Right now, according to the U.S. Census, around half of the citizenry receives some sort of government benefit.
Cowboys, by and large, are not among them.
Jeff Decker and his wife, Jenna, along with their two young children, Sterling and Stoney, are a ranching family in Tatum, N.M., who’ve had more than their fair share of bumps in the road. The cowboy community, though, has come along in a variety of ways to offer a hand up, not a hand out, and, in turn, the Deckers are finding ways to give right back.
In 2005, Jeff was training cutting horses with an eye toward expanding into full-time ranching when disaster struck. The day after Jenna informed him she was pregnant with their first child, fires began raging across the Texas Panhandle and into eastern New Mexico.
“That burned my whole place up,” Decker says, though his house was spared. “Me and an old family friend were fighting the fire here at the house when the wind changed and I fell off the spray rig. The long and short of it is I wound up spending a month in the burn unit of the ICU.”
With second- and third-degree burns on 36 percent of his body, Jeff was unable to ride the clients’ horses in his barn. Nor could he bill them for training. A couple months out of commission can spell ruin for a horse trainer.
Shannon Hall, 1999 National Cutting Horse Futurity Champion, stepped in to help.
“Shannon took the 20 head I had at the barn but had the owners send the training fee to me,” Decker says.
Others stepped up, too, including some of Jeff’s mentors, local horse associations, friends, and other cowboy charities. Before long, he was back in the saddle and looking to repay his friends however he could.
“I don’t like taking anything from anybody,” he says. “What meant more than anything, though, was knowing that somebody gives a dern.”
Had Decker’s hard luck cowboy story ended there, it would have been remarkable enough. But it didn’t. In 2013, the Decker family had an even more horrific scare.
By this time, Jeff and Jenna had added Sterling, 6, and Stoney, 4, to their family. His dreams of ranching for a living had come to fruition and he was only riding a few outside horses.
It was October, and friends and neighbors had come to help wean calves. As with most ranching families, the entire brood pitched in, including young Sterling.
“He rode like a Comanche,” Jeff says of his young son. “He’d been showing at some cuttings—he was a riding booger.”
When a calf broke from the herd, Sterling went at a run to head him off. As he did, he shook loose from his horse and was hanging on the side by the saddle horn, with one foot still in the stirrup. The horse loped around to where Jeff was, and when he was about 15 feet from him, Sterling lost his grip on the horn.
“We were right by the pens and it was rock-hard caliche,” Jeff says. “It might as well have been cement. When his head hit, it sounded like a gun going off. When I got to him, he was dead. Blood was coming out of his ears and one eye was open and one wasn’t. He wasn’t moving around or anything, it was just over.”
Jeff immediately began CPR while Jenna called for an ambulance. They care-flighted Sterling to Lubbock, Texas.
“We didn’t expect for him to live through the trip, or the next day or the day after that,” Jeff says. “We were just waiting for him to die. It was just bad.”
But Sterling fought. And day by day he improved. Still, he had a long road to recovery. After two weeks in intensive care, he was moved to in-patient therapy on his seventh birthday, where he had to re-learn everything from swallowing and eating to walking and talking.
“Sterling was one of Jeff’s main motivations for living and fighting for recovery after the fire,” Jenna says. “And then when Sterling’s life-threatening accident happened, Jeff never left his side. He kept telling ‘Pard’ to work hard so he could get back to the ranch and his horses. Sterling truly worked hard every second, and was a kind and respectful patient. His first whispered words were, ‘Yes ma’am’ to a nurse while he was still unable to talk.”
Three days after Christmas, Sterling came home. This past fall, he went back to first grade at Tatum Elementary where he’s earning straight As.
“His short-term memory lacks a little bit right now and he carries his left arm a little funny, but it gets better all the time,” Jeff says. “I made a bet with him the other day that he couldn’t rope the dummy 10 times in a row and he did. He just keeps gaining. He’s not fully recovered, but he’s on his way to a full recovery.”
Again, friends and neighbors came to the family’s aid. New Mexico artists Gary Morton and Curtis Fort organized a benefit at Joe’s Boot Shop in Clovis, N.M., and The Panhandle Cutting Horse Association and Palo Duro Cutting Horse Club made contributions, as did the Working Ranch Cowboys Foundation, of which Morton is president.
“We were really fortunate and people raised a lot of money for us,” Jeff says. “You don’t know what that means until you’re in a situation where you’re losing your kid. To see so many people who care means a lot to a fella. There’s no way in the world you can pay them back.”
But Jeff and Jenna were going to try. They, along with neighbors Niki Henard and Adana Green, organized a Christmas dinner, dance, and auction in Hobbs, N.M., with all the proceeds benefiting the Working Ranch Cowboys Foundation.
While most fans of the Western way of life recognize the Working Ranch Cowboys Association as the group that puts on the annual ranch rodeo championship in Amarillo, few understand that the entire impetus of the association was to raise funds to help full-time cowboys who have suffered some sort of tragedy.
“They’ve been there twice for us and thank God they were,” Jeff says. “That Christmas party and dance was a way to let people know they’re out there and what they do for ranch people and cowboys, but also raise some money for them.”
That’s cowboy integrity. But Jeff and Jenna don’t look at it as if they specifically owed the WRCF—or anybody who helped them out—an equal dollar return on investment. Rather, they saw themselves as folks who needed help through a rough patch. Now on the other side of it, they more fully realize how much that help meant.
“It is well known that cowboys have each others back,” Morton points out. “It was very encouraging to watch the cowboy clan come together and make this fundraiser a success. Jeff and Jenna spent countless hours working to make it happen, other folks donated and purchased auction items. The reward will be to perpetuate a helping hand for someone else.”
“I feel like it’s our responsibility to help,” Jeff says. “It just seems like the right thing to do. I knew it wasn’t expected, but I could do it. Not everybody can, and that’s OK. If I couldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have any trouble sleeping at night. We could help, so we did.”
Editor’s note: The WRCF seeks to help the ranching community in crisis. Their primary source of funds is their World Championship Ranch Rodeo. However, they rely heavily on memberships as well. American Cowboy magazine has partnered with the WRCA to raise awareness of the WRCF’s mission. If you would like to help them support working cowboys in times of crisis, become a member by visiting theirwebsite.