Cinch endorsee is the man behind the scenes of PRCA’s top stock contractor
Heath Stewart didn’t have to dream of being a cowboy like most boys.
He was born into it, the son of a ranching and rodeo cowboy named Butch Stewart, who, with his wife, Brenda, raised their two children around grasslands and pastures. Heath and older sister Carissa were horseback early in life, working cattle herds and moving livestock from one pen to another.
It is the family business. Butch Stewart was the son of a ranch manager who managed ranches himself, holding posts from middle America to the East Coast. The family moved around a bit as the kids grew, a piece of the ranching puzzle, but it shaped them into the rodeo fit they have today.
Heath Stewart is the rodeo manager for Frontier Rodeo, but there’s so much more to the job. In essence, he is the operation’s chief … in charge of everything from the massive ranch near Freedom, Oklahoma, in the state’s northwest corner to the outfit’s work at rodeos across North America, from Arcadia, Florida, to Lehi, Utah.
And everything he does now is just a reflection of how he spent his younger days on the ranch and traveling with his dad to rodeos as a tiny tot. He’s a third-generation ranch manager, after all.
“My parents were very instrumental in what I’m doing now,” said Stewart, 45, now married to his wife, Shay, and a dad of three. “I grew up in rodeo. It’s pretty much what I grew up to love and the only thing I knew how to do.”
He tried his hand at competing, but it wasn’t quite the fit as it was his old man, who was a top hand half a century ago while competing in the IRA, a professional association now called the International Professional Rodeo Association and based in Oklahoma City. Butch Stewart also worked for the IPRA, first as a field rep and later as its interim executive director.
Management, it seems, was a much better direction for Heath, and he wears it well. A Cinch endorsee, Stewart is a recognizable face of Frontier Rodeo; he is outfitted with jeans and shirts by the Western clothier, and it shows on TV as much as any cowboy in the game.
Frontier is owned by Texan Jerry Nelson, the man behind the magic that entertains rodeo fans in Cody, Wyoming, and Dodge City, Kansas. Heath Stewart began working for Nelson in the late 1990s, when Nelson produced several bull ridings in the Northeast.
“I got my start with him taking a load of bulls,” Stewart said of Nelson. “I helped him a few times at the bull ridings, and I just stayed and have been there ever since.’
Ever since might be more like a lifetime, because the partnership has been beyond beneficial to both men. Over the last six ProRodeo seasons, no other livestock producer has been better. Frontier Rodeo is the reigning six-time PRCA Stock Contractor of the Year, a vote of confidence made by the association’s membership.
“Winning that is a great feeling,” he said. “There are so many great contractors out there. To win it once is awesome; to win it six times … it just makes you feel proud of yourself. Honestly, though, the reason we got six is because we’ve got a great crew.
“It’s not me. It’s not you. It’s the whole crew together. That’s what makes us good. I try to hire good personnel … guys feeding, guys driving trucks. That’s why we are so good. They care about what we’re doing as much as I care about what we’re doing.”
What they’re doing is setting a precedent as to what it means to be a high-quality rodeo producer in this day and age. Stewart and his staff excel at every aspect, and they’ve developed long-term relationships with the people that hire Frontier Rodeo. It’s a process that’s been proven over time, but there’s so much more to it than the connections made.
This is, after all, a rodeo, complete with fast horses and steers and bucking animals. And, oh, does Frontier Rodeo have some athletic bucking beasts, horses like Medicine Woman, a four-time PRCA Saddle Bronc of the Year that was the runner-up on three other occasions, and Full Baggage, a two-time Bareback Horse of the Year and a three-time reserve champion.
Much of the herd dates back a couple of decades, when Nelson acquired the means necessary to build a foundation that has become what it is today.
“Harry Vold used to have a sale, and he had some old mares there, and Jerry and (Dan) Mundorf bought them,” Stewart said. “It all started with those 10 mares from Harry’s. Dusty Gal was the mother to Dusty Dan and Bobby Joe Skoal. We got her, and she had one colt, then she died when the colt was 3 weeks old. He was a stud colt, and we kept him a stud.
“His name is Big Medicine, and that’s where we started our breeding program.”
Big Medicine has sired greatness, and the program has thrived. He fathered Medicine Woman and Maple Leaf, the 2013 bronc of the year, and so many other incredible bucking machines. That includes Gun Fire, a rising star in the game. Already this season, the buckskin mare has guided Tilden Hooper to a $100,000 victory at RFD-TV’s The American and was a big part of the equation behind Tim O’Connell’s world record-tying, 94-point ride at the Riggin’ Rally in April.
“From the first day we started her, she bucked,” Stewart said. “I’ve got a couple full sisters and brothers to her, and four of them have crippled themselves because they just buck so hard.
“The thing about her is, if you stub you’re toe, she’s going to buck a guy off, but for the most part, she’s pretty rider-friendly. She’s not the most rider-friendly, because she bucks so hard, but she’ll sure enough get you the points.”
The process of raising bucking horses varies from one contractor to another, but Frontier’s method seems to work. They breed bucking studs to bucking mares. When the colts turn 4, they are taken to Goodwell, Oklahoma, and bucked during the Deke Latham Memorial Bronc Riding School. Afterward, they return to the home pasture.
As they mature, the opportunities grow. By the time they’re six, they’ll be hauled to rodeos across the country.
“We work with them quite a bit, just handling them, because we want them to be gentle,” he said. “A wild horse will just end up hurting themselves. The gentle ones just ease around and don’t get crippled. The calmer you keep them, the better they will buck.”
Stewart understands horses and reads livestock well. He also dresses for success, thanks to Cinch, but there’s more to it than just being outfitted with jeans and shirts.
“Cinch is great to my family and me,” he said. “Anytime I need something, I just have to make a call and they give. They’re very polite when you see them. From the owner to all the management and staff, when they see you, you feel like best friends.
“What they do for me and my family is just outstanding.”
It’s befitting for a man of Stewart’s stature, though he remains humble and caring of others. It’s the way he was raised and the way he and Shay are raising their own. It’s why he and Nelson are in business together and why his dad is now part of the Frontier Rodeo operation.
“He works there every day, and when we’re gone, he takes care of everything for us,” Stewart said. “I’m glad to have him around.”