Cowboy Christmas – the good the bad and the ugly

Celebrating our nation’s independence began July 4, 1776 when our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence.

Who knew that the celebration would grow into the busiest and most lucrative time of year for cowboys and cowgirls as they travel across North America giving people a chance to include a rodeo in their festivities.

This year, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association sanctioned 32 rodeos that paid nearly $3.7 million over the holiday, known as Cowboy Christmas. The week officially started on June 29 and finished July 5.

There were some rodeos in Canada that counted as part of the celebration so not only were contestants warming up the U.S. highways, they were also traveling across the border to the North.

The Ponoka Stampede in Alberta, Canada was the highest paying rodeo included in Cowboy Christmas at $447,885. Even though they aren’t celebrating the Declaration of Independence, the rodeo usually coincides with our Fourth-of-July. This year, Ponoka started June 25 and ended July 1. The big winner there was saddle bronc rider Cody DeMoss from Heflin, La., who was also the big winner of the week.DSCN1463

DeMoss collected $17,720 in Ponoka and earned a total of $22,791 to increase his lead in the world standings to nearly $20,000 over two-time world champion Taos Muncy.

Second high money winner was reigning and two-time tie-down roping champion Tuf Cooper from Decatur, Texas, who earned . Cooper had the bulk of his success in St. Paul, Ore., Greeley, Colo., and Prescott, Ariz., averaging over $5,000 at each of those rodeos.

He also earned checks in Red Lodge, Mont., Ponoka and was the champion at the Molalla (ore) Buckeroo Rodeo. Cooper’s schedule was pretty easy according to him. He started in Ponoka, on June 29th, was in Greeley, Colo., the next day. July first found him at Livingston, Mont. Next was a short trip to Red Lodge, Mont., and Cody, Wyo. From cody he went to St. Paul and Mollala, Ore., then back to Greeley for the finals in the afternoon and over to Oakley City, Utah that night. He finished Cowboy Christmas in Prescott, Ariz., on July fifth.

Some people thrive on the challenge of getting to as many rodeos as they can over the Independence Day celebration. Others plan their schedules carefully figuring out the easiest way to travel. Cooper did some of both, he got up at the right times at the right places, was able to ride his own horse at all but one and drove most of the time. The three-time world champion is no stranger to pressure and thrives on a challenge.

Tuf in Greeley (c) Dan Hubbell
Tuf in Greeley
(c) Dan Hubbell

“The worst part about Cowboy Christmas is that it’s over,” Cooper said. “It’s absolutely the best opportunity in the world. There are so many great rodeos over that week. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

Much of Cooper’s success came aboard an 11-year-old mare named Topaz. Topaz is owned by Circle Star Ranch and was trained by James Barton in Texas.

Tuf in Greeley (c) Dan Hubbell
Tuf in Greeley
(c) Dan Hubbell

Travel is a necessity for rodeo contestants and how they get from place to place varies. One thing is consistent for all contestants during Cowboy Christmas, the time spent getting from place to place far outweighs the time spent at a rodeo.

Every night at the Cody Stampede, there would be a group of cowboys that competed at Red Lodge, Mont.; then made a fast trip to Wyoming. Red Lodge’s rodeo started two hours earlier than Cody’s, giving contestants plenty of time to make the 63 mile trip in a perfect world.

That worked for the most part, unless there was a re-ride or something to slow Red Lodge’s rodeo down. And considering the roads between these two towns go through the mountains and are two lane highways it was often a photo finish. Bareback riders, saddle bronc riders and bull riders came to Cody already taped up and nearly ready to get on. A lot of the time, the livestock was already loaded when they arrived.

That was the case for Chuck Schmidt who got bucked off in the saddle bronc riding at Red Lodge, made the quick trip to Cody to compete at his last rodeo over Cowboy Christmas.

“I’ve had a terrible Fourth,” Schmidt said. “I hadn’t won a dime until I got to Cody.”

Chuck Schmidt being interviewed after winning the Cody Stampede
Chuck Schmidt being interviewed after winning the Cody Stampede

Schmidt had plenty to smile about after getting off of his last horse. He rode Frontier Rodeo’s Tip Off for 87 points to win the rodeo. That was worth $8,657 and moved Schmidt to fifth place in the world standings. He is hoping to qualify for his second Wrangler NFR, he was there in 2011.

The Fourth of July was full of misfortune for NFR qualifiers bareback rider Steven Peebles and bull rider Josh Koschel. Peebles had the winning ride at Livingston, Mont. Just after the eight seconds was up, his hand came out of the rigging, he flew off the back of the horse and landed hard on his back. That broke some ribs, which punctured an artery. Peebles’ traveling partner Brian Bain took him to the hospital in Livingston, then he was transported to Bozeman and eventually to Billings. His lungs were filling up with blood fast and it was Bain’s insistence on getting him to the hospital that saved Peebles’ life.

Koschel tied for first in the long round at the Greeley Independence Stampede and qualified for the finals on the Fourth. That was where tragedy struck. Koschel came off early and the bull stepped on his leg, fracturing both the tibia and fibula near the ankle. Koschel was just 15 miles from his home in Nunn so much of his family was on hand to see the accident. They were also at the hospital for his surgery.

Other cowboys felt the full effects of Cowboy Christmas and the Justin Sports medicine team was busy keeping them together. They had staff and volunteers at Greeley, Colo.; St. Paul, Ore.;Prescott, Ariz.; Springdale, Ark.; Cody, Wyo.; and Oakley, Utah.

It’s a busy time of year for rodeo that barely slows down for the rest of the summer. So here’s to the communities that play host to these events and all of the sponsors and fans that support them.

Making education a priority

Through the years, college rodeo has been a stepping stone for contestants moving up into the ranks of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.

For others the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) is more than a stepping stone, it’s a chance to get an education. And for a few dedicated competitors, it’s an opportunity to do both.

Joe Frost
Joe Frost

Such is the case with bull rider Joe Frost and bareback rider Tim O’Connell who both qualified for last year’s Wrangler NFR. Both were in their senior years of college, Both had already been successful college rodeo athletes having competed at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) three times.

Joe Frost
Joe Frost

Frost earned the NIRA’s bull riding title in Casper, Wyo., in June of 2014. He an O’Connell both spent the summer break going to PRCA rodeos, then headed back to college in the fall. Frost, from Randlett, Utah, went to Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Okla.  O’Connell’s home is in Zwingle, Iowa. He attended Missouri Valley College in Marshall.
College rodeo is made up of 11 regions. Schools in each region host 10 rodeos. Contestants gain points for placing at those rodeos and qualify for the CNFR based on their regional standings. They can qualify as individuals or as part of their respective school’s men’s or women’s teams.

Tim O'Connell  (c) Dan Hubbell
Tim O’Connell
(c) Dan Hubbell

At the time of last year’s CNFR, O’Connell was eighth in the PRCA world standings and Frost was outside of the top 15. When the regular season ended in September, O’Connell was fourth in the world standings, Frost was 11th and they were both headed to their first NFR and they were both still in college.

It wasn’t like they were just juggling classes and their PRCA rodeo schedule, they still had college rodeos to compete at.  Then when December and the NFR came around, they each had finals to deal with.

Frost finished the season as the reserve world champion bull rider. O’Connell was successful at the NFR as well, finishing the season in 8th place. A quick holiday break and they were back to school, then the winter building rodeos and spring college rodeos.

Frost graduated in May with a Bachelor’s degree in ag business. O’Connell has one more semester to complete his Bachelor’s in public relations with a minor in business. Along the way, he also earned an Associate degree in fire science and his welding certificate.

Tim O’Connell with his rodeo coach Ken Mason (c)Dan Hubbell
Tim O’Connell with his rodeo coach Ken Mason (c)Dan Hubbell

“College and college rodeo have always been a priority for me,” Frost said. “Graduating was a goal I set a long time ago. Not achieving that goal wasn’t an option.”

Frost finished third in the bull riding at this year’s CNFR. O’Connell left Casper with the bareback riding title setting a new record for the highest total on four rides at 331 points. The record had been set by eight-time NFR qualifier Ryan Gray in 2004 at 330.

Another college rodeo standout that fans are watching in the PRCA is Clay Elliott who won the title for Panhandle State as a sophomore and will be going back to school there this fall. The Nanton, Alberta, resident is currently 12th in the world standings and has the potential to qualify for his first NFR. Clay has a busy summer schedule and then will return to Oklahoma and hit the books.

“Why wouldn’t I get an education,” Elliott said. “For me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Rodeo will be there after I’m done with school. If I can compete at both levels and keep up with my studies, I  will. If I can’t, I’ll have some tough decisions to make.”

It takes hard work and dedication to succeed in any rodeo arena at any level. Succeeding in the classroom along with that adds another element to any rodeo contestant’s schedule. Progressing through the levels of the sport provides an in-arena education that is invaluable. I applaud all of the rodeo athletes that have used college rodeo as a stepping stone.

It’s all about the Bling.

Sarah Rose McDonald, her boyfriend, Wade Whatley, and two horses left Brunswick, Ga., on May 14th for a road trip that many would think was a summer vacation.

Sarah Rose McDonald, her boyfriend, Wade Whatley and Bling.
Sarah Rose McDonald, her boyfriend, Wade Whatley and Bling.

First stop, Claremore, Okla. This was the first rodeo that Sarah had entered since March. Her mare Bling had a real vacation getting some much needed R & R after a busy winter running in the buildings. Bling was more than ready to rodeo. They finished fourth there and headed to Fort Smith.

That was just the beginning of a journey that eventually took them to Utah where they really did get in some vacation time between rodeos. The dynamic duo won rodeos in Moab and Delta and placed at Cedar City. As of June 25th they are second in the world standings behind Nancy Hunter.

Sarah’s personal journey to becoming one of the nation’s top barrel racers this year started when she was just a kid. She grew up in the country on a farm where her grandfather and uncle (Steve McDonald) always had horses around. Her mother rode and Sarah started riding as soon as she was big enough to put a leg on each side of a saddle.

Her older sister had a western pleasure horse and soon Sarah was riding it and making it go faster. They started competing in pole bending. Every Saturday they loaded up horses and went somewhere to ride and compete.

She would come home from school and ride every day. Her uncle and father made sure that she  had something to ride and that the horse fit her ability and took her to the next level. Her favorite was a palomino mare named Flicka. When Sarah was nine, Flicka died from West Nile disease.

Her next horse was one that her uncle had just traded for, a big gelding named GC Highly Motivated that they called Jerry.

“He taught me so many things,” she said. “I learned a lot just riding him, like what to do to control my horse. Some days, I’d get on him and he’d be hyper, so we would just lope around the field. I always had a chance to win on him and I got really competitive.”

Bling and Hottie enjoying their time off.
Bling and Hottie enjoying their time off.

Jerry helped her win many titles including the 2005 National Barrel Horse Association World Championship. The McDonalds still have the 19-year-old horse today and he is teaching Sarah’s niece the same lessons.

In high school, Sarah played all sports, but kept riding every day. Her uncle, who is a horse trainer, always had a lot of horses around and she helped him by riding, learning from each horse that she rode.

Steve’s best friend Larry Ammons started spending time at the farm and took an interest in the horses. “If you around my uncle, you have to be into horses,” Sarah said with a laugh.

Steve and Larry went to Brian and Lisa Fulton’s production sale in 2007 and they came back to Georgia with a yearling mare named Fame Fling and Bling. She came from the Western 37 Ranch in Potter Valley, Calif., and is by Fulton’s great stallion A Streak of Fling.

That mare that Sarah calls Bling became her project. After Steve got her training going, Sarah started her on barrels and they won the first show they went to.

“We knew she was awesome and really smart,” Sarah said. “We didn’t run her that much and didn’t pressure her. We wanted what was best for her and really took our time with her. “

ATV rented for Sarah’s birthday.
ATV rented for Sarah’s birthday.

All of that time and training has paid off. Sarah’s experiences riding different horses and patience with Bling are coming to fruition and her summer has started off great. And in between rodeos, they did have a little vacation time in Utah. While in Moab, Bling and Hottie – a young mare that McDonald is hauling – got some well-deserved rest. Wade rented an ATV and for Sarah’s birthday they toured around in the canyons.

“Utah is so beautiful,” she said. “It’s been really awesome so far. I love getting to see new sights and so far my summer has been great.”

Vacation is over as they are now at the Reno Rodeo and gearing up for the “Cowboy Christmas” Fourth –of-July rodeo run.

Rodeo is a family affair when talking about the Etbauers

I’ve often thought that mothers are the unsung heroes of the rodeo arena. When we ask contestants how they got their start in rodeo, many of them credit their fathers. Some have moms that competed, but far less than the ones following in their father’s footsteps.

Blu Bryant, the 1998 reserve world champion bull rider, told me how his mom drove him around the country and went behind the chutes and pulled his bull rope when he was starting. I’ve heard similar stories about Lisa Frost, mother to current all-around rodeo athletes Joe and Josh Frost.

There are a lot more similar stories out there. What I think makes moms heroes is all of the support they provide in the way of everyday tasks that often go unnoticed. So I decided to talk to the Etbauer family and gain more knowledge about rodeo moms.
Etbauer family photo
Beverly Etbauer is mother to saddle bronc riders Robert, Billy and Dan Etbauer. She and her husband, Lyle, also have a daughter, Wanda, who is second youngest – between Billy and Dan. The Etbauers made history in 1989 when all three brothers qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

For eight years, the trio got to represent their native state of South Dakota in the grand entry, get off of those horses and come back to the locker room and join the other saddle bronc riders for the competition.

In careers that span over 20 years, they have seven world titles and 42 NFR qualifications between them. Robert was the PRCA rookie of the year in 1985. He made his first of 12 NFR appearances  in 1988. That year he was joined by Dan, who qualified a total of 10 times. The next year, 1989, was when they set the record for three brothers qualifying for the NFR with Billy’s first of 21 trips to Las Vegas. Dan also made an appearance in 2008 as a pick-up man. etbauerbros (2)

Through all of the competition, Beverly and Lyle cheered on their sons from the seats in the Thomas and Mack Center. There was only one time that any of the boys got hurt and missed any of the action. That was in 2002 when Billy was out for the last seven rounds.

Beverly watched her sons get on nearly 430 head of bucking horses and never blinked an eye. She had faith in their abilities, understanding of their desires and did what she had done for all of their lives – said a lot of prayers.

“It was wonderful, a very exciting time in our lives,” she said. “I could never want one to beat the other. They were competing against the horse. I watched every ride and was right there riding with them. It was an awesome experience.”

Lyle Etbauer did some roping when the kids were little. Rodeo was a family affair and whenever they went, it was as a family. Billy couldn’t remember a rodeo that they went to without Mom and Dad until after Robert got his driver’s license.
Beverly and Lyle Etbauer
Growing up in rural South Dakota, the three boys spent most of their free time horseback. In the winter, they used a team of draft horses to pull a bobsled around as well as other horses and sleds. It may not have been a bucking horse rein in their hands, but reins and ropes were part of their everyday lives.

“I think mom just tried to keep us out of the house,” Billy said with a laugh. “And she just closed her eyes for the rest of what went on. We didn’t have a lot but we had what we needed.”

The boys spent a lot of time with their dad, but when things got tough in South Dakota, he drove about 350 miles to Moorcroft, Wyo., where he got a job as a carpenter and later in the oilfield. What started as a part-time endeavor for the winter became a full-time way to support his family and he never left.  Robert was a sophomore in high school.

Beverly spent time between the two places and the children’s responsible natures took over. Robert took over ranch duties, Wanda took care of the house and Billy and Dan pitched in wherever needed. There were few squabbles and Wanda and Lyle had confidence in their children’s work ethic and ability to get things done.

“They always had their chores to do,” Beverly said of the kids. “And I knew that they would have them done. Robert had the idea that you feed your animals before you feed yourself. They didn’t have a lot of time to get into mischief and it didn’t hurt them any.”

Robert was the first to take off on the rodeo trail and initially traveled with Deke Latham who qualified for the 1986 NFR and finished fifth in the saddle bronc riding before he was in a fatal automobile accident.

Robert lost his friend and traveling partner and it took him a while to pick up the pieces. When he put them back together his brothers and eventually Deke’s brother Craig were pursuing their dreams together.  Craig became an adopted member of the Etbauer family and his mother Joyce Reclusa considers all of the Etbauers her family as well.

That relationship continues today. Craig is the head coach at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell and Robert is the assistant coach. That’s where these two along with Dan went to college. Dan still lives in the area and Billy and his family are in Edmond, Okla.

When the boys first took off rodeoing by themselves, Beverly would anxiously wait for their return despite the mountains of laundry, extra cooking and more housework. But the joy of having her family together far outweighed the work. And then before she knew it, she was sending them off again.

“I said a lot of prayers,” she said. “There isn’t anything else you can do. Hopefully you raised them to be responsible and they know right from wrong. All you can do is thank the man upstairs that everything went well. I still pray for them every day.”

The next generation of Etbuaers are now competing thanks to the positive influences of their family. Robert’s oldest son, Trell, is a five-time Linderman award winner. His son Shade is headed for his second College National Finals Rodeo this month competing for Robert and Dan’s alma mater. And, Beverly and Lyle will be in the Casper Events Center cheering him on and spending time with their oldest son.
“We never in a million years dreamed that things would have turned out the way they did,” Beverly said. “When they were little if you’d have told me that I would be doing what I was doing, I would have never believed it.”

While the accomplishments in the arena have stacked up for the family, what may be most important is the legacy they have outside of the arena. Robert and Billy have been inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs. All three brothers are also in the Rodeo Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
“They’ve all just done beautiful,” Beverly said of her four children. Beverly and Lyle have nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.  “They are all so busy now. I just wish they’d all show up at one time so I could do their laundry.”    etbauercowboyhall (2)

Connecting through Communities

I got involved with rodeo because I love animals and the Western lifestyle. I’ve stayed involved because of the people.

I constantly see the generosity and compassion of these people and am proud to be part of the rodeo community – and it is a community. I think a lot of that goes back to agriculture heritage and being part of rural communities. I know not everyone in rodeo has that background, but after they are involved, they soon learn that if they are going to thrive, they need to be part of the community.

Sean Mulligan at the 2011 NFR – (c) Mike Copeman
Sean Mulligan at the 2011 NFR – (c) Mike Copeman

On May 9th, Wrangler NFR qualifier Sean Mulligan hosted a steer wrestling jackpot in Coleman, Okla., to raise money for a scholarship given in the name of his friend Levi Wisness. Sean had help from Will Cook who provided steers and put up part of the added money. He secured the U Cross Arena and raised more money from sponsors and the Wisness family. When it was time to enter, he had $8,000 in the pot.

Steer wrestlers from around the area came to play. They were drawn into four-man teams for an incentive and to sell in a Calcutta. 1999 world champion steer wrestler Mickey Gee got his auctioneering license in March and volunteered his services.

When it was all said and done, Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo qualifier Ace Campbell won the jackpot and over $4,000. An additional $4,000 was raised for the scholarship and a silent auction raised $4,400 for rodeo publicist (and my coworker) Julie Mankin who was seriously injured in an auto accident.

Not bad for a one day event put on by cowboys. It reminded me of all of the volunteers on our rodeo committees and how important they are to the communities they serve. All of the big winter rodeos are part of livestock shows encouraging youth in their agriculture pursuits and raising lots of money for scholarships along with giving back to their communities.

Communities that host rodeos are very loyal to support us and we should never take that for granted. I applaud every volunteer on every rodeo committee. They work tirelessly to put on events that largely started to as benefits and ways to give back.

Cowboys and cowgirls are very good at taking care of their own. Case in point, the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund has given over $7 million to 1,100 injured rodeo contestants in the past 25 years. Cindy Schonholtz, president and CEO estimates that 99% of the donations to the fund have come from the rodeo community.

When Sean Mulligan was approached about hosting a steer wrestling jackpot, he saw it as an opportunity to give back and remember a friend and fellow competitor in Levi Wisness. This is the second year the event has benefitted the scholarship.

Levi Wisness who finished 17th in the PRCA world standings prior to being diagnosed with cancer
Levi Wisness who finished 17th in the PRCA world standings prior to being diagnosed with cancer

In 2006, I had the idea to start a scholarship to honor my friend Shane Drury. He was a college champ and NFR qualifier in the bull riding who was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. Through numerous surgeries, treatments and come backs, Shane kept his fans involved with updates that reminded us to keep smiling and live our lives to the fullest.

Shane was at the College National Finals Rodeo that next June to present the first award. Cancer took him from us the next October. Corey Navarre rode at the PBR World Finals with stickers on his helmet honoring Shane that said “Nothin’ But Try.” The scholarship was renamed.

Today the Nothin’ But Try scholarships honor Shane Drury, Levi Wisness, Betty Gayle Cooper and Lee Akin. They are given to members of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) who have faced adversity but refuse to give up. It is about how these people lived – and in Lee’s case – are living their lives.

Levi Wisness was the NIRA steer wrestling champion in 2003. He graduated from the University of Wyoming and represented the Central Rocky Mountain Region on the board of directors. He was a talented athlete who was on track to qualify for the NFR when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery and treatment were successful and he was deemed cancer free. His unexpected death in 2008 was a shock to all of us.

Levi’s friend and traveling partner Dane Hanna volunteers for the jackpot along with NFR saddle bronc rider Wade Sundell. Last year, the duo roasted a pig and donated it for lunch taking donations for the scholarship. This year, rain kept them from doing that but they were both an active part of the event.

“Levi would have loved this,” Hanna said. “He was the friendliest guy I’ve ever known. When we were traveling it would take us an hour to get out of the gas station. He just loved everybody. Kids, adults, it didn’t matter he took time to visit with them all.”

Cambpell, who graduated from the University of West Alabama in 2012 with a degree in business administration qualified for the CNFR two times. He saw the Nothin’ But Try scholarships presented there and was glad to be part of the jackpot.

Team Sundell -- Pictured left to right are J.D. Struxness, Ace Campbell, Wade Sundell, Sean Thomas, Dane Hanna and Sean Mulligan. Sundell was the team buyer for the Cosequine Team Incentive which included Struxness, Campbell, Thomas and Hanna. The second annual Nothin’ But Try Steer Wrestling was organized by Mulligan. Hanna and Sundell also volunteered for the event.
Team Sundell — Pictured left to right are J.D. Struxness, Ace Campbell, Wade Sundell, Sean Thomas, Dane Hanna and Sean Mulligan. Sundell was the team buyer for the Cosequine Team Incentive which included Struxness, Campbell, Thomas and Hanna. The second annual Nothin’ But Try Steer Wrestling was organized by Mulligan. Hanna and Sundell also volunteered for the event.

“This was a great event,” Campbell said. “The weather probably hurt it this year, but it should just grow. The cool thing about it is Sean does it all to benefit others.”

Mulligan has already started planning for the third annual Nothin’ But Try steer wrestling jackpot. He and his wife Bryel both graduated from the University of Wyoming and love that they can do something to support education while remembering a friend.

“Levi’s family really got behind us and that means a lot and lets me know how much this means to them,” Sean said. “I couldn’t do it without the support of sponsors, friends and Bryel. I just want it to keep growing and raise more money.”

If anyone wants to support the Nothin’ But Try Scholarships or the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, drop me a note susan@cowgirlimaging.com. I’ll be more than happy to let you know how to support these worthy causes.

A fond farewell to Neal Reid, an introduction to Susan Kanode and a horse named Bling.

I’ve been an avid reader of the NFR Insider for the past five years and have enjoyed Neal Reid’s insights, excellent reporting and writing. When Neal accepted the position of Media Relations Manager at Las Vegas Motor Speedway I was honored to be asked to fill in as the NFR Insider.

While the paths that got us involved in rodeo are quite different Neal and I share some commonalities as well. We worked hard to earn journalism degrees. We appreciate good journalism and believe that integrity in reporting is very important. Most importantly of all, we are both rodeo fans and love sharing these stories.

376 Sarah McDonald
(c) Dan Hubbell

On that note, last summer I was sitting in the stands watching the barrel racing slack at Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days. All of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association competitors had their first round runs on Tuesday before the first rodeo performance the next Saturday. The top 96 from that round advanced to a second round held during the performances. That Tuesday, July 15, 2014 was the first time I saw Sarah Rose McDonald and her horse Fame Fling N Bling “Bling.”

The horse quickly caught my eye. Bling is a small mare and is bay roan in color. Part of the reason she caught my eye is because I have been the owner of a small gelding that is similar in color for the past 10 years.

There haven’t been a lot of roan horses in the barrel racing world and that probably makes them even more memorable. And, while I am a barrel racing fan, I am certainly not an expert. When I watched this team work, I took notice. I saw the fluidity of the horse making her turns and this young women smooching and encouraging and just knew I’d be talking to her in the future.

I couldn’t help but think about how far away from their home in Brunswick, Ga., they were or how different it must be to be competing in one of the largest rodeo arenas in the world. The traditions and history at Cheyenne’s “Daddy of ‘em All” are legendary and for many just competing there is a highlight of their careers.

McDonald and Bling narrowly made it into the progressive round and got to make another run. While they were far out of winning a paycheck I still admired the grit and determination they had just to be there.

Just days after Cheyenne, this duo set the arena record at Spanish Fork, Utah, with a 16.77-second run, nearly three-tenths of a second faster than that of Wrangler NFR qualifier Kassidy Dennison. That earned the Georgia pair $5,616 and confirmed that her decision to come “out west,” was a good one.

Barrel racing fans across the country weren’t surprised at McDonald’s success while rodeo fans were trying to figure out just who she was. She and Bling earned a world championship in the National Barrel Horse Association where Bling was voted the top five-year-old mare in the nation.

She had dreams of rodeo competition and bought her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association permit in February of 2014. She entered rodeos within a day’s drive of her home and consistently picked up checks. Bling was eight years old and McDonald also wanted to give the mare a chance to win big.

She and her friend Erica Norris were at the lake one day when Norris suggested they take off for the summer and rodeo. So with Norris by her side and Bling and Rose (her backup horse) in the trailer, they set off July 5, 2014 to make the nearly 2,000 mile journey to Casper, Wyo.

This was the first time to compete at a rodeo “out west,” and actually the first for them west of the Mississippi. The change in altitude and environment didn’t faze either one of them. They got the last paycheck in the first round, came back and won the finals and finished second overall. That added up to $5,180.

“We got to Casper and I’d never seen an arena or a pattern that big,” McDonald said. “Seeing all the girls that I had watched on tv was pretty crazy. It was motivating running against them. I just wanted to do good and give my horse a chance.”

That was just the beginning. Prior to their adventure, McDonald had won just shy of $8,500. When the season ended she was the WPRA Rookie of the Year and 19th in the world standings with over $64,000.

“I didn’t even know that I could win the rookie,” McDonald said. “It all came down to Omaha and we won enough there to get the title. Omaha is always going to be special for me because of that.”

Her success has continued in 2015. She won every round at the Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo last February with times of 16.42, 16.37 and 16.32, getting faster with every turn in the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum. She was the big money winner there at $20,932. That gave her an early lead in the world standings.

sara_rose_2015
(c) Kenneth Springer

They are in second place as of May 1 and are enjoying time at home before their next trip “out west.” They will start the summer run the end of this month at Fort Smith, Ark. We will be following McDonald’s and Bling’s adventures as they pursue their first Wrangler NFR qualification, and we will be telling you more about the background of both of these athletes.

Money increase in 2015 could be game-changer

Trevor Brazile and Sage Kimzey came within striking distance of two of the PRCA’s single-season earnings records at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Next year, it will be a lot easier for them to get there.

With the new 10-year contract for the Finals kicking in and the purse swelling from $6.375 to $10 million, Wrangler NFR contestants will have the chance to make an obscene amount of money in 2015. Go-round first-place money will jump from $19,002 to $27,800, and the average champions’ payout will vault from $48,732 to somewhere between $76,000-$77,000, according to PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman.

Contestants will be able to earn much more money at the Thomas & Mack Center in 2015 thanks to the new Wrangler NFR contract.
Contestants will be able to earn much more money at the Thomas & Mack Center in 2015 thanks to the new Wrangler NFR contract.

Not only will those big bumps put more money in contestants’ wallets, but I think they will effectively change the battles for world championships. Since the NFR moved to Las Vegas in 1985, only two people – Allen Bach in 1990 and Cody Hancock in 2000 – have gone from 15th place to a world title at the Thomas & Mack Center, but we may see two contestants do that in 2015 alone.

It won’t be unheard of for a tapped-off cowboy or cowgirl to pocket $250,000 or $300,000 at the Finals, and that is money that levels the playing field. Virtually no world standings lead coming into the 10-day finale will be safe.

“The biggest lead a guy can have coming in is about $50,000, but that will only be two go-rounds,” said Kimzey, who won a Wrangler NFR-best $174,466 this year. “You can kick everybody’s but all year long, but if you come out here and don’t have a good Finals, you’re not even going to be in the top 10. It’s really going to stress the importance of coming out here and having success in Vegas, but I think that’s cool.”

World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Spencer Wright may see bigger money totals flashing on this screen in Las Vegas next year.
World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Spencer Wright may see bigger money totals flashing on this screen in Las Vegas next year.

Luke Branquinho didn’t exactly agree with me when we spoke shortly after he won his fifth world championship, at least not for his event.

“I don’t think it’s going to be as big a deal in the steer wrestling, but it sure might in the other events,” said Branquinho, who banked $136,388 at this year’s Wrangler NFR. “I think the main thing now with the regular season is (to just) get to the NFR, but that’s how it is in the steer wrestling anyway. There are guys in the 15th hole that could have moved up and won the world in the steer wrestling.”

I do admit though that the way the money changes the game may not be epic in proportion, especially considering the Wrangler NFR average winners also won gold buckles this year in six of the seven events. I think the big change is the way it will open up the world title races to all 15 contestants and teams and set up a free-for-all in Las Vegas.

“It’s going to be about who wins the most money and the average, but it’s kind of gotten that way now,” three-time World Champion Team Roper Clay Tryan said. “A lead will mean less, but once it starts, it’ll still be the same percentages as it was before.”

It would be a stretch to claim the new Las Vegas money will marginalize the regular season, but it does create a scenario where cowboys and cowgirls don’t worry as much about whether they arrive at the Finals ranked first or 15th.

“It’s going to turn it into more of (a situation where) you just qualify for the Finals and the best guy on 10 head wins,” Kimzey said. “It’s going to put so much more emphasis on coming out here and being successful. It’s going to definitely change it and throw another kink in it.”

Whether that means contestants back off their travel schedules and go to fewer rodeos remains to be seen.

“If I had (the Wrangler NFR) made, I could see myself not going the extra mile to gain the advantage like I used to do, but who knows?” Tryan said. “We’re competitive guys, and if we’ve got the lead, we might (keep going) and try to get it done.”

Contestants are excited about the new 10-year contract that will keep the Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas, especially with the total purse jumping from $6.375 to $10 million.
Contestants are excited about the new 10-year contract that will keep the Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas, especially with the total purse jumping from $6.375 to $10 million.

Branquinho loves the increases, but wishes the payouts would have been extended past the sixth-place finishers in the rounds and average.

“We’re here to make a living and make money, and the only thing I wish they would have done is have the bottom holes in the go-rounds pay down to eight or 10,” he said. “We have the money, so let’s reward the cowboys who are making good runs on steers that aren’t that good.”

Even with the pay raises, Branquinho’s mentality for what he’ll do after nodding his head in the box will remain the same.

“I’m going to run at the barrier every night, try to win as much as I can and hopefully leave here with three times as much as I did this year,” he said.

Knowing Branquinho the way I do, he’ll probably do exactly that.