Gwatneys return to Gooding every year to help produce a great event
GOODING, Idaho – The first time John Gwatney arrived in this southern Idaho hamlet, he was a professional rodeo cowboy, wrestling steers and making his way across the country trying to eek out a living.
That was nearly 30 years ago, and many things have changed. He no longer wrestles large farm animals; instead, he assists those that do and others that compete in the other events rodeo has to offer as a production supervisor.
He’s a husband, a father and a grandfather and one of the most sought-after men at his position in the sport, and he travels this crazy rodeo world with his wife, Sandy, a longtime horsewoman, a timer and a two-time PRCA Secretary of the Year.
Each August, they return to this town of 3,500 people to help produce the Gooding Pro Rodeo, set for Thursday, Aug. 18-Saturday, Aug. 20, with a special “Beauty and the Beast” performance set for Wednesday, Aug. 17. All performances take place at 8 p.m. at Andy James Arena.
“The thing about Gooding is that it’s a small-town rodeo that wants to grow and get even bigger,” said John Gwatney, who has been asked to be part of a production team at the National Finals Rodeo, National Circuit Finals Rodeo, Clem McSpadden National Finals Steer Roping and many other big-time events. “The town’s not going to get any bigger, but the town’s going to support this rodeo, and they want it to get bigger.
“They keep adding (local) money (to the purse) as they can. For a little county, all the money the rodeo makes goes back into this rodeo to make it that much better. People come from all over just to watch the rodeo. The population is about 3,500, and the stands seat about that many, and the rodeo is sold out for four nights. It’s pretty cool when your rodeo is sold out even before you start.”
The Gwatneys began working the Gooding Pro Rodeo a decade ago, when fair and rodeo manager Don Gill reached out looking for a rodeo secretary and talked to the couple about making its way to Idaho. When Gill found out that John Gwatney also had a schedule opening, he jumped at having a top-end production assistant on board. The Gwatneys have been returning to Gooding ever since.
They work dozens of performances a year, but working Gooding is one of their favorites for good reason.
“They have a big influence on Tough Enough to Wear Pink, and they have a luncheon for good causes,” said Sandy Gwatney, who has timed the NFR and been a rodeo secretary at the steer roping finals among many other accomplishments in her lifetime. “They want to do better for the community and for the rodeo world.”
She and her husband have seen it up close. While John Gwatney handles about any production need Gill and the other organizers may have, Sandy Gwatney is the official organizer for the competition side of the rodeo. She’s one of the first faces contestants see once they arrive at the arena. She is on site well before the event starts and after it ends.
She is the primary liaison between the rodeo and the PRCA offices in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and she’s very good at her job.
“The contestants love it there,” she said. “They know they’re looked after. They have hospitality for the contestants, and there’s a great area for warmups. The contestants know the ground is going to be right for them.”
It’s also a bit of an old-home week. The Gwatneys used to live and compete in the Northwest, with John bulldogging and Sandy hazing, helping keep the steers in line for her husband and other steer wrestler. They now live in southeast Texas. Their return to Idaho is a chance to catch up with old friends. They also get to work with some incredible people during their weeklong stay in Gooding.
“Everybody’s so easy, great to work with,” Sandy Gwatney said. “Everybody’s open to try to make everything better instead of being stagnant with what they’ve been doing. If you suggest something to them that may make the rodeo better, they just respond with, ‘That’s worth a try.’
“They just want to continue to get better. That makes it fun.”
From adding a VIP area next to the bucking chutes to enlarging the announcer’s stand to increasing the seating capacity, Gill and his crew have done all the right things to make their rodeo stand out. It’s a winning situation for fans and the contestants that make their way to town every summer.
“Don Gill is a rock star,” Sandy Gwatney said. “He’s the heart and soul of this rodeo.”
That’s a statement about a man, but it’s also a commentary for the community that supports Gill and the rodeo he produces.
“Don’s goal is to have the greatest rodeo he can,” John Gwatney said. “There are people that turn out of the (championship) round in Caldwell because Don has the good stock contractors and tries to get the best animals in the business. He doesn’t settle for mediocrity.
“Don’s become a brother to me. His family is our family.”
While they’re working the rodeo and busy with their duties, both Gwatneys pay particular attention to the goings-on around the arena and around town during rodeo week. They’ve watched the crowd and the “beer worthy” section just grow year after year, and John Gwatney does his part to help out when he can.
“There are a couple of women in the stands that started doing it and holding up the ‘beer worthy’ signs if something happens and they think it’s beer worthy,” he said. “I provide the ice chest. They fill it with cups of beer and offer the beer to whoever they think is beer worthy. My job is to make sure (the contestants) get their beer and get out of the arena.”
It adds to the distinct flavor that is the Gooding Pro Rodeo. Combined with top-name contestants in every event and three premier stock contractors providing their best bucking horses and bulls, the big crowd is witness to an outstanding rodeo for four straight nights in August.
“Caldwell used to be the thing during that week of rodeo, but now Gooding is added in there,” John Gwatney said. “That says a lot about what they’ve done in Gooding.”