The Ride-Off

 photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

As a college junior entering RodeoHouston, I felt like a kid chasing a dream. Then I made the finals.

by Clay Elliott
 
 

It was March, 2016, the final round of RodeoHouston. I was in the bucking chute, gripping the long braided rein in my right hand. I took a deep breath, stepped in the saddle and eased onto a bronc named Stampede Warrior. I was still a kid—or felt like one—but the 50,000 or so people watching from the stands at NRG Stadium had paid to see a champion.

I was up against three saddle-bronc riders who I considered champions—Cody DeMoss, Layton Green and Rusty Wright. We’d all been advancing for days to reach the finals. Now, here we were.

Minutes earlier, during his final go, Cody scored an 85. I was up second. This was my last ride, my last chance to win $50,000, but only if I didn’t buck off. And only if I beat 85, a high bar.

 photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

photo courtesy of RodeoHouston


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Being from Canada, I knew all about Stampede Warrior. He’s a Calgary bronc. It seemed more than fitting. Almost like fate. I’d seen him buck on TV and in the Wrangler National Rodeo Finals any number of times. He was the horse to win on. But with Stampede Warrior, it was either score high or buck off.

The crowd was so loud. But I was focusing on the horse. And everything just kind of faded away.

Then I gave the nod, and the gate came open, and Stampede Warrior blew out of the chute really fast. He went for two strides, jumped, hit, cut to the left, then angled across the arena, bailing in the air and kicking over his head. Man, he was strong! It felt like I was coming out of the saddle every time he bucked. I was hustling to stay on.

But then I heard the whistle blow. I double grabbed the reins and the pickup-man was right there. I stepped off with him. My eight seconds were done, and I was back on my feet in the middle of that huge stadium, the same place the Houston Texans play on Sundays. The crowd was roaring, and my heart was pounding like it was gonna burst out my chest.

Everything was kinda standing still. Except for the people, who were going crazy. It felt unreal.

I walked back to the bucking chute full of anticipation. It felt like an outstanding ride, but I didn’t know how the judges were gonna score it. I stood beside Cody and watched myself on the big-screen. The ride looked as good as it had felt. I scored an 88. Cody slapped me on the back.

“You think that’ll be good enough to win it?” he asked.

I didn’t know. And really, it didn’t matter. Because I was already on cloud nine.

This was the world stage. I was competing against guys I grew up idolizing and watching ride in this same event on TV. One of my heroes is twenty-time, WNFR-qualifier Rod Hay. The year before, I was at his house and saw his championship saddle from the 2010 RodeoHouston and thought, If you can jump down in a place like Houston, that’s making it. If there was ever one to win, Houston is it.

At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about winning, or the $50,000 prize, or any of that. As a boy, I’d fantasized about competing in the final round at Houston so many times. This was a dream come true. And I was soaking it up.

Layton went next. He had a good ride, but his horse was below average, so he scored low. That left me in the lead.

Last up was Rusty Wright. He was on Final Feather—a good, strong horse that’s hard to ride. An eliminator, in fact. But I knew Rusty was a great rider, so I was excited to see what would happen.

Final Feather bailed out the chute and kicked hard. Then he turned right and passed in front of the chutes with his head low, just bucking like hell.

When the whistle blew, I thought Rusty had beat me for sure. I was getting ready to go shake his hand, when I saw his score on the big-screen.

It was 88, same as mine.

A tie? In the final round? This was a first for me. Then I realized we were going to have a ride-off for the championship. I looked up at the grandstands at all those people and thought, Hell yeah, I get to have another ride!

 
 photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

photo courtesy of RodeoHouston


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Going into Houston, on paper, I was riding pretty high. I was a junior at Oklahoma Panhandle State University—which, if you’re looking to become a saddle-bronc rider, is the place to be. The summer before, I’d won the 2015 College National Finals Rodeo, or CNFR for short.

But this was recent history. Up to then, I’d felt pretty stagnant.

I realized we were going to have a ride-off for the championship. I looked up at the grandstands at all those people and thought, Hell yeah, I get to have another ride!

During my first two years in college, it didn’t seem like I was getting any better. I was there on a full scholarship, so they must have seen some promise in me. I was happy to be getting my education, but I was there to ride broncs. I felt stuck.

And homesick.

I was twenty years old, seventeen-hundred miles from home, trying to accomplish this crazy goal. If I could just see some results, that might justify the pain of being so far from my friends and family. But I wasn’t winning. Wasn’t even placing. That had me pretty low.

Of course, I kept plugging away. Trying to keep the faith. But it was dawning on me how much more it was going to take to succeed. In the back of my mind, I wondered if I was going to make it.

Luckily, I was surrounded by the right guys.

There were my coaches, Robert Etbauer, Danny Etbauer and Craig Latham. And my mentor, the late rodeo hall-of-famer Winston Bruce. Those guys had competed at the top of the world. They’d been through the same stages I was going through. Their advice kept me focused on advancing. They kept saying it was all just stepping stones. I remember Winston telling me and telling me, “It takes time.”

Winning the college championships was a breakthrough—the first time people looked at me like a real bronc rider. It was a join-the-club moment.

But I wasn’t satisfied. I had bigger and better goals.

 
 photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

 
 
 

The thing was, I’d grown up in a rodeo family in Vernon, British Columbia. I’d been going to rodeos since before I could remember. My mom and dad were involved in rodeo, and my brother was a pro bull rider. I can remember when I turned 12 and won my first real event riding steers and said to myself, Rodeoing is what I want to do with my life.

Riding broncs was everything. This was what I was meant to do.

My first year competing professionally was 2015. I finished the season ranked 17th and won $65,000. That meant I barely missed qualifying for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. To be so close and miss it? That was devastating.

Because of my college schedule, working professional events was tricky. In 2016, Houston was the first major pro-rodeo event I was able to enter following the CNFR. I was going in there with fire and passion, determined to prove myself.

As RodeoHouston got underway, I felt like I was on the right path. I kept making good rides and advancing on horses you wouldn’t expect to win on. I almost didn’t make the finals. I bucked off in the semis but made the final round by way of the wildcard.

Now, in a ride-off, I had a chance to win the whole damn thing.

 
 photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

 

My adrenaline was going like a freight train. The stadium was at a standstill, while the officials loaded two fresh broncs.

Rusty drew Miller Time. That left me with Dancing Girl, a strong little black horse.

Dancing Girl’s a good, strong horse, but she’s phony-headed, meaning she throws her head back and pumps it up and down as she bucks, which makes it damn hard to stay on. Miller Time was a really nice horse. Dancing Girl was definitely the harder of the two to ride.

But that was the draw. I had to work with the hand I got dealt.

Being unexpected, the ride-off was a real rush deal. My friends Cort Scheer and Audy Reed helped me get the saddle off Stampede Warrior and onto Dancing Girl. We did some quick technical talking about rein measurement. The way she liked to dip and throw her head back, we decided to go with a measurement of X and Two. That’s a happy-medium—enough rein so that she doesn’t jerk you off when she throws her head forward, but not too much, so that when she tosses her head back, you can keep the rein tight.

Rusty went first. He had an outstanding ride and scored an 84.

Saddled up in the chute, I was taking deep breaths. Dancing Girl had a reputation for being hard to get out on. She leans in the chute and sometimes doesn’t give you a good shot. I knew if I let myself get all nervous and rammy-jammy, I’d increase the likelihood of that happening. So, I was focusing on my horsemanship. I wanted my calm to pass right into her.

Everything got real quiet. It was just me and the horse. This feeling of pure concentration. Like nothing could possibly affect me. Like time was standing still.

Then we were out the chute. Dancing Girl took a little scoot run and jumped and hit and threw her head back up at me. But I knew that was her trick. I was ready for it. That’s where the rein measurement came in handy. She was jumping up in the air, and it felt like I was getting bucked off every jump. But I just kept landing back in my saddle. Her head was going up and down. I kept hustling. Moving my feet. Focusing on staying on.

The whistle blew, and right then she bucked me off. 

When my boots hit the dirt, I didn’t know how they were gonna score it. Then I saw everyone running out and yelling and shouting and coming to shake my hand. And that’s when I knew.

I scored 85. I won Houston. 

 photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

Back at college, I kept riding for the school, kept competing in the pro rodeos when and where I could, kept going to class. A lot of people had invested in me, and I meant to come through with my end of the bargain. I wanted to stay on and graduate and get my degree. And that’s exactly what I did.

Later that year, I qualified for and competed in my first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. When it was over, I finished 2016 ranked 11th in the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings. 

Both were big moments. But looking back, neither compares to Houston.

That night, I remember standing in that huge stadium with the crowd going crazy, knowing my family was at home watching me on TV. I’d won $50,000, but it wasn’t about the money. It was about passion. About loving the sport. I’d been searching for this feeling since I was a boy and, now, I finally had it.

I wasn’t just some college kid riding broncs as a hobby, or on the weekends. This was my career. This was what I did. This was where I belonged.

I had proven myself.

Since then, I wear my RodeoHouston championship buckle at every rodeo I ride in. It reminds me of where I come from. Why I ride. All I hope to accomplish.

I plan to keep on wearing it.

Until I win my first gold buckle.

 
 photo by Clay Elliott

photo by Clay Elliott

 photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

photo courtesy of RodeoHouston

 
 

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