A premiere equine facility in the midst of Texas Horse Country
By: Mary Gallagher Williams
Denton Live July-Dec 2011
A wild-eyed steer darts out of the chute. Two cowboys on horseback kick up red dirt, gaining on him. Will Travis whirls a lasso, hooks the animal’s horns and turns him while the other cowboy lassos the back feet. As the steer staggers, the panting horses face each other and back up, stretching the steer’s hind legs. When the clock stops, the ropes go slack and the steer escapes. Will, looking satisfied with his performance in the team-roping competition, sits a little bit taller in the saddle and slowly gallops off.
Sitting in the arena watching are Bill and Dolores Burch, who traveled from their home in Newark, Texas, to see their two 20-year-old grandsons roping in this event. All around them are the sounds of competition: metal gates clanging as livestock move in and out of holding pens, a PA system announcing competitors’ names, horses snorting, cattle bellowing and timers buzzing. Space heaters stand like sentinels, keeping the spectators warm inside. “I started roping in 1982,” he says, looking at Dolores to confirm the year. Nearly 30 years of roping and at 79, the silver-haired grandfather is still at it. “Yeah, I’ve been roping all morning and I’m going to be roping in a minute,” he says, not looking exhausted at all.
While he talks, two younger women behind Dolores watch the action, waiting for their men to rope. A toddler plays in a portable crib next to one of the women. Nearby, boys toss a football while the Dal-Worth Appaloosa Horse Club sets up for its year-end banquet in a meeting room decorated “cowboy chic” with rustic wood and rusty corrugated walls.
The place? Not the stockyards in Fort Worth, but Denton. This is what Will Travis imagined when he opened his arena in Horse Country, northeast of downtown Denton: a premiere equine facility with broad appeal – a place for cowboys to compete and locals to hang out. Twelve years ago he’d never been on a horse, let alone roped cattle. But on a $100 bet made with a family member, he took a dare and roped in a small-town rodeo a year later. He got so addicted that the 48-year-old venture capitalist with graying temples bought the Diamond T Ranch & Arena in 2009. “We’re sitting here on a mecca that’s not even been tapped into,” says Will, a former Dallas police officer and DEA agent. “I love to team rope, but I also wanted to take [the arena] to another level and really bring something to Denton that’s never been brought here before.”
The arena is just one stop on the North Texas Horse Country Tours. The bus tours, organized four times a year by the Denton Convention & Visitor Bureau, are a revelation for out-of-towners who don’t realize Denton County has one of the largest concentration of horses in Texas as well as the nation – easily rivaling Kentucky. Where Kentucky breeds and trains thoroughbreds for racing, North Texas puts its money into breeding and training horses for roping, barrel racing and other competitive rodeo events. Will, with only a tad of Texas exaggeration, says the 60 miles around Denton hold “the largest concentration of equestrian facilities in the world. Not the U.S., but the world.”
Located along a stretch of FM 428 lined with a white rail fence, the 100-acre ranch and arena hosts everything from competition-level team roping to corporate parties and competitive dog trials. Today, Diamond T arena is hosting team roping, Will’s favorite. Trucks and horse trailers park in the grassy lot out front near the arena’s logo: a giant T in the shape of a Texas longhorn – a symbol of Will’s own Texas heritage. His uncle five generations before him was the legendary William Barret Travis, the commander who fought and died at the Battle of the Alamo.
The arena is busy most weekends. In addition to playing host to a World Series of Team Roping qualifier in 2010, the arena is the setting for the 2011 Roy Cooper World Championship Junior Calf Roping competition. The Original Team Roping Association also schedules competitions at the Diamond T throughout the year. The 110,000-square-foot facility is not limited to team roping, however: It holds bull-riding events as well as English dressage competitions that train horses in obedience and precision movements. Often all it takes is a $100 prize posted on Facebook for local riders to show up to rope in mini rodeos during corporate parties. Celebrities stop by, too: last winter country singer Jack Ingram and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles did a meet-and-greet at the ranch. “We’ve kind of branched out into some other things other than just equestrian,” Will says. Locals book the arena’s meeting room for Super Bowl parties, corporate events and even bridal showers.
The Diamond T is not just for partying, however. It’s a working cowboy facility. Will, not one for sitting in a plush office chair, can be found on Mondays, in a jogging suit and sneakers, cleaning the arena. The ranch grows its own hay and pumps its own groundwater. The only thing they buy is feed for the animals. Will’s worked at making the facility safe for the cowboys and spectators as well as the bulls and steers. After buying the arena, he made improvements such as re-welding all the joints on the arena’s fence, and adding Texas-made Priefert bull chutes. (Will points out their trademark glitter.) For the bull-riding side of the business, this is a must since a bull weighs between 1,800 to 2,200 pounds. “They’ll bang against [the fence] as hard as they can just to make a point that they’re badder than you,” Will chuckles, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners. “And they win.”
It’s a place for dreams, too. Just ask Halie Rhodes, a 17-year-old Aubrey High School junior, who always wanted to manage competitive barrel races. In the summer of 2010, Halie rode and trained horses for professional barrel racer Kendra Dickson’s company, Gold Buckle Barrel Horses. Last December she raised $4,000 in sponsorships for a charity event hosted by Gold Buckle at the Diamond T, which donated the arena for free. Since then, she’s been encouraged to start her own barrel racing events. While Diamond T has helped her, she says, “I’m helping them [produce income] by getting people out to see the arena.” Three of her events are on the Diamond T schedule for 2011.
Kendra, one of the top 20 money earners in 2010 on the Texas barrel-racing circuit for the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, was one of the first people to stop by when Will opened the arena. Living nearby, she saw the facility sitting empty and likes the changes taking place. A lifelong barrel racer, she says it’s a challenge for any horse enthusiast to find a place to ride and train that has public access. Though the mother of one has her own covered outdoor arena, she also rides at the Diamond T, especially during cold weather. “When they opened their doors it was a godsend,” she says. “[It] has the potential to not be just a diamond in Texas, but to attract attention nationally.”
Foreign visitors get an eyeful when they roll in with the North Texas Horse Country Tours. Often, they don’t understand the horse and rodeo mentality, but quickly come to love it, says Will. Dirk Webb, the Diamond T’s ranch manager, recalls the time a group from the Orient toured during a calf-roping event. “They were all cheering for the calves,” the 37-year-old says, laughing. “They were cheering for the calves that they wouldn’t get caught.”
With a capacity to hold 1,200 visitors, the arena hosts events that rotate 3,000 to 4,000 people in and out throughout a day. Often, however, it’s just the cowboys out practicing what they love. While a John Deere tractor pulls a huge rake through the arena dirt for the next round of competition, Bill, the 79-year-old roper, leans on the fence and shares his thoughts. He says the steers will be faster and the competition tougher against the higher-scoring ropers from the previous round. He ambles with a friend toward his palomino in the holding area to get ready for his next competition. As for Will, the investment-guru-turned-roper, he won that day. He’s won his bet many times over and Diamond T is the proof.
[just the facts]
What: Diamond T Ranch & Arena
Ride ’em cowboys: For 2011 events, including the Texas Stampede Team Roping Classic Series (Aug. 20), the Friesian Keuring (Sept. 23) and more, visit dentonlive.com.
Where: 6900 E. Sherman Drive
More info: (940) 484-6101 or diamondtranchandarena.com