Since day one, Vicki Christensen O’Shieles’s life has been immersed in rodeo, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. From growing up helping her […]
6 Over 60: Judy Wagner
Written by: Lily Landreth< Back to Articles
“A woman who knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up,” says Mae West. It’s a concept that Judy Wagner takes seriously, whose background in ranching and owning Gator Ropes for ten years gave her an affinity for the lithe and useful tool. Just as she relies on its strength to catch a steer or a loose calf, Judy relies on certain strands of the Western lifestyle to put her best boot forward in her family, in her work as the Chief Marketing Officer for Montana Silversmiths, and in the rodeo community at large.
Born in 1953 in Avon, Montana, Judy was the oldest of eight children and a handy cowgirl as soon as she could walk. By the time she finished high school, she had 14 years of 4-H under her belt and an entrepreneurial outlook. “The cows don’t know it’s Christmas, and it’s that simple and that complicated. But if you take care of your responsibilities, and work from those values and what you learn as a kid growing up on a ranch—or in sports or other teamwork—that eventually sets the foundation for you as you go into your work life.”
A marketing degree wasn’t common in college at that time, so Judy studied home economics and child development, then took a job as a county extension agent for Teton County. Her husband, Alvin Wagner, whom she met in college, was a sales representative in the western industry, and he helped Judy as she entered into a partnership with another family to create Gator Ropes in 1988.
“I went to a business class two years after starting Gator Ropes, and I remember thinking I’d be scared to death now if I had known all of that just starting out. I just jumped in because it was my passion and I didn’t know you couldn’t succeed,” says Judy. “I’m thankful for the people at that time like Jake Barnes, Clay O’Brien Cooper, and Speed Williams who gave endorsements, and the people who helped me with advertising or questions with the business. With the other rope companies back then, we were friends more than competitors, and we sharpened each other like steel on steel. I think I earned the respect of the industry because they saw the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to own a business. Because for me, business is personal and I want to create something of value. I used what I call WIT, whatever it takes, to get the jobs done.
“I love to speak and tell stories, and one goes back to the creation of the rope and the threads that bind us. And that’s how I look at marketing or the world, because in this industry or this country, we are stronger when we are together.” One of Judy’s strands, which comes from the term she coined, Ranch Grown Logic, is keeping your eyes on the goal. “I was helping my brother at his ranch gather heifers and steers, and I was riding a younger horse. We had to cross a ditch, but it practically turned into a ravine because he just didn’t want to cross it. Thankfully my brother saw I was struggling and came back, and he said, ‘Judy, look up.’ And for me, that was exactly it. You must look where you want to go, and when you do that, you release everything. If I get stuck now, I look up and see where I need to go.”
Another strand in Judy’s rope of life is what she calls “getting your cowgirl on.” She met a woman near her age one year at the PBR Finals in Las Vegas and was impressed with her spiritedness, especially after learning the woman had recovered from a stroke, coma, and six months recovery on her couch. “In her own way, she was telling me, ‘Get your cowgirl on.’ It gave me so much strength and courage, and for me, wearing a cowboy hat helps me get to peak performance. It brings me pride in and out of the arena and gives me strength.”
Judy is also passionate about passing that encouragement and strength along to others, inspired by another one of what she calls divine appointments. “I was fortunate enough to be a side walker for a handicapped lady. I was walking beside her and she was riding a big bay horse. She kept talking to it, and when she got done, she reached down and put her arms around his neck and said, ‘Good job, cowboy.’ Her voice rings still in my ears today. I try to pass that on now, like in my social media posts. I want to encourage people to keep going, keep riding, and keep making a difference. We need help and relationships, and in this sport, we know we can ask for help. That gives us the strength to be courageous no matter what lies ahead of us.”
Judy feels another important strand in life is to continue dreaming, always. “It doesn’t matter how old you are—never stop dreaming. We each have a season, and whatever that is, we can break the trail for our time. For the women in this group of 6 Over 60, this is our time to break ground in our season. We can celebrate each other in and out of the arena and create those strong ties. We are stronger together, and as we tie these strands together, what we give comes back tenfold. We couldn’t do it without each other.”
In 1998, Judy sold Gator Ropes back to her original partners and tried her hand at freelance marketing, while she also helped establish an all-girl rodeo team in Helena, Montana, and several other rodeo teams in her area. In 1990, she won the John Justin Boots Standard of the West award for the Rocky Mountain All Girl Team, a pre rodeo event for the Last Chance Stampede in Helena. In 2000, she had her second job interview ever and started working for Montana Silversmiths. Judy is now marking 20 years with the company, and was promoted to Chief Marketing Officer in January of 2022.
She and her husband Alvin continue to make their home in Park City, Montana. Their two children, Tiffany and Ross, both carry on the family love of the West. Tiffany trains horses, and Ross and his wife Casey own Big Time Barrel Racing Championships and Wagner Performance Horses. Judy loves to team rope and won WPRA Heading Rookie of the Year in 2014 at the age of 60. She also competes in the Wrangler Team Roping Championships and National Team Roping. “A year and a half ago, I became a grandmother to Westee Rein, and she and my family are the light of my life,” says Judy. “Life now is about quality time with them, work-life balance, and appreciating the moments with faith, family, and friends.”