Close Call

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

There was $100,000 riding on the judge’s decision.

by Ty Erickson
 
 

I was backed into the box at The American earlier this year. It was the final run in the final round of the rodeo. Tens of thousands of fans were packed into AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. I was riding Scooter, the bulldogging horse owned by Tyler Pearson and Kyle Irwin. If I finished faster than 4.3 seconds, I’d win a check for $100,000. And this year, for the first time ever, half of that money counted towards our PRCA standings.

You could say a lot was riding on that run.

The American is kind of a big open pen, and the steers usually run a bit. You gotta go fast. It’s that kind of setup.

I nodded my head, and then a funny thing happened. I left the box, and the barrier wrapped around Scooter’s leg. The barrier’s pigtail actually broke off. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the yellow string floating along with us.

I caught my steer and threw him down. Did I break the barrier? I didn’t think so, but when you throw a steer down at the AT&T Stadium, you can’t see your time because the big screen is directly above you. I looked back, and the first person I saw was my traveling partner, Tyler Waguespack. I was going off Wag’s expression, and he was excited, so I knew I was fast enough. But did I break the barrier? I tried gesturing to him, Was it clean?

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


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Finding My Fit

I grew up in Helena, Montana, surrounded by horses. My Dad, Sid, is a veterinarian who does horse chiropractic work. My Mom, Janet, trains barrel horses. I’ve always wanted to be a rodeo cowboy. By my freshman year of high school, I set my sights on making the National Finals Rodeo—as a calf roper.

I was really passionate about calf roping. I always had this idea in my head that if I tried steer wrestling, I was gonna get hurt. It’s a stereotypical deal that if you bulldog, you’re gonna blow out a knee or something.

Then one day my Mom said a local steer wrestler named Nick Stubblefield was bringing his horse over for my Dad to work on. She wanted me to give bulldogging a try with Nick’s help. That might sound a little funny, since it’s usually the other way around—a guy will want to do something dangerous, like riding bucking horses or steer wrestling, and his Mom will tell him no. But Mom grew up in a big athletic family. My Uncle Joe was a star tight end for the Montana State Bobcats in 1984, the year they won the national championship. I’m a bigger guy, and Mom was always pushing me to play football or to rodeo. She was very supportive that way.

At first I wasn’t sure about the idea. But Nick came over and showed me a few things. Nick brought over his dummies and steer saver. He showed me how to slide. It came natural to me. From the moment I first tried steer wrestling, I loved it. It just fit me.

I think it was the physicality. I’m a big guy—6’ 6” and 250 pounds. In high school I was nearly as big. I craved the contact. I loved sliding the dummy and throwing it down. I never played football, because I was too focused on rodeo. Steer wrestling, I guess, let me be aggressive.

I also love the camaraderie among the bulldoggers. I started practicing with Nick and a couple of my buddies, Garrett Hanson and Timmy Sparing. We worked on dummies. Then we started chute-dogging steers. We learned the proper technique for getting off a horse. Finally, they put us on horseback and told us to go jump one. I still remember that day. I kind of got after it. I was proud of the fact that I was able to jump my very first steer.

All through high school, I competed in three events—calf roping, team roping and steer wrestling—but I knew bulldogging was going to be my event. Man, it just fit me so well.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


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From 2010 to 2013, I competed in the circuit rodeos with Nick. I owe a lot to that guy. He taught me technique, and he taught me how to win. That’s a huge part of being successful. It’s not just who knows how to bulldog the best. It’s learning how to win in this industry against the best guys in the world.

I just did my job and threw down that steer. I didn’t feel like I broke the barrier, but I knew it was up to the judge’s discretion.

Obviously you’re not going to draw good every time, but Nick taught me how to get by the good ones and the bad ones, how to really run at the barrier and when to maybe lay off a bit. He taught me that you don’t always have to win first. Sometimes, if you can finish second or third or fourth and win money, you’re gonna be way better off in the end. I was really fortunate to learn that at a young age.

Since I joined the PRCA in 2011, I’ve qualified for the National Finals Rodeo five times. The closest I’ve gotten to winning a world championship was 2017, when I finished second in the world standings. This year, I’m going after it like I always do.

 
 

Up to the Judge

Back in the AT&T Stadium, I didn’t have time to worry when I saw that pigtail. It was just floating along with us as we ran down the arena. Like I said, I just did my job and threw down that steer. I didn’t feel like I broke the barrier, but I knew it was up to the judge’s discretion.

The same thing happened to me years before, during the College National Rodeo Finals. When I was at Montana State University, I made the College Finals all four years. My best chance to do good was my junior year. On my second steer that year, I made a really good run. I think I was 3.7. But during the run, the barrier wrapped around my horse’s leg and the pigtail shot off to the left. Out of the corner of my eye I saw it fling up into the stands.

They ended up giving me a barrier right there. If it had been a clean run, I would have gone into the short round with a six-second lead. But with the ten-second penalty, I didn’t make the short go. I was upset, but I didn’t get angry. What can you do? It’s up to the judge’s discretion.

Here I was again in the same position, but this time there was $100,000 riding on the judge’s decision.

I looked back at Wag’s face and gestured. Was the run clean?

It was. And my time—4.2 seconds—was good enough for the win.

The first time I won The American was in 2016. That year, I was competing in the Champions Challenge, and there was a big Champions Challenge rodeo scheduled that same day in Scottsdale, Arizona. Fifteen of us needed to be in Scottsdale, so we had a few private jets lined up. As soon as I got on the stage to receive my prize, I had to skate and go jump on a plane. I remember thinking how I wanted to win The American one more time so I could stay there and soak up the moment. This year, that’s just what I did. I hung around to celebrate with all my friends and family.

Even sweeter was knowing that half of that $100,000 counted towards PRCA. I make my living by going to the NFR. I try to stay focused on finishing in the top fifteen 320 days out of the year. It’s stressful—until you get to that point where you can say, Yeah, I got the Finals made.

It’s never taken more than $73,000 to make the Finals in the steer wrestling. Thanks to The American, I’ve already won more than $98,000 this year. That’s a huge sigh of relief.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

 
 
 
 

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