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.”

78 Shane Hanchey-hubbell
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.

168 Casey Martin-hubbell
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.”

Bling working hard to get the ultimate bling.. The Wrangler NFR!

Even the best laid-out plans are subject to change, especially in rodeo.

When Sarah Rose McDonald and her boyfriend Wade Whatley left Brunswick, Ga., last May, they fully expected to be back home in August. McDonald was second in the world standings with $53,374 and the reigning Rookie of the Year had her sights set on her first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) qualification.

Their journey took them as far north as Livingston, Mont., and as far west as Reno, Nev.

Bling and Rose hanging out at Cody
Bling and Rose hanging out at Cody

They won money in Cody, Wyo., and Livingston, Mont., over the Cowboy Christmas run over the Fourth of July. Then they cashed in at Nampa, Idaho; Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Ogden, Utah. A big check from winning the championship at the Days of 47 Rodeo in Salt Lake City, Utah, added $8,385 to McDonald’s earnings and it was back to Cheyenne where she had qualified for the finals.

Then it was time to head back southeast with some rodeos along the way. They placed in every round in Dodge City, Kan., and headed to Sikeston, Mo., where they were again in the money. Now it was time to make some decisions. McDonald’s success has come aboard her phenomenal horse “Fame Fling N Bling” that she calls Bling. She had a young mare with her that she had been seasoning that was for sale, and planned to go home and get her back-up horse Rose and spend more time close to home before heading to Las Vegas for the NFR in December.

Sarah and Bling being interviewed at the Cody Stampede
Sarah and Bling being interviewed at the Cody Stampede

Being third in the world standings put her in solid position for her first NFR qualification. She didn’t need to be competing for one of the top 15 spots, but the rodeo trail was calling. And, spending a little time in the southeastern part of the U.S. influenced her.

Bling getting some love from Sarah after winning a check in the first round at Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Bling getting some love from Sarah after winning a check in the first round at Cheyenne Frontier Days.

“To be honest, it was so hot.” McDonald said. “Bling acted so drained being back in the humidity and wasn’t eating like she had been. It made the decision pretty easy.”

They went to Louisiana to drop Hottie off at her new home and friends from Georgia met them with Rose. With Rose and Bling loaded in, they turned around and headed north. Next up was the Champions Challenge in Cody, Wyo. And, since they didn’t make the trip to Brunswick, Brunswick came to them.

McDonald’s parents, Mike and Carol McDonald, and sister, Brook Williams, flew into Billings, Mont., to be in Cody with them. They spent three days in Cody shopping, trying out all of the restaurants and of course took a little time out for the rodeo where Sarah and Bling finished fourth.

The McDonalds photo is of her parents Carol and Mike with Bling
Carol and Mike with Bling

“We had so much fun,” she said. “It was awesome to have that time together.”

Sarah and Wade plan to spend the next month in Idaho, Washington and Oregon before heading southeast again. She is following nearly the same path that she did a year ago where she won money at Ellensburg, Walla Walla, Puyallup, and Bremerton, Wash., as well as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She is trimming her schedule a bit this year.

“Last year I was playing catch up so I hit pretty much every rodeo we could,” she said. “This year I’m entering lighter with no extra hauling and Rose will get to run a lot more.” Their last rodeo for this year will be in Omaha, Neb., where she earned enough to get the Rookie of the Year title last year.

Deciding where to go is a challenge for McDonald who had never seen any of these arenas prior to 2014. Now when she gets somewhere new, she spends time watching other events, observing the arena set up and studying the dirt.

“The dirt can’t always be perfect all the time,” she said, “especially in big outdoor arenas. That’s been an adjustment for us, because prior to this we made most of our runs in small indoor pens where conditions were more consistent. I know what Bling likes and doesn’t like and what rodeos to enter now. I’ve learned a lot and that’s important.”

McDonald is excited about qualifying for her first NFR, and is hopeful that Bling will excel in the Thomas and Mack Center for that reason.

“She really likes smaller pens,” she added. “She’s been amazing and has surprised me at how she has taken to rodeo life and even big arenas. That’s the hardest thing in the world to do, send a horse full out into an arena when the conditions aren’t optimal. But, you can’t safety up and win and I certainly can’t safety up on her. She wants to run full out and give it her all every time, so that’s what I need to let her do. Sometimes it’s just not worth running and sometimes I have to believe in us and trust her.”

There will be no safety runs for this pair in December in Las Vegas. And, once again the family will be watching and cheering on the dynamic duo.

A steer head on a unicycle was used to simulate a bull coming after a student.

No clowning around in this classroom.

When NFR bullfighter Dusty Tuckness and Barrelman Justin Rumford get together – things happen in and out of the rodeo arena.

They put their heads together earlier this year and thought it would be cool to have a bullfighter and barrelman school together. Tuckness had successful schools in the past and having the two together made sense and gave future rodeo stars the opportunity to learn the intricacies of the business from two of the best.

Tuckness and Rumford hosted the first ever school of this kind on July 5 – 7 in Wyoming in conjunction with the Cody Night Rodeo. It was important for them to do it there for two reasons. One, it is where both of these guys got their experience and start and two, it gave the students an opportunity to work and be critiqued by their teachers.

Sessions started with a classroom involving all of the students.
Sessions started with a classroom involving all of the students.

Growing up in Meeteetse, Wyo., Tuckness started riding bulls when he was eleven years old. His father was a bullfighter and is still a barrelman. Hanging up his bull rope for a pair of cleats was an easy decision. Being close to Cody, he went to work for Maury Tate and Tate’s Mo Betta Rodeo Company who produce the Nite rodeo.

Tuckness is a five-time PRCA Bullfighter of the Year and has been selected for the NFR for six consecutive years. He is well respected among bull riders, his peers and everyone that knows him.

Rumford also grew up in a rodeo family. As stock contractors, they expected him to learn every facet of rodeo. He did that and also competed in steer wrestling. When he blew out his knee, he helped the rodeo team at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. Then he was a truck driver for Beutler and Son Rodeo.

The arena was kept busy throughout the school.
The arena was kept busy throughout the school.

Eventually, he did a three-year stint at the Cody Nite Rodeo gaining the experience that has earned him the PRCA Clown of the Year award for the past three years and a trip to Las Vegas last December to work the barrel at the NFR.

When they contacted Tate and asked him about having the school there, he decided they should add bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding to the roster. He brought in NFR qualifier Heath Ford to teach the bareback riders. World champions taught the other events, Dan Mortensen in the saddle bronc and Cody Custer in bulls. Each of them spent many nights perfecting their crafts when they were starting their careers by riding in Cody.

Nearly 40 students gathered around to get advice from all of these champions. The school started with a talk from each of the instructors before they split off into their individual disciplines.

“My rookie year, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel with my uncle (five-time world champion Bruce Ford).” Heath Ford said. “He taught me how to enter and how to compete. I love rodeo and I want to pass all of that on.”

NFR qualifier Heath Ford went over student’s equipment with a fine tooth comb
NFR qualifier Heath Ford went over student’s equipment with a fine tooth comb

Rumford spent time with his students in a classroom environment and put them through tests that would prepare them for real-life experiences they would have in an arena as a clown and barrelman. Tuckness started his students with physical fitness routines daily, then put them through the paces with bullfighting simulation. Other NFR bullfighters that were on hand for the school included Cody Webster, Darrell Diefenbach and Aaron Ferguson.

6 time world champion saddle bronc rider showing a future star the correct foot placement
6 time world champion saddle bronc rider showing a future star the correct foot placement

The highlight for all of the students was getting to participate for three nights at the rodeo, then get valuable advice. The bullfighter and barrelman students all got a turn in the arena giving them an opportunity to work in front of a live audience and be seen by Tate who hires all the personnel for the Nite Rodeo.

Tate has been putting on the Cody Nite Rodeo for over 10 years and was one of the first stock contractor to hire Tuckness and Rumford. He also has a passion for rodeo. A former competitor, Tate, his wife Nikki daughters Cydni and Hadley make their home in Apache, Okla., from September to June.

The Cody Nite Rodeo gives them an opportunity to test and season young bucking horses and bulls. That has worked well enough to have some of their bucking stock selected for the NFR.

“When I look back at the history of this rodeo and this arena, I’m amazed,” he said. “There is no other place in the world that gives rodeo people an opportunity like this one.”

1992 world champion bull rider Cody Custer talking about the fine points of bull riding
1992 world champion bull rider Cody Custer talking about the fine points of bull riding

Legends like Freckles Brown and Tom Ferguson and Chris LeDoux all spent time at the Cody Nite Rodeo which started in 1938 and has run continually from June 1 to Aug. 31 since. The highlight of the season for many fans is the Cody Stampede held over the Fourth of July, sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.

It’s a long way from the Cody Nite Rodeo and the Cody Stampede to the NFR, but a road that many contestants and contract personnel have been on. With the addition of the school after this year’s Cody Stampede, they are providing more opportunities for anyone interested in becoming a rodeo star.

I think that Buffalo Bill Cody who had so much influence on rodeo and this area would be proud.

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.