ABOUT JERRY NELSON’S FRONTIER RODEO CO.
Go 16 miles north of Mooreland on Highway 50, turn west on County Road EW23 and you might come in view of a hundred or so horses grazing in a pasture. Then you might wonder where they came from.
Some 7000 acres of the land in that area is home for approximately 300 head of bucking horses, mares and colts, 80 or so bucking bulls and breeding stock; 300 head of roping steers and probably 100 head of bulldogging steers. It is headquarters for Jerry Nelson’s Frontier Rodeo Company, established in 1991, and now one of the world’s largest rodeo stock contractors.
Of course, you can’t see all the animals in one place. We had the privilege of riding around the ranch with Foreman Heath Stewart and saw some of the best bucking horses and bulls in the world, including Medicine Woman, three time World Champion Saddle Bronc of the Year.
It took more than an hour to make the tour and meet some of the ranch hands who work with Stewart. It was impressive and Stewart was very gracious to take time out of his busy day showing us around.
Stewart said he and his ranch hands often put in 20-21 hour days during the rodeo season when stock is on the road. During the peak rodeo season and summer months, extra hands come in to help with the daily chores of feeding and tending to all the livestock, clearing the land, mending fences, maintaining the corrals and equipment, etc.
All ages of livestock are on the ranch. We saw mares with foal, yearlings,two and three-year-olds and horses which were almost ready to hit the rodeo circuit. Then there was the “active stock”, which included many of the top bucking horses in the world.
Same with the bulls. There were the seasoned rodeo bulls and young bulls which were awaiting their turn to take on the rodeo cowboys. There were also roping and bulldogging steers, some active and some waiting to become “rodeo ready.”
Like any entertaining business, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes activities which must take place before the show can go on.
Frontier Rodeo Company was “born” in 1991 during a meeting with Jerry Nelson and a rodeo friend. Though it was a meager beginning, Nelson’s love for rodeo drove him to later become owner of one of the largest rodeo contracting businesses in the country.
Nelson didn’t have a goal of making a lot of money, or to achieve fame with this venture. He loved rodeo, especially bulls, and was determined to make the sport better than it was. And he did just that!
In the early 1990s he purchased 50 acres of land near Hamshire, TX, and constructed a rodeo arena. In 1992 he invested in a bucking bull and traveled the rodeo circuit with him for a few years.
Frontier Rodeo Company quickly grew and branched out in the mid-1990s when Nelson began forming a staff. He soon acquired land in the gypsum hills south of Freedom.
Nelson was familiar with northwest Oklahoma through his acquaintance with Dan Mundorf, a rancher/rodeo stock producer in the Alva area. Nelson had a desire to purchase land in the Freedom area for expansion of his rodeo stock company. He liked the country.
“It seemed like a good place to raise horses and it was the type of land we were looking for,” Nelson said.
He purchased the first piece of property in 1997 and has been buying land in the area ever since, the latest being in January. Today the Frontier Rodeo Company owns 5000 acres and leases approximately 2,000 more acres.
Frontier contracts rodeo stock throughout the United States from Florida to Utah. The company’s latest awards and honors came in 2015 when it was named PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) Stock Contractor of the Year and produced the Saddle Bronc of the Year (Medicine Woman), and Reserve World Champion Bareback Horse of the Year (Full Baggage).
Medicine Woman and Full Baggage earned the same awards in 2014. Medicine Woman was recently name the 2016 PRCA Saddle Bronc of the Year.
In the 2012 National Finals, Frontier Rodeo Company became the first PRCA stock contractor to have the top bareback horse in the National Finals four years in a row and in 2011 the company was first to win both bareback and saddle bronc Horse of the Year awards in the same year.
Numerous other awards have been earned by the company’s horses and bulls. And, yes, the early bull herd included Jerry’s first bull, Tough Enough, who had been “retired.”
Nelson, 60, and wife, Beverly, have been married 40 years and have two children, Candice and Jerry III, and four grandchildren, who he lists as one of his favorite hobbies, along with basketball, rodeo, bulls and horses.
Nelson remains industrious and enjoys 12 to 14 hours workdays with the rodeo stock contracting and other business ventures, including Elise’s Playhouse Fun Center in Winnie, TX, and , Jerry’s Hill Country Backyard Music Hall and Wood Fire Grill in Beaumont, TX.
The Hill Country Backyard Music Hall & Wood Fire Grill features some of the largest entertainers in the country along with being a top notch restaurant.
Nelson got his start in the oil business when he was 18 and still maintains that business along with his son in Winnie, TX.
While Frontier Rodeo Company, based out of Winnie and Freedom, is owned by Nelson, two other men are an important part of success and growth of the company. They are former world champion bull rider Donnie Gay, general manager, and Heath Stewart, rodeo manager and Freedom ranch foreman.
Stewart is in charge of the entire Freedom operation, including all event contract negotiations. Basically, runs the rodeo company.
“I take care of everything on the ranch,” Stewart said. “I run the rodeo company. I get the rodeos, I deal with the committees. I make sure everything gets to the rodeos; and I put the rodeos on. Pretty much all of it.”
While he is in charge, Stewart said “One man can’t do it.” He credits the work of his ranch hands who are “more like family” who make sure the operation stays fluent. The livestock must be tended to seven days a week, 365 days a year. There is no “day off” in the business.
Stewart lives on the ranch 18 miles north of Mooreland with his family, wife, Shay, and his three children, Chase, Brooke, and Jade. Chase will be attending NWOSU in Alva, OK and the girls are students in the Mooreland school system. Chase is listed on the company website as one of several in charge of the livestock operation.
The ranch corrals and an elaborate country home constructed by Heath and his ranch hands using native cedar cut from nearby canyons are located just off State Highway 50, 17 miles northeast of Mooreland. There are five full time employees on the ranch in addition to Stewart, two of them living in the cedar house.
Frontier Rodeo Company is revered by many as THE premier stock contractor in the United States, which has produced many of the most recent award winning bucking horses and bulls.
Stewart has had a working relationship with Nelson since about 1997 when he worked as a ranch associate. He was named rodeo manager and ranch foreman of the Freedom operation about that time because of his intense knowledge of bucking horses and bulls.
Over the next 18 years Stewart has put together one of the best bucking horse and bull breeding programs in the country with livestock winning numerous awards in the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) and PBR (Professional Bull Riders).
Frontier and Stewart began their horse herd with 20 mares purchased from a line of retired NFR bucking mares. That happened around 1998 on leased land at the Freedom location.
After several years of experimenting and adding in bloodlines from top stallions in the country, Stewart has developed a bloodline like no other, with many of these being some the top animals more than once.
He began his bull herd about the same time with some of the best Brahma stock. Through breeding with some of the top bucking bloodlines, Stewart has improved the quality and performance of his bulls, which are second to none in the world.
Stewart was born in Lake Charles, LA, and soon moved with his family to Oklahoma City, where his mother and father worked. He went to school several years at Collinsville near Tulsa, but graduated from high school in North Carolina.
Heath has always been involved in the rodeo industry. His father, Butch Stewart, was IPRA (International Professional Rodeo Association) World Champion Bareback Rider and later was a managing staff member for the association.
Butch Stewart is one of the “ranch family” living on the ranch with his wife just a hundred or so yards from Heath and his family. Butch usually remains on the ranch while others are on the road rodeoing, which happens most of the year.
Heath says Frontier stocks rodeos nearly year-round, especially from June to the end of October and then from January through May. Behind the scenes, it takes five semis and a pickup with a goose-neck trailer to move all the stock to each rodeo.
Heath Stewart became acquainted with Jerry Nelson shortly after he graduated from high school in 1994. While most of his work has been at the Freedom location, he also helped with the operation in Texas before all the stock was moved.
When asked about Nelson, Stewart said, “Jerry has been great to me since the day I met him. He treats us like we are his own family. He’s great to be around, a good hard time guy. He’ll help anybody out of any kind of situation as long as they’re good to him. Just a great upstanding fella.”
Stewart also spoke highly of Gay. “Donnie and I have become good friends. He is great around people and great around the sport of rodeo.”
Stewart said Gay is the type of guy who will sit and talk to strangers on the street if they want to talk.
“He just treats everybody the same,”Stewart said. “He’s great with people. He’s a good kind of fella. Donnie’s a heck of a pilot too. He’s flown planes his whole life.”
Donnie Gay is an eight-time PRCA champion bull rider. Born in 1953 to Neal Gay and Evelyn “Cookie” Foster, he was only a few months old when his mother died of Leukemia. Neal then married Kay Nichols and she raised Donnie and older brother Pete as her own. Neil and Kay also had a son, Jim.
Donnie grew up in Mesquite, TX, and started rodeoing at the age of six. Rodeoing was in his blood. His father was a well-known rodeo competitor and rodeo producer.
Not only was Donnie an eight time professional bull riding champion, he was inducted into Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1979. His father was inducted in 1993, becoming the only father/son to receive the honor together. Don retired from professional rodeo in 1989.
In about 1996/97 Gay took notice of the quality of bulls that Frontier Rodeo produced and later signed on to endorse and work for the company.
“It was kind of an interesting evolution,” Gay said when asked about how he decided to go to work for Jerry Nelson and his rodeo company. “I was doing all the television on the PBR and Jerry wound up bringing bulls, and the bad boys stuff of bulls; he had gotten into, not really the rodeo business, but the bull business. I was pretty impressed with what he brought to the table as far as livestock is concerned.
“He started producing a lot of the PBR events and he hired me to come and co-announce and do what I do on television live at the arenas and doing promotions on some of the bull riders; doing that on an individual contract basis.
“He knew all about the rodeo business, and about me, and we got acquainted and basically became friends before I actually went to work for him full time.”
It wasn’t until after he left the PBR in 2000 that Gay went to work for Nelson full time.
“I went to work for Jerry full time because (1) I needed a job, and (2) he had bought into a couple of partnership deals with the rodeo and he wanted the rodeo deal to work. I have been in it all my life and he thought I would be a good choice. I told him ‘I don’t know if I can make you any money, but I know I can make it pay for itself.’ We started from that premise, and it has been a pretty good relationship for the last 15/16 years.”
Gay has been quoted elsewhere saying, “Frontier Rodeo Company is the only one I’d put my name on because they’re not in it for anything but to make the sport the best it can be. You just don’t see that anymore today.”
In 2007 Gay was inducted into the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame along with Pete and Jim. Donnie now does television rodeo and bull riding commentary for PRCA events on Fox Sports and Great American Country.
Gay first met Heath Stewart in about 2000 at a bull riding in Houston, TX, and they flew down to Arcadia, FL, to do a rodeo. At the time Heath was working with Dan Mundorf, who was Jerry’s partner.
“He (Heath) struck me as a guy who really would work. He worked for Mundorfs and that group. He managed that performance (in Arcadia) that afternoon in the heat and then I knew he was tough after that and we knew he was going to be a good hand, but had no idea just what kind of guy he really was.
“He was raised in the rodeo business much like I was. His dad was a world champion and president of the IRA. He knows as much about rodeo as I do and there’s not a lot of people that have been involved with every single aspect of rodeo, from customer relations all the way to cleaning stalls. Heath Stewart is all of that and his eye for livestock and the breeding…this has been kind of an evolution over the last 12-13 years, really is something and borderline incredible.
Gay continued, “Heath Stewart has got what most people either think they have or at least some aspire to have. He’s got the personality that I don’t think there’s anybody…I’ve never seen anybody that doesn’t like him. Just that personality. The guys that work for him…they have the feeling that they work with him more than for him. Nothing gets left undone and everybody’s got a smile on their face at the end of the day. You know, that’s pretty unusual, especially in today’s I/me climate. He’s a pretty special individual.
“I know pretty much of or about nearly everybody in the professional rodeo business and I can tell you that there’s…I’ve never really seen one that is more suited to running a ranch, rodeo company, breeding program, in a rodeo setting. I don’t know anybody any better.
“You know, I used to think I was probably the best in priority because I thought I knew everything, but from watching Heath work and doing some of the same things I grew up doing, he really knows how to get it done and everybody around him enjoys working with him because one guy can’t do it all.”
Gay then turned his thoughts to Jerry Nelson. “We’re pretty fortunate that Jerry recognized us because he’s ah…I want to do a commercial you know…Jerry Nelson does not drink DOS EQUIS, but he IS the most interesting man in the world, I promise you that. The guy is absolutely incredible.
“Not blowing smoke, but I’ve been around some, Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan; Ive been acquainted and around a lot of really special people and I don’t think I’ve ever been as enlightened…being around Jerry Nelson, because just about the time you think you really understand him…you know, man he just surprises you the very next minute. He can multi-task better than anybody I’ve ever seen.
“Frontier Rodeo Company is as well put together as any company in the history of the business. It just keeps growing. I’m amazed…I used to could tell you every good horse and every good bull on the planet, but I can’t tell you all of the horses and all of the bulls that we have right on the ranch at Freedom and I should, but I’m not there enough. But we could put on the first three performances of the NFR and nobody would know the difference with the caliber of livestock and the depth that we have. That’s the difference between us and anybody else where you don’t have to argue about individual animals. Our 40th horse is good enough to be at the National Finals Rodeo. And no one can say that but us.”
With Gay and Stewart, Nelson has put together an outstanding team to run his company. Blue Jeanes, four time Bull Fighter of the Year by the Cowboys Professional Associations. He also won Texas Extreme Bulls, televised by GAC Network, and semi-finals qualifier in the American at Mesquite, TX. And, Terri Gay, timer; Jen Jeanes, timer; Kent Magnuson, pilot; Rex Bugbee and Ryan Bestol, pick-up men; Naudy Expisito, Shawn Whitaker, John Patterson, Chase Finnell, Denton Mars and Butch Stewart, livestock.
The success of any large company can be attributed to the working staff and the Frontier Rodeo Company staff is second to none. Tribute that to Jerry Nelson and his love for rodeo; foresight that he saw when the business was in its infancy; fortitude to maintain and build the business, and realization that you need people with knowledge and knowhow to continually make the business better.
With the staff and workers which have been assembled, Frontier Rodeo Company will no doubt continue to provide what the cowboys want…the best bucking stock anywhere.
By Tim Schnhoebelen