such as Tee Woolman, Rich Skelton, and Justin Maass, he can often be found watching instructional videos and practicing on his own.
Inclement weather doesn't stop him from working on his roping skills. "He's got a tying dummy in the living room," said Brett, "and -- I'm not exaggerating when I say this -- he ties that thing at least 100 to 200 times a day. He will be sweating and be bright red and it's 70 degrees in our house with the air conditioner on, until we're like, 'Okay, dude, that's enough.' Then he'll take a shower and tie the dummy some more!"
As much joy as he's gotten from mastering every event in rodeo, Pecos plans to drop one when he turns 13. "I just do steer riding for the all-around at the rodeos," he explained, "but I'm not going to ride bulls. I don't want to get hurt."
This decision -- as well as his stated desire to accomplish all his goals in rodeo by his late twenties and then become a stock contractor -- hints at a wisdom far greater than his years. After all, riding bulls nearly broke his dad in two.
Brett broke his femur and had multiple surgeries and concussions during his career. After getting married, he gave up bull riding to concentrate on roping -- and, later, Tres Rios, the buckle-making business he runs with his wife and mother. "The last year I rode bulls, I won more roping," he said. "I said, 'This is a lot easier on a guy!' So I quit riding bulls. I remember my last one like it was yesterday, but it was actually 14 years ago."
The Goal: Winning a PRCA All-Around Championship
Little known fact: Pecos Tatum is an adept livestock auctioneer. His parents have a video of him when he was two trying to auction off his dog Foxy, a budding talent that Keylie's father has helped craft into a marketable skill. Pecos has grown so confident in his ability that for the past two years he's auctioned off several items at the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund's Women Style Show in Las Vegas.
But rodeo still remains his primary interest. Some might call it an obsession. He can't recall the last time he missed an AJRA event, and he hopes to do what so many others before him have done: use the youth rodeo circuit in Texas as a springboard for a successful professional career, as George Paul, Terry Walls, Roy Cooper, Jim Sharp, Trevor Brazile, Tuff Hedeman, Jimmie Gibbs Munroe, and Buddy Reynolds all did.
Pecos is hoping not only to add his name to this list but to be a part of an even more celebrated one as well. "My goal is to win an all-around championship at the PRCA," he said, matter-of-factly.
When asked why her son is so enamored of rodeo, Keylie made it sound like Pecos had little choice in the matter. "I think he was just born to be a cowboy," she said. "I think God created him to do it."
Pecos actually sounded bewildered by the question, as if he couldn't imagine a life that didn't include riding horses and roping calves. "I just grew up around it," he said. "That's all I wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I just try to work as hard as I possibly can at it, so I can keep going and trying to win. If I wasn't winning, I would just go home and work harder at it until I did."
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