Rodeo Star, Ranching Roots

Bullet was Luke's high-school-rodeo steer wrestling horse. "He had a thyroid problem so he'd get really fat," laughed Luke. "I would have to rush home from school everyday and ride him up and down the sandy hills to keep him in shape."

AS EARLY morning fog begins to lift and swirl through the gnarled and clustered oaks that give central California ranchland its distinct majesty, the day's work begins. A tall, broad-shouldered young man joins his family as they gather cattle continuing the traditions of Rancho San Juan that began with its era as a Spanish land grant. Although Luke Branquinho is best known for flinging himself off a horse as he vies for pro-rodeo steer-wrestling dollars, someone more comfortable in the saddle would be hard to find. His earliest memories take place horseback as he learned the skills of riding and roping not for sport, but for the practical purposes of ranch life. While his schedule is filled with traveling and competing, whenever possible he returns to continue his role on the land his family has owned since the 1880's.

Becoming a hand

The demands of farming hay crops and a cow/calf operation that numbers in the many hundreds meant that everyone in the Branquinho family had to make a contribution. The seeds of a strong work ethic were sown early for Luke and his two brothers.

"The boys had to put in a half day's work when they were young. They could spend the other half on arena work, which was not required," explained Brandy.

She never dreamed that all three of her boys would take such an avid interest in competing, but they have each ventured into professional rodeo life. Luke and his brothers set the foundation for their rodeo careers guided by those solid ranch horses that build confidence and engrain passion for a horseback perspective of life.

"My first horse was a Palomino named Peter Paul," recalled Luke with affection. "I went everywhere on him and then learned to team rope on him. He was just an old ranch horse that had been passed on through the family. When I was about 7 years old my mom gave me her old head horse, CW, who I used for ranch work and to compete in gymkhana events. I rode him until I was about 10 or 11. He was so broke he'd just go out and do the same thing every time. I experienced what it was like to be on a horse that had some speed and could accomplish things."

The competitive spirit of this gifted horseman was awakened at these local gymkhana events where he followed in the footsteps of older brothers Tony and Casey, who alternately taught and teased him. His mom, Brandy, recalled how he would hang on the fence watching his brothers compete in calf tying before he was old enough to enter.

"He must have benefited from their mistakes because when he was finally ready to compete he won on his first try," she laughed.

Before he was even a teenager he graduated to riding colts.

"This helped me learn the feel of different horses. I had to learn horsemanship, how to use my legs and hands to teach the horse what I wanted from him. After awhile I could get on just about any horse and make use of him," he explained.

One of the first young horses he rode was the aptly named Ricky Rabbit.

"She was really quick and kind of spooky. The day after I rode her for the first time I couldn't move. I couldn't get out of bed or walk. I think she pulled every muscle in my body. It took two days for me to recover," he said.

Luke helps out at Rancho San Juan whenever his schedule permits. Ranch work and gymkhana events prepared Luke to venture into high school rodeo action. Since cutting is one of the events featured at this level his mom encouraged him to get an early start to experience the refined feel of this sport. He took lessons before he started high school from trainer Tom Shelley in nearby Santa Ynez.

"It took two years of Tommy yelling at me to 'wait, relax, let your horse do it,' before I figured it out. Even though I went on to do timed events in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, where you're not judged, I think the cutting I did helped me more than anything else. Relaxation is a factor even in timed events. The more you relax the more relaxed your horse will be and you can focus on your task," he observed.

Despite sparse practice in his other events Luke won the first round of calf roping his freshman year. This success brought awareness that if he really applied himself he could be pretty good in the rodeo world.

"I don't really know why, but about this time I took a liking to steer wrestling. My brother, Casey, had competed and went to some clinics to learn the basics which he passed on to me. It was hard to fit practicing in because of baseball and ranch responsibilities, but I was fortunate because our arena had lights. I would rush home from baseball and spend the evening practicing with my dad hazing for me," Luke recalled.

A summer of hard work and dedication paid off when he won the steer wrestling title in both his District and at the State Finals, and was qualified for the High School Rodeo National Finals his sophomore year.

His junior year proved pivotal to the development of, not only his career, but also his character. Luke dislocated his shoulder in October and then again playing baseball later in the year. With a choice between surgery and taking six months off, this fierce competitor opted to steer wrestle a week later with a resultant third injury. His operation was scheduled the following week. He was left without the activities he loved and lots of time to think.

"I was pretty down during my recovery, but I honestly think it helped me. It made me realize my goals and how much I wanted it," he reflected. "I also spent hours and hours watching videos of bulldogging and calf roping clinics to prepare for the day I could start again."

Even though he lost a year of competition, Luke returned with a renewed vision realized in his senior year when he won all-around honors in both his district and at the State Finals, and progressed to the national level in both steer wrestling and calf roping.

"I was confident that every time I nodded my head I knew exactly what I wanted and had to do," he recalled with well-deserved pride.

He even managed to fit in a win at the prestigious Santa Barbara Old Spanish Days Stock Horse Show and Rodeo in the Alisal Ranch horse class, where contestants must display cutting, penning and roping skills. He beat the best hands in three counties on yet another of his family's wonderful ranch horses, Chubby. This show is a family affair where his parents provide the cattle for the stock horse classes and everyone competes in some or all of the roping, calf branding and ranch horse events (Casey won the Alisal class in 1994 and '95) where they are always formidable contenders.

A Frightening Diagnosis

Luke's health challenges, however, were not over. After graduation he attended college in Coalinga, Calif., where, at his first collegiate rodeo, he fractured his right shoulder roping a calf (the dislocations were to his left shoulder). During his recovery he started losing weight, sleeping all the time and had impaired vision.

"I finally went to an urgent-care facility were they diagnosed me with diabetes. This was the low point of my life, but I was fortunate to have a good doctor who helped me understand how to manage it."

Although he was now insulin-dependent, Luke didn't let that stand in the way of his ambitions. He bought his pro permit and in his first rodeo he placed in the calf roping and won the steer wrestling in his second. In 2000 he bought his rookie card and started competing while taking college classes over the Internet. His accomplishments in the arena garnered him 2000 overall and seer wrestling PRCA Rookie of the Year honors (which is determined by money earned) while competing in both college and PRCA events. He missed going to the NFR by one spot.

The following year steady, consistent performance propelled 21-year-old Luke into third place in steer wrestling in the PRCA 2001 world standings and a fifth place finish in the average at the NFR. In a gesture that illustrates the close bonds in this family, Luke gave his Rookie and NRF rings to his father, John. They are proudly displayed on the family home fireplace mantle.

A win in May 2002 at the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour in Oklahoma secured Luke's berth for the USST Cup Finale, increasing his chances for a run at this year's NFR.

As much as he is enjoying the limelight, this young bulldogger looks back to his roots when he envisions his future.

"I want to focus on the steer wrestling for six to eight years and then start my own farming and ranching operation. I don't really want to be limping around any more than I already am as I get older," he added with an easy smile.

Luke is the epitome of western ideals, not only because of his love of family and devotion to the land, but also because of a tough, rugged spirit that endures in the face of adversity.

Rancho San Juan

Because of its importance through the generations, this historic ranch becomes a character in the family's story. The telling of its role takes on the feel of fiction. Brandy's great grandmother Katherine Den Bell formed a partnership with T.B. Bishop in the 1880s and they bought two ranches, The San Juan and the Laguna. The adjacent ranches spanned 10,000 acres. When their partnership dissolved Bell kept the San Juan and Bishop claimed the Laguna.

Rancho San Juan was named for San Juan Springs where people as far away as Los Angeles came to fill barrels with soft water. Tough times forced Bell to sell her ranch to Joe Fither in 1909.

Fortunately the family still owned a ranch near the coast called Los Armos where oil was discovered in 1930. With oil profits, Bell's daughter, Caroline Bell Luton and her husband, Dr. George Luton, were able to buy back the 5,000-acre Rancho San Juan in 1934 and give it as a gift to their son (and Brandy's father), William F. Luton. Brandy has written down much of the oral history recounted by her grandfather Luton which is full of colorful stories of traveling horseback through floods to treat patients, local horse races he rarely lost, and the local bar filled with Portuguese and Swiss ranchers celebrating rain.

In 1939 Bill Luton and his wife, Nancy, were able to purchase back the Laguna Ranch. They ran a cattle operation on the two properties for over 40 years and raised Brandy, her three sisters and one brother on this pristine landscape. Brandy and husband, John, bought the business in 1989 and lease the ranch from the family estate.

The Branquinho family is also active in the local equestrian community. Their arena is an important center for jackpot ropings and youth rodeo activities where western riding sports enthusiasts can practice keeping these traditions alive for future generations.

The author lives in Santa Ynez, Calif.