Milligan returns to top form in a Big Time way with new horsepower
There were points in the 2021 ProRodeo season that Cinch endorsee Tyler Milligan was just miserable.
After two straight National Finals Rodeo qualifications in 2019-20, good fortune seemed to be avoiding the handy tie-down roper. Some of it was mental, he admitted; some of it was just circumstantial. There are tremendous challenges that come while competing among the very best in the game.
“Last year was definitely one of the lowest of my roping career,” said Milligan, 25, from the rugged ranching community of Pawhuska in the Oklahoma Osage country. “I didn’t have a horse. I was mounting out (on others’ horses). I didn’t have any confidence. I just struggled.”
There were several things that played into it, but one held the most significance. In November 2020, just as he was preparing to compete at his second straight NFR, his horse, Big Time, died after a bout with colic.
Milligan was a bit lost. Big Time was the two-time PRCA Tie-Down Roping Horse of the Year and had guided Milligan to the 2017 Resistol Rookie of the Year award. He also placed the roper – now living in Stephenville, Texas – in solid positioning for three straight years. In addition to his two NFRs, Milligan just missed the championship in 2018, finishing 18th on the money list; only the top 15 on the money list at the end of the regular season advance to Las Vegas.
While Big Time helped Milligan to two go-round wins in 2019, the standout sorrel gelding wasn’t around for his run at the 2020 NFR at its one-time home in Arlington, Texas. Milligan still placed in three go-rounds and finished in the money in the 10-run aggregate race, but it wasn’t the same.
He knew things needed to change, but he wasn’t sure how to make it happen. He’d been looking for the right fit in a partner that could deliver the goods and finally found one in Tequila, another red rocket he acquired in mid-March.
“I got a new horse, and that’s been the difference,” Milligan said. “He fits me. He is the closest fit since Big Time. I got him during Austin (Texas). I actually just got him. I tried him, then rode him and won the first round in Austin on him, so I bought him and took him to Houston.”
It was a Texas three-step for Mulligan and Tequila, which he bought from fellow tie-down roper Ryan Thibodeaux. From that time forward, the two collected nearly $4,000 in Austin, finished second at RodeoHouston ($27,750) and shared the win in San Angelo ($17,364). As of April 25, Milligan had defined his own rags-to-richest story, moving from 46th on the money list at the end of the 2021 to fourth in the world standings this season.
In just a few months, he has more than doubled his income from a year ago and still has five months remaining in the 2020 regular season.
“Just getting a horse that I could trust and get along with changed everything,” he said of Tequila, a 17-year-old sorrel gelding. “The biggest thing is mainly the confidence of having one I know I get along with. That helps your confidence a whole bunch.
“He’s probably got a couple more years in him. I’ve got to ride him at the right places. I’m always looking for horses. You’ve got to be mounted to beat these guys, because everybody ropes so good.”
Being well-mounted is something Milligan has known about since he was a youngster. He was raised on a ranch between Pawhuska and Bartlesville – basically, he was primarily north of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city – and definitely among the rangelands in the Osage Nation.
Homeschooled on the ranch, he helped around the place doing whatever needed to be done.
“It was 20 miles to town on dirt roads, so we didn’t go to town a whole lot,” he said. “Living out there, I liked to rope, and my parents helped me out; they definitely did really good by me. If I put the work in practicing, they would take me to every junior rodeo. We went through junior rodeoing and kept on going.”
While his dad handled things round the ranch and kept an eye on his talented son, Steve Milligan had never really competed in rodeo. Mom, Tammy, didn’t either, though she enjoys riding horses and even making runs on a barrel racing pattern. Tyler is the first of his family to do so. His mom – a dermatologist – was the hardest on him, he said, and even got him out of his comfort zone while competing in rodeo as a youngster.
“My mom made me tie goats all the time,” Milligan said, still sounding a bit embarrassed by it. “Looking back on it, I’m fortunate because it taught me some things I still use now, but I hated doing it when I was a kid.”
He still has his folks, who are now divorced, but he doesn’t see either of them as much now that he’s living in Texas. Tammy is the type that prays for her son, while Steve will be the one who would drop what he’s doing to help Tyler if the occasion were to come up. Milligan also has a family on the road, as rodeo cowboys do, in traveling partner Hunter Herrin, an 11-time NFR qualifier.
“Hunter knows what’s going on and helps in so many different ways,” Milligan said. “I always try to go with somebody who knows more than I do. When I first went out on the road, I went with Trent Creager, Caddo Lewallen and Timber Moore. I’m still trying to figure out what to do.
“I try to learn as much as I can, because before long I’m going to have to do it myself.”
As with every man who has saddled a horse for competition, he has gold buckle dreams and plans to do this for years to come. He wants to be at an elite level as long as he possibly can.
“Winning the gold buckle is so hard to do, because there are lots of guys that rope so good,” he said. “You have to have stuff go your way, and you have to keep trying … especially at the finals.”
Milligan kicked off his ProRodeo career in 2017 and was named the top rookie. A year later, his season was highlighted by a $56,000 victory at RodeoHouston. He’s made the NFR twice and has won rounds there, but his greatest accomplishment came just a few weeks ago at a rodeo he didn’t even win.
“My biggest accomplishment was finishing second at Houston this year,” Milligan said. “I won it in ’18, but before the final four-round this year, I got a little emotional. At one point in time, I lost all my confidence and thought I’d never be back in that position again.
“Even though I didn’t win, it was the most-proud I’ve been.”