Profile: Johnny Salvo & Clay Acuna

by Lindsay King

[ If ever there was a match made in heaven, it was between Johnny Salvo and Clay Acuna during the World Series of Team Roping Finale XV in Las Vegas this last December. The pair grew up together in New Mexico junior rodeo, but life eventually led them both to team roping and, for several years in a row now, the World Series finale. ]


As a first-generation rodeo competitor, Johnny Salvo is no stranger to forging new paths in life. His dad, Bobby, taught him this lesson early and often.
“My dad grew up working on farms and just always liked cattle,” Salvo said. “He owned a construction company and was pretty successful at that, which allowed him to buy a ranch and fulfill his dream of raising cattle.”
At the tender age of 5, Salvo and his two older brothers – Dominic and Dylan – were moved to a ranch just outside of Horse Springs, New Mexico. Salvo describes it as the middle of nowhere, but perhaps the desolation was a driving force behind his desire to become a successful roper.
Much like Salvo, Acuna was raised around the very lifestyle that rodeo was born out of. With veterinarians as parents, Acuna was never short of horses or cattle at home. He first met Salvo through junior rodeos behind the calf roping chutes.
“My dad roped, so I grew up around it essentially,” Acuna said. “When I got to college in Las Cruces (New Mexico State University), I started team roping more.”

Young Man’s Game
“My brothers wanted to rope calves and my dad was buying bits from Greg Dutton at the time,” Salvo said. “In my opinion Greg is the best calf horse trainer there is. I was little when he started teaching my brothers, but he started me on the dummy.”
Salvo’s breadth as a roper is illustrated by his past success in the tie-down roping and his ability to swap ends. He won the calf roping at the CNFR in 2008 and 2011 and made the Turquoise Circuit Finals in both calf and team roping in years past.
Both Salvo and Acuna dabbled in calf roping with the PRCA and found their fair share of success in the event. But as life often does, the ropers were taken in different directions.
“I blew out my knee and I haven’t been able to rope calves since, so now I’m just an old team roper,” Acuna joked. “Calf roping is a fit, young man’s sport and you have to work at it a bunch. When you have a full-time job it’s a lot easier to go team rope.”
Acuna eventually found himself in Stephenville, Texas, arguably the team roping capital of the world. With several hundred miles from Salvo’s front door to Acuna’s, it would be easy for the dynamics of their roping partnership to be ravished by time.
They were given a unique opportunity to prove that wasn’t the case when both of their partners were unable to rope in the number 13 in Vegas.
Perfectly Orchestrated
“I originally qualified with Hayden Moore, but they raised both his number and mine,” Salvo said. “I’ve known Clay forever. He qualified with Bodie Baize but then they raised his number. I was actually already going to direct enter with Clay if I didn’t qualify, but everything lined up for us.”
Neither roper had seen the timed event box together for several years, but their individual practice clearly paid off.
“My girlfriend, Catherine Hisel, turned a lot of steers for me in the practice pen before we left,” Salvo explained. “Clay and I roped together once the day before the first round of the finale.”
Salvo left for Vegas a few days early to run extra steers in Wickenburg, Arizona. He found himself hitting a dry spell before running his first steer in the finale.
“I didn’t win a dime out there [Arizona],” Salvo said. “Oren Matthews let me practice on some of his jackpot steers when we got to Vegas, and I think that really helped. It was nice to not be roping for money and just relax a bit.”
When asked about his practice for the finale, Acuna quoted Proverbs 27: 17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Acuna sharpens his skills with some of the top professional ropers in the world who also live in Stephenville.
“If you’re the best guy in the pen, you’re probably not getting the most out of your practice,” Acuna said. “I get to rope with guys who are leaps and bounds better than I am almost daily, and they help me out a whole bunch.”

A borrowed horse and trailer were part of the recipe for success for Salvo and Acuna.
After selling his trailer, Salvo couldn’t find the right one to replace it before heading north. The rodeo family came in clutch when Lee Kiehne hooked his trailer up to Salvo’s truck. Acuna experienced the same type of generosity, but with the other kind of horsepower.
“I had never ridden this horse until the day before the roping,” Acuna said. “Bodie Baize was the one who taught me to team rope, and he was the one I qualified for Vegas with until his number got moved. In Vegas I rode Ice Nation, who belongs to Bodie’s brother Bobby.”
As a header, Acuna depends on his horse as much as any other but in Vegas the 12-year-old gelding truly made all the difference.
“I’m not a big time reacher. I can’t make a fast run like that, so I have to use my horse more,” Acuna said. “The first steer I roped on him was the burn steer in the 13 and came back as the number two high call.”
Living on a ranch almost two hours from school opened the door to horses and roping for Salvo. Both have become his way of life as he trains and sells roping, ranch and trail horses.
“I really enjoy the horses, it’s just how I’ve always been,” Salvo said. “When we first moved to the ranch, my dad got me a Shetland pony and I begged him to let me move cattle on him. He finally did and I’ve been horseback ever since.”
Most of Salvo’s calf horses were made by his roping mentor Greg Dutton. Many of the horses he’s ridden in recent years come from Todd Hedrick all the way up in Michigan, including the heel horse Salvo won on in Vegas.
Salvo won an additional $10,000 while in Vegas heading on home-grown gelding he calls Mister. Although a smaller paycheck, it’s a special accomplishment for this horseman.
“Every time Todd has a horse he thinks I’ll like, I send him a check and he sends me a horse,” Salvo said. “He really knows what he’s doing and he’s an honest guy. He sent me Spade when he was 2 and I just babied him around because I liked him so much.”
For several years Salvo roped the donkey on Spade, which created both a breakaway and head horse. One day Salvo looked up and Spade was his only heel horse, so he started loading him up for seasoning.
“He was green and is probably just now getting made into the horse that I want him to be,” Salvo explained of the gelding. “He’s a good horse with a really great mind.”

Round and Round
When it was all said and done, Salvo and Acuna agree that the first-round steer was their toughest. With a lot of try, the steer left Acuna in the box and Salvo did a double take on his dallies.
A quick-footed horse helped position Acuna to make a quality handle for Salvo coming up behind him. A trip on the corner for Spade slowed up Salvo’s dally, but the duo still clocked an 8-second run.
“We were 6 on our second steer after I necked him quick and Johnny T’d him off,” Acuna said. “Our third steer was in the other arena, and he looked really soft. And he was.”
Acuna said he scored for what felt like forever and credits his mount with making the most of three very different runs. He would’ve ran through the barrier on the short-round steer if he was on almost any other horse he’s ridden in the past.
“That steer was a little stronger than the rest and I actually had my thumb in the dally,” Acuna said. “We were roping for 200 grand, and I decided for that kind of money, they could have my thumb.”
Before the run even started Salvo had decided he was going to take one swing over the steer’s back and throw. This was the highest call back Salvo’s ever been in a World Series finale.
“As fifth high call, we were close enough to smell blood and I just wanted to make the most of the opportunity that we had in that,” Salvo said. “Everyone who roped after us either missed or roped a leg, and we certainly didn’t expect that to happen, especially here.”
Acuna only lost a small chunk of his thumb in that final dally and split $200,000 with Salvo.
“The World Series makes it where a nobody like me can rope, and win, $100,000,” Acuna said. “It was just our day. I’m no better of a header than anybody else there. It was the grace of God and just one of those things were everything worked out for us.”

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