NFR preview

With the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) less than two weeks away I thought it would be a good time to preview the competition. I’ve spent a good part of the last year at rodeos across the country and watched every single one of these contestants in action. These are solely my opinions and feel free to agree or disagree. After ten days and $8.8 million in prize money, we will all have the answers.

Bareback riding – I think the world championship is Kaycee Feild’s to lose. Four average and four world titles in this arena can’t be wrong. The key to his success will be staying healthy. He missed part of the regular season after hip surgery, but came back strong to move to the number one spot. At last year’s NFR he was competing with this injury and still won $122,596 in the Thomas and Mack Center. I’ve seen what he can do healthy or hurt – he owns this arena. The competition fuels his fire and I expect that fire to be burning hot.10849931_914444885232865_8786930399168555422_n

THE DARK HORSE – Austin Foss finished second behind Kaycee last year and this guy doesn’t like being second. And he’s second in the world standings coming in. Last year he and Bobby Mote each won over $75,000 in Las Vegas. I expect to see him at the buckle presentations more than once and to place higher than fifth in the average. This is his third NFR qualification and he should have gained from his previous two experiences.

THE DARK DARK HORSE – Never count Steven Peebles out. This guy wants a gold buckle more than anyone and has spent more time on the injury list at the NFR than anyone. He missed seven rounds last year after a broken back in round three. In 2011, he broke his leg in round five and missed the last five. He’s not a good spectator. Steven has had other health issues this year and he is more excited than ever to be at the NFR. He enters in 14th place, but is less than $40,000 behind Kaycee, a margin that could easily be made up with the bigger payouts.

Steer Wrestling – Fans in the Thomas and Mack Center never get tired of seeing Luke Branquinho’s booty shake and as long as he’s winning he doesn’t mind shaking it. Luke is in sixth place entering the WNFR and I don’t expect that to last long. Last year he entered in eighth place, won $136,388 and his fifth gold buckle. He has won more money on this dirt than any other steer wrestler in the field and I for one would never count him out. He’ll be riding Dakota Eldridge’s horse Rusty and Sean Mulligan will be hazing. This is the same team that got him to the gold last year.10857972_915517868458900_6685010162831296146_n

THE DARK HORSE – Hunter Cure slowly and steadily crept his way to a gold buckle in 2013. He moved from seventh to first and might have been the surprise of the 2013 season. He won a Reno (Nev.) Rodeo championship in 2013. He won it again this year. I know it’s a coincidence, but both years that Chad Ferley won a saddle bronc riding world championship, he also won Reno titles. Hunter missed the 2014 NFR after having shoulder surgery. He enters this year in second place. He is one of the guys that watches the standings, thinks about the money and knows exactly what he has to do to win.

THE DARK DARK HORSE – Kyle Irwin impressed a lot of people with his first WNFR appearance last year. He won $87,963 and moved from 10th place to second in the 2014 world standings. Irwin could be the first Alabaman to win a gold buckle. This year he comes in in fifth place and he should pull from last year’s experiences and do even better.

Team Roping – Heading – No surprise here, I’m going with the champs. Clay Tryan won $109,877 at the NFR last year to win his third gold buckle and his second consecutive roping with Jade Corkill. He won his first title with Patrick Smith. Clay is riding the PRCA/AQHA Heading Horse of the Year, Dew the Dash, and at 16-years-old “Dew” is very familiar with the Thomas and Mack Center. Clay has been riding him for six years and will be the first to tell anyone how much impact Dew has had on his past two gold buckles.NFR 14  3-1571 Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill PRCA photo by Mike Copeman

THE DARK HORSE – Chad Masters has missed the NFR, but here’s the thing, every time he’s made it he’s left with a lot of money. He’s qualified nine times and left with two gold buckles. He’s won the average twice, and holds the arena record of 3.3 seconds roping with Jade Corkill. Chad finished 18th in 2013 and 16th in 2014. I know he’s glad to be back, won’t take his qualification for granted and will be going for it with every throw.

THE DARK DARK HORSE –Aaron Tsinigine qualified for his first NFR last year in 13th place. His partner Ryan Motes didn’t make it, so Aaron got to rope with Clay O’Brien Cooper. Aaron didn’t let the bright lights or big stars (Clay) intimidate him. They won the sixth round, and placed in the next three. They were also third in the average and took home a total of $85,511. This year Ryan made it so the partnership will be intact. Aaron should have a lot of confidence roping with his regular partner and with the success he had in the Thomas and Mack Center last year.

Team Roping — Heeling – If you are going to bet on Clay, you have to bet on Jade. They have dominated here in the past and they are coming off big wins at the end of the regular season. They won the Ellensburg (Wash.) Rodeo over Labor Day. The next week they got the title at the Justin Boots Playoffs at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup. Then they were co-champions at the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up and the New Mexico State Fair Rodeo at Albuquerque. They each won $39,597 in the month of September. I expect that momentum to carry on into the WNFR.Clay Tryan Jade Corkill PRCA photo by Mike Copeman

THE DARK HORSE – Never count Clay O’Brien Cooper out. He is having a great season roping with Derrick Begay and after his success at last year’s NFR with Aaron Tsinigine, he is loving roping with the Native Americans. If Clay wins, likely so does Derrick. However, Clay has won $1,120 more in the regular season than Derek and that could factor in.

THE DARK DARK HORSE – Kory Koontz – Who doesn’t want Kory to win a gold buckle? The guy has roped 190 steers in the Thomas and Mack Center with 11 different partners. Kory’s career started in 1991. The next year he qualified for his first NFR with Rube Woolsey. He won the average in 1997 with Bret Boatright and finished the year as reserve world champion. He was on his way to a gold buckle in 2005, roping with Jake Barnes in one of the most memorable events in WNFR history. In the fifth round, Jake’s thumb was amputated. Trevor Brazile didn’t qualify in the team roping that year, so he borrowed ropes and a horse, and stepped up to the plate for Kory. They won the very next round. Kory finished that year and the next in third place. One of the greatest heelers of all time, Kory has had to rope against the greatest. His first year at the WNFR was the first time Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper started their chase for seven world titles. Kory was competing against Rich Skelton all eight years that he and Speed Williams won their gold buckles. And now, there is that Jade Corkill guy. A lot of things need to happen for Kory to get the gold, good things for he and header Colby Lovell and hiccups for the field ahead of him. It is Vegas though, and at the WNFR all of these guys are going to let it roll.

Permit Challenge

It’s all got to start somewhere –

Kollin VonAhn once told me that being a world champion was something like being a mountain climber. Everyone starts at the bottom and as the mountain gets steeper, fewer are making it to the top. When he won his world title in 2009 in the heeling, he was the lone man at the top of the mountain. Then, he started at the bottom of the mountain all over again along with all of the contestants dreaming of world titles.

Just getting to the mountain is the start of any hopeful cowboy’s career. Membership in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association) starts when a person buys their permit.

After buying their permit, they can enter rodeos which accept permits and when they win $1,000 they have the option of getting their PRCA or WPRA card. Their first year as a card holder is the only year that they are eligible to win the Resistol Rookie of the Year Award.

Contestants have the option of buying a second permit and filling it with earnings. They can also stay on their permit as long as they are a full-time student at an accredited college or university. This gives them options to try to win the Rookie Award and they can still compete at sanctioned events and earn points for circuit finals qualifications.

Getting riders has never been a problem for Benny Binion’s World Famous Wrangler NFR Bucking Horse and Bull Sale. In 2008, stock contractors and sale organizers decided to make it a little bit more interesting inviting the top permit holders in the PRCA.

Last year, the PRCA Permit Holder of the Year Challenge invited the top five team ropers, steer wrestlers and tie-down ropers to compete as well as the bareback, saddle bronc and bull (roughstock) riders. Held at the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center, it gave the future stars of the PRCA an opportunity to experience a championship event under the bright lights of Las Vegas.

Several Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) contestants have used this as a stepping stone. With the addition of timed events, expect to see more of these talented cowboys earning Permit Challenge titles and coming back to Vegas to compete for 10-nights instead of one afternoon.10801778_917005748310112_5720782855825904235_n

One of the most notable contestants to compete at the Permit Challenge is the reigning world champion Sage Kimzey from Strong City, Okla. He won the bull riding in 2013 and went on record as the contestant to earn the most money on his permit in a single season with $47,726. One year later, he earned the Rookie title, qualified for the WNFR and earned a gold buckle. It was a remarkable feat that may never be repeated.10846440_916025398408147_2739543451032812542_n

Last year, the second member of the Wright family earned a saddle bronc riding title at the Permit Challenge. The first was in 2011, when the reigning world champion Spencer Wright won it. The next year he won the Rookie of the Year and finished 29th in the world standings. In 2013, he won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association championship competing for the College of Southern Idaho and finished 25th in the PRCA. Last year he entered the WNFR in 13th place and emerged at the top of the mountain.

Spencer’s nephew, Rusty, was the champion at last year’s Challenge. He had been coming to Las Vegas to watch his dad at the WNFR for nearly as long as he could remember. He was just seven years old the first time that Cody qualified. So when Rusty got a chance to compete why wouldn’t he? Last year, Rusty finished 30th in the standings and got to make two appearances in Las Vegas. The first was at the Permit Challenge, the second was at the WNFR when he was awarded the buckle as the saddle bronc riding rookie of the year. This year he climbed higher on the mountain and will be coming out of those yellow bucking chutes in the Thomas and Mack Center.

Rusty Wright’s winning ride at the 2014 Permit Challenge
Rusty Wright’s winning ride at the 2014 Permit Challenge

Other Permit Challenge winners that have qualified for the WNFR include Cole Elshere who won the saddle bronc riding in 2009 and 2010, Joe Frost (bull riding) and Tim O’Connell (bareback riding) who won in 2012 and CoBurn Bradshaw, the saddle bronc riding champ in 2013. Frost, O’Connell and Bradshaw also went on to earn college titles.

O’Connell won the rookie title in the bareback riding in 2013 and finished 21st in the world standings. Injuries were a factor and might have kept him from qualifying for his first WNFR that year. That changed in 2014 when he finished the season in eighth place. For him, the Permit Challenge wasn’t just a place to showcase his skills, it was a chance to be motivated and inspired.

“That was my NFR as a permit holder,” he said. “When I won, I was the permit world champion. That was big for me. Then when I won the rookie, I got to go on the arena floor to get my award. It was huge. It all lit a big fire in me. I wanted to be there as a competitor more than ever.”

4-44 Tim O'Connell
Photo by Dan Hubbell

This year’s regular season finds O’Connell in seventh place. He will be at his second WNFR and is one step higher up that mountain.

The Permit Challenge comes under the jurisdiction of the PRCA’s Industry Outreach, which also coordinates the PRCA Championship Rodeo Camps and programs with youth rodeo associations. It’s exciting to see the hard work and dedication of organizers pay off with young talent excelling in the rodeo arena. This year’s event will again be at the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center on Thursday, Dec. 3 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

It’s exciting to see the young talent coming into a sport. The Permit Challenge roster features college and high school champions and once again highlights the future of rodeo. It wasn’t all that long ago that O’Connell was there, getting a taste of the bright lights of Vegas.

“There are not many chances that you get to go to Vegas like that,” he said. “It was a great opportunity and I’d tell any one of those guys to leave it all on the table and let the cards fall as they may.”

Home sweet home

After spending nearly five months on the rodeo trail chasing a Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) qualification, Sarah Rose McDonald finally made it home to Brunswick, Ga.

Pickup and trailer were none the worse for wear in spite of more than 25,000 miles of travel. At an average of 65 miles an hour, that’s nearly 400 hours behind the wheel and for her horses in the trailer. And her relationship with her chief driver, horse groom and assistant, boyfriend Wade Whatley, survived the summer as well.

Sarah and Bling – just walking around and getting ready to run.
Sarah and Bling – just walking around and getting ready to run.

Her horses Bling and Rose were also glad to be home and have a rest that includes pasture time and trail rides in the woods. While the break is definitely physical, it’s also mental as it gives everyone time to think about things other than barrel racing.

That mental break is important for all of them as they prepare to compete on rodeo’s biggest stage. Sarah and Bling finished the season in third place with $134,599 in earnings, just $32,033 behind Callie duPerier who leads the race for a world title. With the rounds paying over $25,000 for first place, that margin could quickly disappear.

Callie duPerier and Sarah Rose McDonald have their horses relaxed before making a run at the Washington State Fair Rodeo. Both have qualified for their first NFR.
Callie duPerier and Sarah Rose McDonald have their horses relaxed before making a run at the Washington State Fair Rodeo. Both have qualified for their first NFR.

This is the first qualification for both of these young women and they will be going up against seasoned veterans Sherry Cervi, Mary Walker and Lisa Lockhart along with the reigning world champion Fallon Taylor. This year’s NFR barrel racing will see six women and their horses making an appearance in the Thomas and Mack Center for the first time.

While it is all very exciting, it could also be overwhelming and intimidating. To keep that intimidation factor at bay, Sarah and Bling will do their best to keep the same routine that they have always kept through the regular season. There will however be some big differences for Sarah.

Generally when she gets to a rodeo, she will go to the arena and watches for a while getting an up close and personal look at the dirt. At the NFR, she will participate in the grand entry representing her home state and carrying the Georgia flag. While she won’t be on Bling, she will definitely get a feel for the ground in the arena at that time.

After the grand entry, it will be back to the trailer and start the process of getting ready. All athletes need to stay hydrated to perform and for horses it’s no different. Sarah depends on the Horse Hydrator, a filter that makes all water taste the same to insure that Bling is drinking all the water she wants and needs.

Her routine starts with grooming Bling. A good brushing and braiding of her mane to keep it out of Sarah’s way as she is riding are the first step. The process of saddling starts with a CSI Show Cut saddle pad. It gets brushed off to make sure it is clean before it is placed on Bling’s back. The saddle is next and again, Sarah brushes off the cinch and checks to see that everything is clean before it is tightened around Bling’s girth.

Sarah always wants Bling to be looking her best, so along with careful grooming, she uses hand-decorated tack from Rockn Wilson Leather. For them, it is the best in form and function. Bling gets supplements to aid in her health and wellness. Before the rodeo, each time she runs, she gets a pre-run paste made by Oxy-Gen that is filled with electrolytes to provide Bling support for her respiratory and immune systems.

Next, Sarah gets dressed in her regulation rodeo clothes. When she is ready, it’s back to taking care of Bling. She puts Iconoclast boots on her legs for extra support and protection as she runs.

“The Iconoclast boots have an extra strap around the ankles,” Sarah explained. “They offer optimum support for and are the best I can give Bling or any horse in a leg boot.”

A braided mane keeps it out of Sarah’s way as she pushes Bling through the barrel racing pattern.
A braided mane keeps it out of Sarah’s way as she pushes Bling through the barrel racing pattern.

Now it’s time to put on the headstall, get a bit in Bling’s mouth and get on. She spends most of her warm-up time simply walking the well-mannered mare and analyzes how she is moving and feeling. Bling doesn’t like to trot so they usually just walk then lope a couple of circles to make sure that Bling is paying attention and that her muscles are all warmed up.

Right before the barrel racing starts, it’s time to tighten the cinch, adjust and tighten the leg boots with a final equipment check and they are ready to go. All barrel racers go through a lot of preparation before running their trusted mounts. And for each of them and each horse the routines are similar but vary according to individual needs.

“Bling knows that I pretty much have the same routine every time,” Sarah said. ”You can tell when she gets ready to go. I have a different routine with every horse built around the things they like to do. Each one is an individual and responds to different things. As you get to know your horses, you learn what works.”

Sarah’s daily routine will be a little different in Las Vegas. She will have autographs to sign, meetings and banquets to attend. There will be family and friends that not only want to watch her compete, but they will also want to spend time with her.

During the 10 days of competition time is at a premium for all of the contestants. Her challenge will be keeping the activities outside of the arena in balance so she can focus on what happens in the arena.

Hours of preparation and planning make turns like this possible
Hours of preparation and planning make turns like this possible

“I’m so excited to run there,” she said. “Bling has adapted to outdoor pens, but I grew up riding her in small indoor pens. She loves the crowd of a rodeo and feeds off their energy. My job is to make sure she is calm and focused and that I’m giving her confidence before we run. She knows when we get in the alley way it’s time to go.”

That confidence will come into play as they run before 18,000 died-in-the-wool fans. The energy at the NFR is unlike any other rodeo. Sarah got to experience it last year when she got her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Rookie-of-the-Year buckle as a spectator. This year, she and Bling will be among those causing that electricity.

Zoetis PRCA Veterinarian of the Year Award and Horses of the Year

Every year the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) recognizes animals and individuals that have an impact on the sport that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Many of these awards are announced prior to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR). Presentations are made at the PRCA Awards Banquet and throughout the 10 nights of competition. Committees and Stock Contractor of the Year along with others will be announced at the banquet.

The nomination and selection process also varies. Some are voted on by PRCA members. Others go to a committee.

Regardless of how it happens, for the recipients it is an honor not unlike getting a gold buckle. Not everyone has the ability, drive and determination to compete on rodeo’s biggest stage. But for those who love the sport, there are other ways to be involved.

Recognition is a reward and doing something they are passionate about is payment. For the past five years, the PRCA has been recognizing veterinarians who go above and beyond to care for rodeo animals with the Zoetis PRCA Veterinarian of the Year Award.

The veterinarians are nominated by PRCA members and rodeo committees. A selection committee narrows it down to five finalists and determines the final winner based on the veterinarian’s involvement in the sport of rodeo and their community along with contributions to the health and welfare of rodeo animals.

This year’s winner is Dr. John Boyington who has volunteered his time and services to Kansas’ Biggest Rodeo in Phillipsburg where he practices and resides. Not only has Dr. Boyington been the veterinarian there, he serves as a member of the rodeo committee heading up ticket sales.

Dr. Boyington participates in the grand entry at Kansas’ Biggest Rodeo in Phillipsburg. He has been part of the committee for over 25 years (PRCA)
Dr. Boyington participates in the grand entry at Kansas’ Biggest Rodeo in Phillipsburg. He has been part of the committee for over 25 years (PRCA)

Dr. Boyington’s love of rodeo started as a competitor in Little the Britches Rodeo Association then went on to the National High School Rodeo Association and National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association before joining the PRCA. In high school he primarily competed in team roping, tie-down roping and steer wrestling, but was also known to get on a bareback riding on occasion.

He qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo while competing for Colby (Kan.) Community College and was the Central Plains Steer Wrestling Champion. He then transferred to Kansas State University at Manhattan to finish undergraduate and graduate school.

“I realized long ago that it is wonderful to rodeo, but the value of an education is always there,” he said. “I’ll never regret going rodeoing. I loved it. But I’m glad I went into veterinary medicine because I love it too.”

Community involvement is a big part of this award and Dr. Boyington certainly fits that bill with over 25 years of volunteering on the Phillipsburg rodeo committee. His passion for rodeo, and the animals involved in the sport have been recognized locally and now will be on a national stage.

“I’m just smiling ear to ear,” he said. “Even though I’m not out in the arena competing anymore, I watch it all (rodeo) and it brings back memories. Animals are really neat to be around and work with. It’s great to watch all of those animal athletes. They are so well taken care of and really are finely tuned athletes. This is a lot for me to take in.”

He is now planning a family vacation in Las Vegas during the NFR. Dr. Boyington will receive his award at the Contract Personnel Banquet on Dec. 2, where his wife, Donna, and two children, son John, and daughter Brooke, will also be in attendance. Both of his children are attending school at his alma mater, Kansas State University.

The PRCA has also announced awards recognizing some of the best athletes in the timed events. The American Quarter Horse Association Horses of the Year will be presented at the banquet at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa as well. Awards for the best timed-event horses in rodeo have been presented since 1989.

For the first time in the history of the award, a South-American owned horse will be recognized in any event. Marcos Costa has been riding Sweet as Time in the tie-down roping, a horse that he calls Flea. Costa lists Childress, Texas, as home, but is originally from Brazil. The horse is owned by Brazilian businessman Renato Antunes and has also been ridden by Costa’s mentor, Stran Smith who won the world title in the Thomas and Mack Center in 2008.

(c)Dan Hubbell
(c)Dan Hubbell

Ty Erickson from Helena, Mont., has had the best season of his career and will enter this year’s NFR in third place in steer wrestling. That is largely due to KR Montana Shake Em a horse that Erickson co-owns with Kyler Ranch who gets top honors in that event.

The team roping saw a newcomer in the award category for the heading and a repeat winner in the heeling. Rey Shines on Top, a horse Brady Minor calls Rey has the distinction of the being the best heeling horse in the PRCA for two consecutive years, the first time that has happened since 2009 when Randon Adams’ great horse Bailey’s Copper Doc won four times in a row.

Clay Tryan has had an awesome partner in Dew the Dash that has helped him win world titles the past two years and that he has been riding for six. Tryan enters the race for the world title in first place and is hoping that he and Dew have the success in Las Vegas that they have had in the past.

(c)Dan Hubbell
(c)Dan Hubbell

The steer roping honors went to Weavers Diamond Bar, a horse that is ridden by Troy Tillard and owned by his father Tim. Troy will be riding “Rowdy” at the Clem McSpadden National Finals Steer Roping Nov. 6-7.

History was made in the barrel racing this year when French First Watch was chosen. “Custer” is owned and ridden by Jill Welsh who finished 16th in the standings. It is the first time that a barrel racing horse has won that will not be at the NFR. Welsh is a two-time cancer survivor and while she missed the NFR by one spot, she and Custer added a slew of rodeo wins to their resume in 2015.

(c)Dan Hubbell
(c)Dan Hubbell

The AQHA Horse of the Year Awards are voted on by members in their respective events. Having their animals recognized by their fellow competitors has special meaning for all of these contestants.

“This is the ultimate award,” Welsh said. “To be recognized amongst all of these outstanding horses and to come out at the top of the voting process is awesome. Custer is truly my best friend and I couldn’t be prouder of him. The support that we have is truly amazing.”

Bungee jumping and hip surgery, we’re talking about the Wrangler NFR.

It’s official. Kaycee Feild will return to Las Vegas this December to defend his bareback riding gold buckle in the number one position. He has been a fixture at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) for the past seven years. The past four years, he left with eight championship saddles, more buckles than he can count on all his fingers and toes, and pockets full of money.

There was little doubt for Feild’s fans that they would see him return to the Thomas and Mack Arena this December. He never doubted it either, but when the Fourth-of-July Cowboy Christmas run started and he was 19th in the world standings, fans knew that even for one of the best bareback riders of all time, there was a challenge ahead.

Kaycee Field’s winning ride on Calgary Stampede’s Special Delivery at the Washington State Fair Rodeo – PRCA photo by (c)Kent Soules
Kaycee Feild’s winning ride on Calgary Stampede’s Special Delivery at the Washington State Fair Rodeo – PRCA photo by (c)Kent Soules

Feild had an opportunity rare in a sport where injuries run rampant. A torn hip labrum (the ring of cartilage in the hip joint) had been plaguing him with pain. When it became more than the Justin Sportsmedicine team could treat and manage he knew it was time to take the next step. Because it was a chronic problem, and not acute like most rodeo injuries, he was able to plan surgery around his rodeo schedule.

The ever competitive athlete started 2015 strong. He won $23,173 at the San Antonio Stock Show Rodeo shooting him to the top of the world standings. That money was sorely needed as he knew he was going to miss 8 to 12 weeks of competition after surgery.

Ever the planner, he decided to have surgery after the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo that was held March 25-28. He hoped to return to competition at the Reno (Nev.) Rodeo and be on track for the lucrative Fourth-of-July run.

A quick trip to Vail, Colo., for surgery on March 31 was the first step in his quest to be healthy and riding pain free again. His appointment with Dr. Mark Phillippon, who has successfully treated over 1,000 professional and Olympic athletes, went as planned. Now it was on to rehab and getting ready to get back on bucking horses.

Everything came out exactly as Field had wanted. He was released for competition and got on his first horse at the Reno Rodeo on June 24th. The best layed plans can go awry and the comeback had a few setbacks. Field scored 71 points on that horse, got on a plane and headed to Ponoka, Alberta to ride the next afternoon. Flight delays kept him and his traveling partners from getting on their second round horses at Reno, definitely not the way they wanted to start their Cowboy Christmas.

He earned $1,989 for a second place finish at the Home of Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge, Mont., and meanwhile his fellow bareback riders were leaving him in the dust. Evan Jayne who lives in Rockwall, Texas, but is originally from France won $18,285 over the Fourth and moved to the number one position.

What might have been frustrating for others drove Feild even harder. He tied for the win at the Nampa, Idaho, Snake River Stampede with Winn Ratliff and moved to 13th in the world standings. He climbed steadily after that and regained the number one spot after a second place finish at the Ellensburg (Wash.) Rodeo.

He came to the Washington State Fair Rodeo in Puyallup and won that for the fourth time in five years. That gave him $9,349 to add to his earnings and helped increase his lead.

Kaycee Field checking his equipment and getting ready to ride at Puyallup.
Kaycee Field checking his equipment and getting ready to ride at Puyallup.

“I want to have a little bit more of a spread between me and that guy in second place,” he said. “There’s a lot of money in Vegas and there’s a lot of guys that are riding really really good. They are pushing me harder than I’ve ever been pushed.”

One of those guys is Austin Foss from Terrebonne, Ore., who finished in second place in Puyallup. He is also second in the world standings and is less than $10,000 behind Feild. And, he is the guy that finished behind Feild in the race for the 2014 world championship.

“I know I’m Austin’s target. He won’t tell me that, but I know it,” Feild said. “He’s riding outstanding and he’s healthy. I need to prove to myself that I’m tougher than these other guys. I need to go home and ride my spur board more than they ride their spur board. I need to be in the gym more than they’re in the gym. I need to push myself outside of the arena more than they are all the way around.”

There are two more comeback stories on this year’s NFR roster in the bareback riding. Tim O’Connell from Zwingle, Iowa, has his second consecutive qualification. This was in spite of hurting his riding at the Calgary Stampede and missing four weeks of competition he finished the regular season in seventh place.

Steven Peebles will be making the trip to Las Vegas for the seventh consecutive time. Peebles, from Redmond, Ore., missed the last six rounds of last year’s NFR when he sustained a compression fracture to his back. He returned at San Antonio but had a slow winter. Then things picked up with a pair of championship spurs from the Reno Rodeo.

Steven and his Reno Rodeo Spurs.
Steven and his Reno Rodeo Spurs.

Peebles was off to a good start over Cowboy Christmas, but one winning ride nearly took his life. He and traveling partner Brian Bain from Powell Butte, Ore., were in Livingston, Mont. Peebles rode Kesler Championship Rodeo’s Imperial Beach for 86 points, the win and $4,822.

Peebles lost his grip just as the eight seconds were up, came off the back of the horse and landed hard on his back. He walked out of the arena, but as he was gathering up his gear and getting ready to head to the next rodeo, he was having excruciating pain in his abdominal area.

As they left the arena, Bain made the decision to find a hospital in Livingston. That decision saved Peebles’ life. He had broken some ribs and one of them punctured an artery which was filling his chest cavity with blood.

Peebles was transported from Livingston to Bozeman by ambulance where a team of medical staff went to work to save his life. He spent the ambulance ride fighting to stay awake, texting friends and loved ones and praying. He woke up the next morning in the hospital grateful to be alive and thankful for a traveling partner that was more concerned about Steven than getting to the next rodeo.

Just a month later, he was making a 350 foot bungee jump, thinking if he was strong enough for that he was ready for a bucking horse. His official comeback was at the Omak (Wash.) Stamped on Aug. 13. He scored 83-points and had a second place finish.

Steven Peebles bungee jumping
Steven Peebles bungee jumping

Peebles had dropped to 22nd in the world standings and had a lot of ground to make up in a short period. He won the rodeos in Ellensburg and Walla Walla over Labor Day. Then he got a big check for being the champion at the River City Roundup’s Justin Boot Championships in Omaha, Neb. That moved him into the 14th spot.

“I learned a lot about myself this summer,” Peebles said. “I don’t want to take anything for granted and appreciate every opportunity I have now. A near death experience will teach you a lot about life. I’m probably more excited about this year’s NFR than I ever have been. I can’t wait.”

Kaycee Feild may be the odds on favorite for this year’s bareback riding world championship but there are 14 other determined and talented cowboys that are going to take every opportunity to unseat him from that number one position.

It’s all about the back number.

In less than a week, the contestant roster for this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) will be decided.

The culmination of a year ‘s worth of bumps and bruises, highs and lows, victories and disappointments can all come down to one ride or one run. Last week, steer wrestler Casey Martin, from Sulphur, La., was one of the many contestants jockeying for a spot in the top 15 to secure his fifth consecutive NFR qualification. He was 19th in the world standings and his bid for another trip to Vegas was looking bleaker by the day.

Martin, however is always optimistic and had an ace up his sleeve. The Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up was coming up and he had won the tile on the grass in 2008, 2011 and again last year. The rodeo features a long head-start for cattle and is as wild and western as it gets. Timed-event contestants can’t see their animals when they nod their head and depend on someone behind them yelling as the steer or calf progresses up the alleyway and out of the chute.

Then, horses run across a dirt track and onto grass for the cowboys to make their moves. While the rodeo is steeped in 105 years of tradition, it is a far cry from the groomed dirt and short head starts that are seen on a regular basis.

It is a rodeo that many contestants, including Martin look forward to every year for just those reasons. Never one to cave under pressure, he nearly won it again this year but finished second behind the 2013 world champion, Hunter Cure from Holliday, Texas. Martin collected $8,975 in Pendleton and an additional $1,733 in Pasadena, Texas, jumping up to 13th in the world standings.

“I’m feeling better about my chances now, but I’m not comfortable yet,” Martin said. “If it all works out we will have another family vacation in Las Vegas.”

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Shane Hanchey at the Pendleton Round-Up. Photo by Dan Hubbell

Their vacations can get a little hectic with competition, autograph signing parities and hauling around the family. Casey and his wife Shawna have six children. He is one of nine kids and some of his siblings along with his parents will also make the trip.

Martin’s neighbor, Shane Hanchey, the 2013 world champion tie-down roper also finished in second place at Pendleton and again the money was critical. Prior to Pendleton, he was 18th in the world standings. He earned $6,026, what should have been enough to put him in the top 15.

This year’s tie-down roping is one of the tightest events in rodeo and while Hanchey should have moved up, he actually moved down to 19th place, but narrowed the gap and is only $1,952 behind the man in 15th place, his traveling partner, Clint Robinson from Spanish Fork, Utah.

With the Justin Boots Playoffs in Omaha, Neb., this weekend, a Wrangler Champions Challenge event there as well and numerous rodeos across the country, none of the bottom positions in tie-down roping (or any event for that matter) are safe. Only $5,347 separates 13th through 19th so there could be a lot of shake-ups in the standings.

“This is never a position that anyone wants to be in,” Hanchey said. “I’ve always paid attention to the bottom few holes, but I’ve never had to pay this much attention. Sterling Smith is 13th this week and next week he could be 19th.”

There are similar situations in every event. It’s hard to imagine an NFR without Cody Wright, the elder of the brothers and first of the family to qualify. He’s been there 12 consecutive years and earned two world titles along the way.

During the seventh round of last year’s competition, he dislocated his shoulder and was transported to the hospital to have it put back in place. He spent part of the next three performances in the Justin Sportsmedicine room. He had surgery on the shoulder after the NFR and missed about three months of competition.

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Casey Martin at the Pendleton Round-Up. Photo by Dan Hubbell

He came back and traveled with his brother Spencer, and son Rusty, who is second in the world standings behind Cody DeMoss. Thanks to earning $10,118 last week, Cody Wright is now in 20th and just $7,734 out of 15th, a position that is being held by another two-time world champion Chad Ferley.

If the last week of rodeo is kind to Cody Wright and he moves into the top 15, he and his son, will be the first father-son duo to make an appearance in the Thomas and Mack Arena competing against each other. Cody’s brothers Jake and Spencer (the reigning world champion) have a lock on a trip to Vegas in December. Jake is in eighth place and thanks to a win in Pendleton, Spencer has moved up to 10th. Last year Spencer entered the competition in 13th place, earned $145,123, the average title and the gold buckle.

Also on the bubble is the 2012 world champion, Jesse Wright, who is Jake’s twin and has five consecutive qualifications. He is in 17th place and needs at least $6,000 to move up. Thanks in part to success at five different rodeos last week, CoBurn Bradshaw from Beaver, Utah, moved up to 14th.

Bradshaw was the 2014 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association champion. He finished second two times at the National High School Finals Rodeo and third once. Two of those times he was behind Rusty Wright who is the nephew of Bradshaw’s wife, Rebecca. Bradshaw actually proposed to the Wright brother’s sister while at the Utah High School Finals.

“It’s great to have so much family involved in rodeo. We have a big support system,” Cody said. “I really want to compete in Las Vegas, but if that doesn’t work out I’ll have plenty of people to cheer for.”

One thing is for certain this last week of the regular season. Contestants will be paying attention to the standings and will be getting out their calculators and trying to figure out just what it is going to take to have one of the coveted back numbers competitors wear.

“I’ve had a lot of people calling or texting me,” Hanchey said. “I tell them all that it’s all part of the plan and what’s meant to be is meant to be. I just want a back number because of how the money is at this year’s NFR. It’s coming down to the last four days of my season.”

Every champion was once a rookie.

World championships in any sport are hard to come by, but in rodeo the gold buckles that signify that you are the world’s best can be as elusive as finding a needle in a haystack.

For many, that road starts with a childhood dream advancing through the levels of competition. At this year’s National High School Rodeo Finals, over 1600 student athletes competed for titles. Hopefully they go to college for the next level where just under 400 athletes qualify for the College National Finals Rodeo.

Welcome to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association where there are 120 spots at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) and nine gold buckles are awarded. The numbers would discourage the faint of heart, but heart is never lacking in a serious contender. The Clem McSpadden National Steer Roping Finals sees another 15 contestants going after one buckle.1451443_717635094913846_799523991_n

It is remarkable to think that of last year’s world champions, only three of them were first time winners. Trevor Brazile’s records are talked about all the time and at last year’s NFR he won his 12th all-around title. He also earned his fifth steer roping world title and has accumulated a 21 gold buckles in those categories as well as tie-down and team roping.

Luke Branquinho picked up his fifth in steer wrestling. Kaycee Feild won his fourth consecutive bareback riding title. Clay Tryan,(team roping heading), Jade Corkill (team roping heeling) and Tuf Cooper (tie-down roping) each picked up their third.

Last year, Sage Kimzey came and left Las Vegas in the number one position in the bull riding. Fallon Taylor started the race for the gold buckle in second place in barrel racing. Spencer Wright had a come from behind story that legends are made of starting the NFR in 13th place in route to winning the saddle bronc riding title. For Kimzey and Wright, it was also their rookie year at the NFR.10846440_916025398408147_2739543451032812542_n

“Nobody was more surprised than I was,” Wright said. “I knew I had a lot of ground to make up and that it was possible. I had the mindset that I was going to take it round by round and win as much as I could.”

Of course, he had three older brothers among his competition and Spencer had watched as two of them won gold buckles. The eldest of the riding Wright brothers, Cody has two world titles (2008 and 2010) and Jesse earned the championship in 2012. Jesse’s twin, Jake, came close in 2014, finishing second by just over $10,000.

Kimzey also had been in the Thomas and Mack center as a spectator and watched the world champion buckles presented. Growing up in a rodeo family, he dreamed of winning a world title since he was a child. The goal-oriented cowboy set his sights high and his achievements went right along with that.

There have just been two bull riders to win the world and rookie-of-the-year titles, Bill Kornell in 1963 and Sage Kimzey in 2014. He broke the NFR bull riding earnings record at $175,466 and earned the RAM Top Gun Truck for being the highest money winner at the NFR.

10857737_916025155074838_8249536908777641552_n“I set a goal to ride all ten of my bulls,” Kimzey said. “I knew that if I did that, all of the other pieces would fall into place. I didn’t ride all my bulls, but still had an amazing finals. My goal this year is exactly the same, ride all ten bulls and we’ll see what happens.”

For Taylor, the world title has been a lifelong dream that started when she was a young girl growing up in Florida and saw a rodeo on television. Her first NFR was one that she competed at as a 13-year-old riding a mare named Flowers and Money. She qualified twice more on this mare, and once on a stallion named Dr. Nic Bar. Taylor’s family started breeding horses and these two horses had four offspring, the youngest is Flos Heiress that Taylor’s fans all know as Baby Flo.

A 15-year hiatus from rodeo saw her modeling and making appearances in tv shows. But her love of horses and passion for barrel racing was always in the background. As those four offspring of her previous NFR mounts were growing, she picked Baby Flo out of the herd and started riding her when the mare was five-years-old.

Taylor’s return to barrel racing came with great personal fortitude after being injured in a horse accident in 2009 where she broke her C-2 vertebra and doctors told her she had a two percent chance of walking and talking again. Three days later she walked out of the hospital, in a halo to keep her neck and head stable, not just walking but talking as well.Rodeo Saturday-96

She and Baby Flo clicked from the beginning and when they made a push for the NFR in 2012, she was just $721 from a return to Las Vegas. The next year, she started the NFR in fifth place but after a disappointing finals finished in 11th.

In 2014, she entered her sixth NFR in second place behind Kaley Bass. Lisa Lockhart was third. Taylor was the only world champion at last year’s NFR that didn’t win the average title. That went to Lockhart who won the average. Taylor did better in the rounds and earned $144,970 compared to Lockhart’s $143,897. When it was all said and done, Taylor was just about $11,000 ahead of Lockhart.

“That’s what barrel racing is all about, hundredths of a second and it coming down to the wire,” Taylor said. “It’s been an awesome ride, especially for Baby Flo and my fans. Baby Flo is such an incredible athlete and I give all of the credit to her. Last year was amazing, but this year to be able to interact with my fans with that world championship title on our resume has been awesome.”

Taylor is currently seventh in the world standings and with the additional prize money available at this year’s NFR, she along with other contestants are more concerned about getting to Las Vegas than where they are in the standings.

Last year’s NFR paid $6.6375 million across eight events (team roping heading and heeling) and ten nights. This year, that money has increased by over $2 million to $8.8 million. The difference in the rounds and average is astounding. If Sage Kimzey were to place exactly the same this year as he did last year, he would walk away with $236,711, compared to $175,455. Spencer won $145,123 last year, the same scenario this year would have him at $200,327.

The total on ten (average) paychecks will see the most impact, so this year expect every world champion to also be an NFR Average winner. The difference in first and second place will come down to margins, but the margins for the 2015 race are going to be bigger.11953226_1060266640650688_7114171183520795015_n

“The money is a big part of getting to the NFR,” Wright said. “But I don’t think it’s the biggest thing. After winning a world title I want to go back and do it again. Everyone is trying to get to Vegas and win a world title. The money is the icing on the cake.”