Heath Sanders started riding horses at the age of four, fell in love with the rodeo and travels far and near competing in team roping.
Sanders, a cowboy who has won a lot of buckles and saddles for his team roping, loves the competition. On display with some of his buckles is a Cowboy Bible he also won.
When he was younger he rode the bulls but horses were always his love and he now competes in team roping. He also trains horses at his ranch in the rural community of Vail. He shares his knowledge and skills teaching young people the art of riding and roping. He especially enjoys watching the kids ride and learn.
It is a little slow in the winter but during the summer months he is busy training horses. He rides 20-22 horses every day. Sanders said horses need to be saddled every day.
"Horses have to be trained and it takes a lot of practice to be good in competition," Sanders said.
Sanders gave up the rodeo for seven years and started a pressure wash business.
"I have great employees who know what they are doing and it gives me the freedom to work with my horses through the week and travel on weekends to compete," Sanders said.
Sanders said the Good Lord has blessed him with his own business and good employees to take care of it.
He grinned when he said "money won is sweeter than money earned," but said it takes both to keep everything going.
Sanders has a gift for training horses.
"You have to let the horse teach you," he said. "Horses are all different. What works on one will not work on another. So you have to let the horse tell you. Horses are like children, you have to let them know you love them but there are boundaries they cannot cross. A horse wants a leader and if you don't lead, the horse will take over."
Sanders said he is not rough or abusive when training the animals. He is consistent.
"I've got to get up and go to work every day," he said. "My dog has to get up and go to work every day and I expect my horses to get up and work every day. We all work around here and we are all happy."
His son, H.D., is six years old and shares his dad's love of horses and riding.
In the summertime they have 22 or more horse with 40 head of steers. They rope and ride from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. some days.
They have competition on his ranch. They held a benefit roping competition earlier in the year and raised $6,000 for a local family.
"We had 500 teams from St. Louis to Georgia here for the competition," he said. "They camped here. We had a good time. Any time the word gets out of a benefit roping we have a much bigger turnout of competitors. Cowboys are very generous. It is like we have a sport of our own. We think of it as the Cowboy Way. If a competitor's horse comes up lame in competition, someone will let them use his horse. Sometimes we get beat by our own horses. We do work together."
Many young people come out to learn to ride and rope. The Sanders host family nights for kids to ride during the summer months. He said Cade Wilson and Michael Emery work with them.
"We only have one rule -- no whining on the Sanders' Ranch," Sanders said. "Cowboys don't whine. I will give them roping lessons and teach kids to ride. I have been asked how much I charge. I don't charge. I had a lot of good teachers and they did not charge me when I was learning. I don't have much to contribute to society except I will help anyone who wants to learn. I will help any kid who wants to learn to ride. If they don't have a horse, I will let them ride one of mine. I am still learning. I learn something new every day out there dealing with 20 horses."
He enjoys training horses but said a lot of times trainers get too much credit.
"We have to have something to work with," Sanders said. "Some horses can't do what other horses can. It doesn't make them bad horses, they are just not cut out for competition. We just have to find another job for them. Guys who own the good horses are the winners."
Sanders said there is always a rodeo somewhere. He competes in the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association and the US Team Roping Championship.
It keeps them busy and on the road. One trip he recalls took them from their home near Monette, to Hamilton Texas to Jackson, Tenn., to Monroe, La., back to Ashland, Miss., back to Jackson, Miss., and back to Monroe before going home.
"You drive maybe six hours, jump out, run one steer and go again," he said.
He has suffered a few injuries.
"Once I totaled it up and figured out I probably spent four years of my life in a cast," Sanders said. "Most of the time, nine out of 10 times, it was due to something I left out of my check list. We have an A to Z routine and you just can't skip any of it."
He said he has learned a lot from people like Bucky Fires and Gene Simpson.
Sanders hopes he will be able to rope a long time. He is 38 years old and has roped with men in their 70s.
Sanders said his wife, Kristie, is very supportive of his riding and enjoys the rodeo. She is a teacher at Buffalo Island Central.
"Wherever we go, it is like a big family," Sanders said. "The Good Lord has blessed us. I give Him all of the credit."
Sanders is looking forward to next year. He has plans to compete in Arizona and Oklahoma in January to start the new year.
"It is a great life to be able to do something you love," he said.