It’s no secret that being a professional rodeo cowboy or cowgirl is a relentless grind.
Endless miles on the highway. Flight after flight in cramped planes. More expenses to juggle than a local business owner.
Often times, ProRodeo contestants are playing catch-up as they trek along the rodeo trail, competing today to pay bills from yesterday, all the while hoping for a big pay day that will allow them to think about tomorrow. For most cowboys and cowgirls, qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is the difference between making a profit and having a year in the red, a transformative event that can be their ticket to having money in the bank or food on the table.
Competing in Las Vegas for 10 days can be grueling, but it’s the reward at the end of a long road for contestants. After a grueling season of battling each other, injuries, bad luck and the ups and downs of the business, a Finals berth is everything to contestants.
“Hopefully, you’re not in debt before you get to the NFR, and it’s just the icing on the cake,” said reigning World Champion Barrel Racer Mary Walker, who earned a rodeo-best $146,941 last year at her first Finals. “It costs so much to go down the road with fuel, your horse expense and your other expenses. When we get here, this is the place where you hope you succeed and make some money so you can at least put a little in the bank.”
Bareback rider Caleb Bennett of Morgan, Utah, earned $54,772 at his first Wrangler NFR a year ago and got his 2013 Finals off to a rousing start by winning Round 1 and a check for $18,630. A pro since 2007, Bennett knows the importance of the Wrangler NFR for contestants.
“This is where every guy tries to make it to at the end of the year,” said Bennett, who now has $86,105 in season earnings. “We do work really hard to get here, and you spend enormous amounts of money traveling who knows how many miles every year. To get here and be able to win money is where you truly make a living doing what you love.
“They hand out so much money here, if you can get even a couple go-rounds worth of it, it caps your year off. It helps pay the bills better than any other rodeo out there.”
Trevor Knowles won the steer wrestling Thursday night to leapfrog Casey Martin into the No. 1 spot on the money list, but his five-figure paycheck was even more important to him than taking over the money lead.
“First and foremost, this is what I do for a living,” said Knowles, who is competing at his 10th career Finals. “Aside from a gold buckle and all the other business out there, I come here each year to fill my socks and make as much money as I can. That’s the main thing for me, and everything else that comes with it is the cherry on top.”
Conversely, a near-miss can be brutal for contestants. Team roper Travis Tryan has qualified for 11 Wrangler NFRs during his career, but finished 16th in the PRCA World Standings this season by $952.75.
He is in Las Vegas for a few days for sponsor commitments, but won’t be able to rope for the big money at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“On paper, it looks pretty good when you see people win $100,000, but you’ve got $70,000 or $80,000 in expenses,” said Tryan, who earned $60,745 this season. “A lot of people don’t see that. Just making the NFR, you probably broke even, and you might even be in the hole.
“Most of the time, the NFR is your ticket to getting a profit. If you’ve come close or barely made it, you’ve broken even and now it’s time to win something.”
Bennett has experienced the lean years as well.
“When you’re not making it here, you’re going home and going to work,” Bennett said. “You might get a part-time job somewhere and pick up on something that get you by through the winter until the rodeo season starts again.”
Walker was 53 before she broke through and earned her first Wrangler NFR qualification a year ago. She’s had more than her share of difficult seasons, ones that often bleed into the following year.
“That’s a very tough year, and you’re thinking, ‘I need to start the next year, but I’m a little behind this year,’” Walker said. “You have other expenses. You don’t just have the truck, trailer, feed and stuff like that. We have a home, so you have other bills to take care of before you can actually put fuel in your tank to get down the road.”
But week after week, they continue to hit the road in pursuit of fulfilling their dreams. It’s a labor of love they wouldn’t give up for any other profession.
“It’s a very expensive career, but we love every minute of it or we wouldn’t do it,” Walker said. “I don’t think I’d trade it.”