Rodeo Is Our Family

Aug 6, 2021

Rodeo Is Our Family

John Barnes, Wrangler NFRâ Livestock Superintendent, comes from prime stock himself, as his family has lived and breathed rodeo for generations

John Barnes, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Livestock Superintendent for the last decade, could moonlight as the official spokesperson for the sport of rodeo and the NFR.

His passion—and excitement—was clear in his voice as he shared memories and other NFR insights for this edition of the Behind the Chutes blog.

Barnes comes by rodeo naturally, having grown up at the knee of the legendary stock contractor Bob Barnes and under the watchful eye of his mother, Donita Barnes, who earned the first-ever PRCA lifetime achievement award, given posthumously in 2011. Today, the award carries her name. As for Bob, his stock was part of the National Finals Rodeo from 1959 until his passing in 2013.

In rodeo terms, the Barnes family stock would be known as more than NFR-caliber.

“The most important thing I learned from my father is that once you agree to do something, you do it,” said an emotional John near the end of our conversation. “It doesn’t matter how hard it is. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to do it; you just do it. The other thing he always told me is, ‘quality is the most important thing. Quality is so much more important than propaganda because people can sell you a bill of goods, but if it’s not the right quality, you’re wasting everybody’s time.’”

Barnes brings his father’s mindset to his extremely important role as Livestock Superintendent and has been doing so since 1985, when he was a feed man for the first time before spending a few years as a flank man. He took over as livestock manager in 2010 following several years as the assistant.

John Barnes keeps animals bucking at National Finals Rodeo

For about three weeks each year, among the stock that Barnes and his team are responsible for are 210 bucking horses, 100 bulls, 75 tie-down calves, 60 team roping steers, 60 steer wrestling steers, and various other elite animals used as part of the production.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I think about John Barnes is his total dedication and always putting the care of the livestock at the NFR above all else,” says NFR general manager Allen Rheinheimer. “John has a great deal of knowledge and is always thinking about how to improve the competition and keep an even playing field for each competitor.” 

John Barnes, in his words:

The single word that first comes to mind about the Wrangler NFR is excitement … the exciting part to me is to be part of something so top shelf. It’s one of a kind and there’s nothing else like it during the whole year. There’s not an event that matches this one. And for me to be a part of it, is just totally exciting.

The other part of that excitement is being able to work with the best stock that the contestants have chosen to compete on at the rodeo. To have the responsibility to take care of the livestock of 60 to 70 different companies, which is their livelihood, I don’t know how to be anything except excited. Sure, there’s a lot of pressure, but you know, a pearl is never made unless there’s some pressure.

Our work in Las Vegas for the NFR each year begins about 30 days before the competition. When I first arrive, we go to the intramural field at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus and we come up with a floor plan for the pens. Plus, we get prepared to bring in about six or seven semi loads of panels that we set up to house the livestock.

Once that is set up, the feed also comes in by the semi loads. We supply four different kinds of hay and then our grain comes in. And then we get our water source going.

Then soon after that, we start receiving livestock. Once the livestock gets there, the owners have zero responsibility. We feed them. We exercise them. If there’s any illness issues or soreness, we call the vet. The owners can come and look anytime they want. We have an open-door policy and have a trust established with the owners.

Then we tag the stock with NFR numbers, the state brand inspector checks brand papers and health papers, and then the official NFR veterinarian makes sure they’re healthy and ready for competition.

When the rodeo starts, we grain in the morning, we exercise, we sort midday, then rodeo that night. Then we start all over to the next day. Once the livestock gets to Las Vegas and it gets unloaded, we have a pair of eyes on them 24 hours a day. They’re never left alone.

This is a total team effort and Ryan Brown and has been my assistant all the years I have been there. He does a great job. He’s from Wyoming and was a PRCA bullfighter for many years, but now he’s a rancher. We have four guys that are on horseback and their job is to exercise animals every day. They also move the talent back and forth from the arena to the pens. We also have four guys on the feed crew and we have an over night watchman. We also have a vet on call 24 hours a day. Desert Pines Equine in Las Vegas is the official NFR veterinarian. Anytime we need them, their team is there.

My goal as livestock superintendent is that we are ready when the stock contactors are bringing their animals in to drop off that we stay on top of our game and we stay ahead of any issues that may occur. We spend most of our time during the off season of NFR planning for the “what ifs.” My goal is to make sure we’ve been open-minded enough to have all of those “what ifs” taken care of. We also want every animal to go back home in as good as shape, or maybe better, than when we got them. And the last thing is, I want to make sure that the contestants have a fair opportunity to compete on the animals that we are taking care of during the competition.

We provide all of the feed that the animals use at the rodeo, and we have six different kinds of grains available from a national feed source. The owners fill out a feed sheet once we know what animals are coming to let us know what they like to be fed. We also offer four different kinds of hay. So, if you’re from Florida, you can get the same feed as you do at home. If you’re from Montana, you get your feed you get at home. These animals get used to what they eat, so we make sure during the NFR there’s not any transitional time. Once they get to Las Vegas, we want to make sure that it’s a smooth transition from what they’re used to eating to what they’re going to eat while they’re at the NFR.

There are two big challenges we face each year … the biggest challenge is that there’s 60 or 70 companies that come to town and it is our job to come up with a plan to care for the animals that consistently works for everybody involved. We know everybody has their own way of doing things, but we can’t do things 60 or 70 different ways. We have to do it one way. So, that’s why we listen and we come up with a game plan and then we adjust as needed.

But if we do something for one contractor, we want to be able to do it for all of them. So, we have to make sure there’s not any favoritism or that we don’t take more time for one person’s animals than we’ll do for another. The second challenge that I have is that when it’s time to make a change, there has to be a reason for it. We just don’t make a change to be making a change.

One of my most favorite moments every year is the first time we take an animal into the Thomas & Mack Center before the rodeo starts. We’ll take them up there to exercise. To see the arena ready and to feel the excitement that is about to happen within that arena in a few short days is really something special.

The other thing that’s exciting to me is we’re out in the back of the arena and that is where the stars come through before they sing or appear. I remember Charlie Daniels, whenever he would come to the rodeo, he would always talk to our crew on his way into the arena and on his way out of the arena. That was just so exciting to me that, here we are, the working people, but the stars still visit with us.

For most of us, the NFR is like a huge family reunion, but what’s also nice about it is that it’s where you create a lot of friendships. It’s amazing, but you might not have seen somebody for many years and all of a sudden, you’ll see them at the NFR and it’s like no time has passed.

One of my greatest NFR memories is that when I was just a youngster, I remember standing behind the chutes before the rodeo started and a bareback rider motioned to me to help him pull his rigging. And for 10 days, I pulled the gentleman’s rigging. I never said a word to him and he never said a word to me. But he ended up winning the world that year. His name was Eric Mouton. So, those are the fun stories that you have at the rodeo.

The best example I can use about how nice it is to have the NFR back in Las Vegas is that it’s like having a nice pair of Justin boots and you’ve had them for many years. They’re so comfortable, but you have to get new soles put on them, so you take them to the boot shop. And while they’re gone, you buy a new pair of boots, a nice new pair of boots, but you just can’t wait to get back to the ones who’ve been there forever. That’s what Las Vegas is … everything is right there for us. The hotels are available, the food is available and the other entertainment for the fans is available.

If I was writing this article, what would I absolutely have to include? That’s the toughest question I’ve ever had to answer in my whole life. I have to go back to how exciting it is. When you get to Las Vegas, you see how the whole town is behind the NFR. It’s covered on all the media networks. I mean the newspapers, the TV, the radio, everybody covers it. I want to make sure people understand that.

I also want people to understand that what they see for the two hours in the arena is nothing compared to all the work that’s happened the day before the perf. I don’t think people really understand–even people who put on rodeos of their own–what it takes to make this event go without a hitch. Not only is it planned down to the second, it is planned down to the inch inside the arena. When they set it up, it’s set up to within the inch and no other rodeo does it that way.

I remember one time Shawn Davis, who ran the NFR for many years, was part of the rehearsal for an opening. He stopped everything and took five minutes to change which way a gate swung open. You wouldn’t think that would make any difference, but after I watched him do it, I realized how important it was to make sure everything was looked at from every angle. The one thing that I’ve learned working with Mr. Davis was that people may not notice that you do the little things, but they will notice if you don’t do them.

Like I said before, the first word that comes to mind about the NFR is excited and that’s how I feel about working with Allen Rheinheimer. Allen is very qualified, he’s open-minded and easy to work with, but he’s not a doormat and you’re not going to run him over. He’s going to have everything top drawer and will do a great job. They couldn’t have picked a better person to be the new general manager.