NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Champion Zak 34 is looking to the future these days — and trying out a new discipline to showcase his versatility. • Photo courtesy of Gloria Brigantino

NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Champion Zak 34 Learning the Ropes of New Sport

Jet black and full of talent, Zak 34 burst onto the scene with a win in the 2021 National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) Snaffle Bit Futurity

It was an emotional victory, because the stallion was named in honor of Seth Fischer, the late son of owner Melissa Fischer: “Zak” was Seth’s nickname and 34 was his favorite number.

Now, Fischer’s 5-year-old stallion is ready to take on a whole new sport in the roping pen. In training with Andy Holcomb, the black stallion is competing in his first major roping event, the Gold Buckle Futurity Winter Roping Event. Continuing through Saturday, Dec. 30, in Belton, Texas, the event offers futurity and maturity classes for breakaway, team roping and tie down roping horses.

Fischer always believed Zak 34 had the ability to excel in more than one discipline. Roping is a way to show he can do it.

“I wanted to show everybody’s he’s that versatile,” she explained.

New Challenge

Ridden by EquiStat Elite $2 Million Justin Wright, the son of EquiStat Elite $10 Million Sire Woody Be Tuff continued to find success in reined cow horse during his derby years. He won the 2023 Paso Robles Spring Classic, was Open Reserve Champion in the 2022 NRCHA Western Derby and was third in the 2023 NRCHA Stallion Stakes Open. He finished out his limited-age reined cow horse years with $301,258 in earnings, according to EquiStat.

Given that Zak 34‘s years in age-restricted classes are over, Fischer thought now was an opportune time for him to add roping skills to his repertoire. Eventually, he’ll continue through the traditional progression of two-rein and bridle classes for reined cow horses.

“We’re not done with reined cow horse, by any means,” Fischer said. “We’re going to try to do it so we’re flitting back and forth between the two.”

A long-term goal for Fischer is for Zak 34 to make appearance in the World’s Greatest Horseman, the four-event competition that features roping in addition to the three regular reined cow horse contests of herd work, rein work and cow horse.

Zak 34 Learning New Skills

Zak 34 is currently training with Holcomb, who lives a few hours from the horse’s regular trainer and Holcomb’s good friend, Wright. The roping trainer has trained a number of horses out of Wright’s program to rope over the years. One of those was Time Toget Wreckless, a Hickory Holly Time stallion owned by Fischer who earned more than $8,100 in the roping with Holcomb this year.

“He’s a smart horse, so he kind of figured it out pretty fast what I was looking for, what we’re trying to do,” he said. “It helps when they’re so smart. They’re looking for what you want to do, you know.”

While the two disciplines are different, Holcomb said there are skills in reined cow horse training that translate well into roping. One of those is the ability to rate a cow, which reined cow horses must demonstrate in the fence work.

“That’s the biggest thing, I think, that takes a little bit of time, which when they’ve been down the fence a little bit it’s kind of the same move,” Holcomb said. “You’re obviously not stepping ahead and turning them [in roping], but the part of going to them and then rating them and getting them down the wall past your markers is kind of [similar] to how we want them to go get to a cow, rate in a spot [and] stay there until we cue them to do something different.”

Zak 34 and Justin Wright won their first major title in the Futurity Open at the Southwest Reined Cow Horse Association Pre-Futurity. They later won the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Open Championship. • Fletch Photo.

When Zak 34 competes in age-restricted ropings, he’ll be scored on how he completes different aspects of a roping run. That’s different from the rodeo or jackpot roping events familiar to a wider horse audience, which have no judges and winners are determined strictly on time.

In judged roping, heading horses like Zak 34 receive scores for how they behave in the box and break from the barrier, running to and rating off the steer, how they set and handle the roped steer and how they face around at the end of a run when the header and heeler both pull the rope tight. Points also are awarded for degree of difficulty and eye appeal.

In the box, horses should walk in quietly, be alert and calm.

“When the gates open and then we give them their head to go, [they should] leave right with our hand — smooth and forward,” Holcomb explained.

The rate and run score demonstrates how well the horse tracks the cow to allow the roper to throw his loop.

“It’s how the horse runs to the cow—- the speed and how they get to them— and then how they back off and rate in the spot that we want to rope,” he said.

The set and handle comes in the moments after the steer is roped and the head horse is pulling the steer in a position for the heeler to throw his loop.

They will really want a horse to be elevated in the front end and kind of collected in their hind end in a good kind of powerful frame where they can get control that steer and then handle it for the heeler to heel them,” Holcomb said.

The final part of the run is facing, where the horse turns around to face the heeler and complete the run — all while keeping the rope tight.

“You want to kind of keep going and keep that rope tight,” Holcomb said. “And, then, then the horse [should] come around real clean and fluid and, face kind of real straight in line with the steer and the heeler.”

Roping on the Rise

The fact that Zak 34 is training for roping at all is the result of not only his own athleticism and trainability, but also a change in the way roping is viewed outside the discipline.

In years past, horses that went into roping from the Western performance horse industry were animals that didn’t cut the mustard in cutting, reining or reined cow horse. Barrel horse trainers also often sought out western performance horses that weren’t making it in a show pen.

“It was more of a way to get rid of a horse that wasn’t working out than anything else,” Holcomb explained.

“They’d be like, ‘Let’s rope on it and sell it or something’,” he went on.

Years ago, Holcomb said, no one would have thought to take an NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity champion to the roping pen. However, attitudes have changed due to the amount of money available in futurity ropings and big jackpot events.

“We just got back in Vegas, and the amount of money that that someone’s able to win in Vegas [at the World Series of Team Roping Finale] makes it worth it for them to spend more on a horse,” he said. “So, in turn, more good horses are going into the roping.”

It’s difficult to quantify how much money is in the roping industry, because many of the largest jackpot ropings only track purse money by riders, not horses. However, the growing roping horse futurity industry has embraced tracking and reporting horse earnings, and many age-restricted ropings, including the Gold Buckle Futurity, also have accompanying stallion incentive programs.

While any horse can enter the Gold Buckle Futurity, only offspring by enrolled stallions are eligible for incentive money. Woody Be Tuff, the sire of Zak 34, is one of many Western performance horse stallions whose owners enrolled them in the program.

The long list of Western performance horse stallions whose offspring are eligible include venerable sires such as EquiStat Elite $65 Sire Metallic Cat and many of his high-performing sons, the late $54 Million Sire Dual Rey and EquiStat Elite $7 Million Sire Bet Hesa Cat. The list also includes younger Western performance horse stallions like 2023 freshman sires CR Gotcha Covered and Dual Reyish.

Zak 34’s Future

Zak 34 will always be special to the owners as a reminder of his namesake and Fischer’s late son, Seth, whose nickname was Zak. Regardless of what the stallion achieves in roping, Fischer will be grateful.

“I want him to do as well as he can do. And, whatever that is, it is. Take take home a title or two and we’re done,” she said. “I’m not gonna sit there and run his legs off. I’m not going to do that, because when he’s done I want him to be sound and enjoy life. And so if he can bring home a couple of wins [in roping] and prove himself out there, that’s good.”