At an age when many men are contemplating retirement, Delmar Smith was just beginning a new job. Thirty-three years ago, the Oklahoma cowboy, who turned 91 in July, cracked the chutes at the Lazy E Arena’s very first Timed Event Championship, and he’s been its gateman ever since. From his vantage point—a comfortably padded chair perched above the chutes—he’s seen thousands of animals and hundreds of cowboys make their way across the storied arena. And spryer than men a fraction his age, Smith still shimmies up the panels to his throne without assistance.

During his three decades as the TEC’s chute master and his lifetime’s work as a horse and bird dog trainer (for which he has received international acclaim), Smith has learned a thing a two about what makes a champion. And he’s able to distill the secret into a few words: “They have the want-to.”

Smith is talking about grit, try, and passion. More than talent and luck, a champion requires the type of drive and desire that will motivate him (or her) to practice until it’s dark—and then keep going, to constantly override the urge to quit when things get tough—mentally or physically, and be willing to sacrifice time and sweat—all in pursuit of seeing what they’re truly capable of.

“Whether they win or not, all the cowboys who make the Timed Event are champions,” he says. “They’re champions because this is what they’ve wanted and worked for. Take Trevor Brazile. Ever since he was knee-high he wanted to be a world champion. Or Marcus Theriot—that’s all he’s got on his mind. Or Clay Smith—you can see it in his eyes. All these boys have the ‘want-to.’”

In his 90 years, Smith has seen a lot of changes to the cowboy way of life. Among them, “the ropes sure are better…we used to go through a lot of rope,” and “the boys stay in nice rigs instead of camping out,” and of course, “they’re paid a lot more these days.” One thing has remained unchanged though: the heart of the cowboy.

“If you get down to the guts of these boys,” he says, “they’re not after the money. They’re after what they can do.”

It’s the cowboy’s love for the sport and Smith’s love for the cowboys and their animals that keeps him coming back to the Timed Event year after year. It isn’t for the fat paycheck. Smith doesn’t get paid.

“Nope, I don’t get paid,” he says “Not in dollars anways. I’m going to school here. I get to read the steer, read the horse, and read the cowboy. And in the next few seconds, they make their run and I know if I’ve read them right or not. I’ve been a trainer of dogs and horses, and learning to read them is very very important. It’s important with people too. That’s why I do this. I never miss an opportunity to learn.”

Being a perpetual student is one of Smith’s tricks to longevity and happiness. A cowboy philosopher in his own right, Smith has many other pearls of wisdom to share:

“Take a note from the animals. There’s only one animal that lies, and that’s a human. The horse, the steer, the dog, they will always tell you what they’re going to do. It’s your job to pay attention. If you get bit or kicked or run over, it’s your own fault.

“Respect all living things. Certainly respect people, but you have to respect the animals. The only way animals know how to act is fair. So you better treat them fair.”

More than anything, though, Smith lives by a code of leaving folks with a smile.

“Leave every being you encounter happy,” he says. “Leave people smiling, dogs wagging their tails, and horses with their ears perked.”

Work for it as hard as you want it, keep learning, pay attention, respect animals, and leave all living things better than you found them. Excellent life lessons all, from a man who truly knows the secret. 

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