Luke Jones, riding mare Tommy Boon, ropes a calf at the NRCHA World’s Greatest Horseman competition. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Duquette/National Reined Cow Horse Association
BEFORE 2017, ALLERTON NATIVE HAD NOT FINISHED HIGHER THAN 12TH IN WORLD’S GREATEST HORSEMAN COMPETITION
On Feb. 18, in the same stadium where Luke Jones once suffered a potentially career ending injury, the Allerton native reached the pinnacle of his profession. At the Will Rogers Equestrian Center in Fort Worth, Texas, Jones won Reserve Champion in the NRCHA World’s Greatest Horseman competition. It is the World Series of riding. His wife Erin jumped the fence after both events—in 2005 after Jones fractured his leg, and this year for a much better reason.
“When it was over, she jumped over the wall and came running across the arena,” Jones said. “She was in tears.
“In that same arena, 12 years prior, I roped my calf. When I stepped off and starting running down the rope, I broke my leg and tore my ACL, and she jumped over the wall and ran out to save me.”
After surgery and seven screws for a tibial plateau fracture, the future of Jones’ career appeared bleak.
“When they looked at it in Fort Worth, they said I’d never ride a horse again, and I’d probably walk with a cane,” Jones said. “I was fortunate to find an orthopedic surgeon in Wichita, Kan. who primarily works on rodeo cowboys.
“I went to Wichita and had surgery, and he said, ‘You’ll be back on a horse in three months—roping calves in six.’ And he was exactly right.”
While Jones is a veteran to the Fort Worth event, much of the credit goes to his mare Tommy Boon, one of 36 horses in this year’s field. Jones had shown at the World’s Greatest Horseman five other times, but he had never ridden the same horse twice. Tommy Boon was a rookie.
“I’d sure like to ride [her] again,” Jones said. “We’ve been training her all along for this point. I’ve had some really good horses that I believed in, but we’ve had some bad luck here and there at that particular event.”
Like her rider, Tommy Boon has struggled through injury. As a three-year-old she got hurt and was out of competition for several months.
“She came back as a four-year-old and just kept getting better,” Jones said.
As in any sport, luck is the X-factor.
“This year, it worked in our favor,” Jones said.
There were four events in Fort Worth: cutting, reining, steer stopping and fence work.
“It’s one horse, one rider, Jones said. “You have to do all four events on one horse. You have to use the same bridle.
“It’s pretty much the best-of-the-best of horses and riders. There’s a substantial entry fee, so you only get the very top horses. Anyone can pick out anything they want to ride, so everyone gets out their big guns. There are horses in there that have won a couple hundred thousand dollars in the cow-horse. There are guys that are million dollar riders in there. The competition’s very stiff. It’s a wide open field.”
Tommy Boon, who will be six-years-old this year, was the youngest horse in the arena.
“For me, that was special,” Jones said. “She’s a horse I bought with another customer as a yearling, so I’ve had her through everything—I’ve done all the training on her. She’s also been successful in the roping. She’s got a heart of gold.”
Tommy Boon was also fourth at the 2016 AQHA World Championship Show in the superhorse competition.
“She’s a special mare to be that competitive in the roping and that competitive in the Reigned Cow Horse as well,” Jones said.
Just prior to Fort Worth, Jones showed her at the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo in Rapid City, S.D. They won both a calf-roping contest and a four-event competition similar to what they would soon be facing at Fort Worth. It was excellent preparation, but also demonstrated Tommy Boon’s versatility.
Before Fort Worth, Tommy Boon had already won over $30,000. She almost equaled that at the World’s Greatest Horseman, earning $24,500. It also increased her value as a broodmare.
“She’s only been in the bridle a month before this competition,” Jones said. “Being able to ride a horse one-handed in a bridle—it’s an art. It’s tougher than a guy thinks.”
A TEAM EFFORT
Jones is proud of a large pit crew that helps him out in every aspect of competition. There are too many assistants, employees and mentors to name. Some are Wayne County natives. They travel with Jones throughout the year, not just to Fort Worth.
“It’s not all about me,” Jones said. “I can’t take all the credit for it. I’ve got great support. You’ve got to have a really good team behind you.”
Part of that team is Border Collie Buster, who on a 65-degree February morning in southern Iowa jumped on the couch in Jones’ office and laid his head and one muddy paw on a smartphone.
After the preliminary rounds at the World’s Greatest Horseman competition, 10 riders make it to the finals with a clean slate. This year, prelims ran from Feb. 13 to Feb. 15. Before 2017, the best Jones had finished was 12th. He had never made the finals, let alone led the competition going into the last event. He was also facing the most competitors entered within the last several seasons.
“It’s a grueling event, especially on final day,” Jones said, “because we do all four events pretty much back-to-back on the horse. For the prelims, we’ll do an event a day, so they have a little more time in between. It gets to be very, very hectic.”
Part of success in the arena rests on the psychological outlook of the rider. Jones trains alone in the quiet of the Iowa countryside, and the crowd at Fort Worth can get loud. There are around 20,000 spectators roaring in unison.
“It’s so tough just to keep the horses sound mentally and physically through the whole event,” Jones said. “For yourself as a competitor, the mental side is strenuous, just because it’s such an up-and-down event. You can win one event, and then not do well in the next event. You’re down in the standings, and it’s just up-and-down a lot of times.
“With the quality of riders and horses in there, there is absolutely no room for error. It can be intimidating, for sure, when you ride in there.
“I’ve shown for so many years and tried to learn how to channel that. You really have to be focused on what you’re doing, and block that out. When you ride into that arena, you have to block out those people watching you and focus on what you’re doing, and that takes time.
“To show horses and be competitive, there’s a huge side of being able to control your nerves and your emotions. For me, I feel nerves can be a good thing if you channel them right. Nerves can be a bad thing if you let them overtake what you’re doing. Controlling that is key.
“On the other hand, talking to a lot of my peers that have shown forever, they say, ‘if you don’t have nerves, you’d probably just as well quit.’ If you’re nervous, it means you want it.”
In the prelims, Jones had the high score for steer stopping.
“For me, this year, I was real steady though the go-rounds,” Jones said. “The steer stopping helped me tremendously—boosted me into the finals. But then in the finals, the mare just kept getting better and better in each event.
“The guy that won it is from Canada. He beat me right at the end. I was leading it right up until the very end.
“For me, it’s huge,” Jones said of his second place finish. “It’s very satisfying to reach a goal you’ve been working for—it’s definitely a sense of accomplishment for me. Not only to help my business—it’s huge for that part of it. The national recognition from it, too. The title speaks for itself. On a national level, it puts you out there.
“I’ve done really well at national events, this isn’t the only one, but this event—the people that were there—the stands were completely sold out. Standing room only. The crowd was so into it. It was so loud when you’re trying to show for the fence work. Being in front of that stage and doing that well in front of that many people is really cool.”
Jones graduated from Wayne Community High School in 1998. His great-uncle is one of the most successful people in Iowa, Allerton native Bill Knapp.
“He’s a very interesting man,” Jones said of his great-uncle. “It’s amazing where he came from, growing up right here around the corner. Actually, his wife shows some horses, so I see her at horse shows probably more than I see him.”
Jones started training in high school on his parents’ farm south of Allerton. He is the son of Jim and Nancy Jones. His nieces, Alex and Elie Joe, have also made names for themselves riding horses. In 2015, Elie Joe was named rookie of the year for Iowa junior high rodeo.
Jones trained all the horses he rode as a teenager, winning six Iowa High School State Championships. He went to college on a full rodeo scholarship. He attended Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College for equine science and graduated from Missouri Valley College with a business management degree, where he also met his wife.
“When I graduated from college, I had some clientele built up,” Jones said. “I didn’t have any college debt, and I saved my money riding and shoeing horses. I was able to buy my first six-horse trailer and put a down payment to build this barn. I built this arena, and here we are today.”
Jones’ arena, the locus of his business and training, sits just south of his parents’ home. While he has traveled the country and the world for competition, he remains a resident of Wayne County.
“I have clients from East Coast to West Coast and everywhere in between,” Jones said. He has trained horses from California to Florida. Sometimes he does not even meet his clients—only their horses. “There are very few states I haven’t had a client. I’ve had some customers I’ve rode for for several years that have never been to my place, because they ship the horses in and out. It has to be a really good trust between you and them. They see the results at the horse shows.”
Luke and Erin have three sons, Will, 12, Cort, eight, and Lane, five. The boys are all involved in youth rodeo. First cousins Will and Elie Joe travel to junior high rodeos together.
“That’s what they enjoy doing,” Jones said. “I don’t want to push them towards that. I want them to want to do it.”
Erin is a barrel racer and keeps the books for her husband’s business. In high school, Erin was a two-time Missouri State Champion in barrel racing.
“It’s in our family,” Jones said.
Because of Jones’ hectic travel schedule, the couple homeschools their boys, which takes most of Erin’s time and attention. Jones praises Wayne’s accommodation to homeschool parents.
“They actually have a teacher over there just designated for homeschool kids,” Jones said.
His boys will play sports for the Falcons.
“They go over to the school a couple days a week and take some classes, and make sure they’re where they need to be,” Jones said. “They can also go to PE and recess. I keep them involved in sports as well so they still have the social aspect. They know every kid over there. My boys are actually very outgoing.”
Occasionally, Erin sits in the grandstands and helps the boys with their homework while her husband is getting ready to ride.
“There’s no doubt about it, I’m extremely blessed to be able to do something I love,” Jones said. “And to be able to make a living at it. And really, in an area in Iowa that’s not necessarily known for what I do. I’m the only person from Iowa that’s done that well in the World’s Greatest Horseman.”
The Oklahoma and Texas region is considered the epicenter of rodeo and horse riding.
“That’s the hub of it,” Jones said. “So I’m outside of that area, but the neat thing is I’m still drawing horses from that area up here.”
In some ways, Jones’ location is a boon to his business. He has cornered the market in the Midwest.
“There are horse trainers around every corner,” Jones said of Oklahoma and Texas. “Here, I’m a little bit more isolated. I’ve had opportunities to move, but I have everything I need here to train horses. I’ve got a good supply of cattle. We’ve got a lot of land—I can put up my own hay. There are maybe times I have to travel a little farther.
“Where I’m at, when somebody stops to buy a horse, they’re pretty darn serious. That part of it is an advantage.
“It’s home. We’ve got so many family and friends, and a great church community. It’d be hard for me to leave.”
The Jones family attends Allerton Presbyterian Church, where Luke attended Sunday school as a boy, and where Melanie Halferty has taken over for Ross Blount as minister. Ross and Lorena Blount were mentors to Luke and his older sister Leslie.
“Luke Jones was always very active in our Sunday school at Allerton,” Lorena said. “He’s a person of very deep faith. It’s our privilege to be part of the same church.”
When Luke attended Wayne, Lorena was his Talented and Gifted instructor. She still plays piano at their church and helps put on the annual play at the Allerton Centennial Building.
“And that’s a neat deal what they’ve done,” Jones said of the 34th annual Allerton play. “That’s just incredible it’s stayed that long. It’s amazing how good that play is. It’s extremely professional. I was in three when I was in high school, but my mom’s been in most of them, so as a kid I used to run around up there during practice.”
Family and friends, the school system, and community events organized by locals keep Jones anchored to Wayne County.
“I travel all over,” Jones said. “When you’re in these big cities, man, it’s not for me. I like country living.”
As well, Jones grew up just north of 3,500-acre Trail’s End, founded in 1857 when Thomas Richardson migrated to Wayne County from Kentucky’s hill country. Ironically, Thomas’ father David Richardson of Maryland served under the county’s namesake, Revolutionary War General Mad Anthony Wayne.
“I love being down at Trail’s End,” Jones said. “I would miss that. The original house and barn are still there, and we still use it. It’s a real historic place. Part of that land has never been tilled—it’s still original sod. It’s where I first started training before I had the barn built here.”
Jones’ great-grandmother, which is Bill Knapp’s mother Anna, immigrated in 1923 as a 20-year-old to America from France. She couldn’t speak a word of English.
“She came over on the boat,” Jones said. “Her name is on Ellis Island.”
Almost a century later, one of Anna’s offspring is a Des Moines real estate mogul and renowned philanthropist, while another child—farther down her line from Ellis Island—is the most successful cowboy to ride a horse out of Iowa.
As Lorena Blount could testify, that is what Wayne’s Talented and Gifted program is all about.