Something happened to Rick Kieckhefer's karma upon qualifying for his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2002. In the past two years, the healthy and relatively fortunate roper from Prescott, Ariz., has inexplicably had to endure his share of horse and physical troubles.
He doesn't say he's snakebitten, but he could.
Late in the 2002 Wrangler NFR, his horse, Alto, suffered a fractured bone in his foot that required a cast and several months of rest.
The following spring, a horse borrowed from Jerome Schneeberger stepped on Kieckhefer's foot and ultimately broke the bone after being spooked during a specialty act at a rodeo in Auburn, Calif. Although the foot was healed by the summer, Kieckhefer wasn't the same for the rest of the year.
Then last March, Kieckhefer suffered another fluke injury this one to his right shoulder during a practice run the day before he was up at RodeoHouston. He ended up tearing more than two inches of cartilage in the shoulder, requiring surgery and forcing him to miss four months. Again, he wasn't the same when he returned, another year by the boards.
In 2002, Kieckhefer got the breaks. Now he can't avoid them.
"I'm just looking for one year without getting hurt," Kieckhefer said. "It's funny. You look back on the wrecks you've been in and you don't get hurt. Then I get my foot stepped on and then I pull the slack back in my rope, and it's all over. Before I made the NFR, I had never been hurt. I didn't think I could get hurt. I guess I thought I could walk on water."
His 2005 season has gotten off to an auspicious start, thanks to his aggregate victory at the Turquoise Circuit Finals Rodeo (Jan. 21-23) in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. Kieckhefer earned his third berth in the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo in March after roping and tying three calves in 30.9 seconds.
"My only chance at making Pocatello was winning the aggregate here," Kieckhefer said. "The DNCFR is a neat and one-of-a-kind rodeo that pays a lot of money. That's why I went to the circuit finals. I'm glad I did."
Thanks to two years cut short by injuries, Kieckhefer has earned just $35,000 since departing the Thomas & Mack Center in December 2002. In contrast, he bagged $77,029 during the 2002 season, highlighted by a $22,025 haul at the Summer Tour Finale in Dallas that punched his Wrangler NFR ticket.
Kieckhefer's first brush with bad luck came at the hand of Schneeberger's horse.
"It was a fluke deal," Kieckhefer said. "I was standing next to the horse talking to someone, and the horse stepped back on my foot. That was no big deal. They do that all the time. But when I tried to push him off, he turned, and when he did, he broke the bone on top of my foot."
Kieckhefer actually competed in that day's round and placed second but knew something was really wrong when he couldn't get his boot off.
Fully healed and ready to go for the 2004 season, Kieckhefer figured he'd get in a few practice runs before one of the season's most lucrative rodeos, RodeoHouston.
Again, enter a little more bad karma.
"I was running a calf on a friend's horse," Kieckhefer recalled. "I reached and roped, and I went down to get the slack. It was further in front of me than usual, but when I reached and got it, it put my shoulder in a bind. When I stepped off, something wasn't right.
That's because his shoulder came out of the socket after the cartilage tear. The injury required surgery by Dr. Tandy Freeman of the Justin SportsMedicine Team and Kieckhefer spent the next several months recuperating.
After both injuries, Kieckhefer admitted to coming back too soon. Where in some events a cowboy might be able to get by with body parts that aren't 100 percent, winning money in the physically demanding event of tie-down roping requires top health, especially feet and shoulders.
"I thought I was in decent shape both times, so I came back around the Fourth of July," Kieckhefer said. "It's so hard to rope when you're sore and try to push it. I wasn't winning much. You really need to be healthy, and I came back too soon."
Now that Kieckhefer has again tasted victory, he hopes he can parlay that into something bigger.
He just has to rediscover his good karma.