It’s a little bit like Las Vegas traffic, you know about your own car and driving skills, but you sure can’t control what the other drivers are going to do.
It is the grand entry at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) and some contestants say it is more nerve-wracking than competing.
Having contestants ride in horseback either carrying or behind their state flag at a speed that is all rodeo has been a tradition at the NFR for as long as most people can remember. In fact, Hadley Barrett was announcing in Oklahoma City in 1968 where it was part of the tradition. They also rehearsed it.
Prior to rehearsal they had a get-acquainted cocktail party for all of the contestants. The practice session got a little western. Especially when bull rider Ronnie “Punch” Rossen came around the first corner of the lap around the arena and stripped the bridle off of his horse. He made at least two more laps around on a runaway. They never started rehearsal with cocktails after that.
Contestants at this year’s NFR met the day before the action started in the Thomas and Mack Center for their rehearsal. There are 120 contestants at the NFR and all but the 15 bareback riders participate in the grand entry.
That’s 105 horses for them, and an additional four for flags in the arena one on each corner. It takes less than four minutes, is something that the fans love and sets the pace for the whole rodeo.
This year there are flags representing three countries, and 26 states. Sherry Cervi has participated in more grand entries than any other contestant. This is her 19th qualification and counting rehearsals she has made the lap around the Thomas and Mack Arena over 200 times. Sherry has never missed riding in a grand entry and has carried the Arizona state flag for most of those.
“I love it as much today as I did the first time I was here,” she said. “We get to ride into the arena, take in the atmosphere and the crowd. It’s electric. There is just nothing else like it. Barrel racers don’t get the chance to sit back and experience that kind of energy anywhere else. I absolutely love the grand entry.”
Veterans of the NFR are quick to give the rookies advice. Ryder Wright is the youngest competitor here and has five family members that were quick to tell him, “don’t get bucked off.” Ryder made it through his first rehearsal and first grand entry with flying colors. He then went on to win the round in the saddle bronc riding where he again headed his family advice.
Tyler Waguespack was a rookie at last year’s NFR in the steer wrestling. He got advice that he passed on to another rookie this year, Jacob Talley. Tyler is carrying the Louisiana flag and leads their contingent.
“I told him the same thing they told me last year,” Tyler said. “There is nothing like it. Just make that first corner, then it gets real. Take it all in and enjoy it.”
For all of the positive sentiments, there is that Las Vegas traffic thing. Most of the ropers, steer wrestlers and barrel racers provide their own horses. Saddle bronc riders and bull riders depend on horses provided by stock contractors to get them around the arena.
This year’s Canadian representation is eight members strong. Among those is the first set of team ropers Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler who happened to be riding ahead of saddle bronc rider Zeke Thurston.
“I don’t think Zeke’s horse likes other horses,” Jeremy said. “Because he was really pushing on mine, trying to bite and being a bully.”
It all starts with the PRCA and WPRA flags carried by women who aren’t competitors. They set the corners at the timed-event end of the arena. Then Las Vegas Events and Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame flags set the opposite corners. Country flags of Brazil, Canada and France are next. State flags follow them.
Carrying the flag is an honor that is earned and for most contestants that’s a goal. It is based on money earnings from the regular season and the back number that they wear when entering the NFR.
After they make a lap around the arena, they line up the horses and squeeze them into a formation that has 32 horses on each side, 14 on the far end and everyone else squeezes in the middle. Then when everyone is in place, there is a salute to the fans. They ride out of the arena in pairs and they go out as fast as they came in.
It was the longest hour and a half of bull rider Cody Rostockyj’s NFR so far. The Texan is making his first appearance here. Not only does he not like horses, he openly admits that he is scared of them.
“I haven’t been on a horse in two years,” he said at practice. “I didn’t warm my horse up, just got on, held onto the reins and the saddle horn the whole time. I promise that when we are in front of the crowd that is all I’m going to do. There will be no waving, no hat tipping, just grit my teeth and go.
“My horse’s name is Brown Nose,” Cody added. “I’m going to be kissing his butt and brown nosing all through the next 10 nights just to get through it. As long as I don’t fall off I’ll be okay.”
Several of this year’s bull riders rope for fun and ride horses often. While Cody Rostockyj isn’t one of those his fellow competitors voted him the best horseman of the bunch.
“He hangs on really good,” Garrett Smith said with a laugh. Garrett is right at home on his horse. Garrett rode alongside his brother Wyatt at the 2014 NFR as a hazer when Wyatt was steer wrestling. The horse provided for Garrett doesn’t have much “Whoa” to him and likes to run. That suits Garrett just fine who is up to the challenge of keeping his horse in the right traffic lane and parking him where he is supposed to be.
While a few of the contestants are hanging on for dear life during the first four minutes of action others are savoring every bit of the experience. And, there are the 15 bareback riders who stand behind the chutes watching the grand entry while waiting to compete.
“I think it would be really cool to ride in the grand entry one time,” said Tim O’Connell who is the only contestant this year from Iowa. “I’m proud of where I’m from and it would be an honor to be able to carry the flag and have that experience.”
When a bareback rider is the only contestant from a state, their flag is carried by another contestant who volunteers. It’s still a moment of pride for them.
“The grand entry here is such a signature of the NFR,” said Boyd Polhamus who has called the action here 21 years and been on the podium another five. “I still get goosebumps when the flags and riders start coming in that arena. There is dirt getting chucked up on the announcers stand from all of those flying hooves. It’s rapid fire and iconic to the NFR experience.”
One thing you won’t find during those four minutes of the grand entry in the Thomas and Mack no matter what the traffic is like – road rage. There is a lot of pride in a NFR qualification and riding in the grand entry is part of that. Respect for the flags, home states, other contestants, and the fans goes right along with it.