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Getting over the WNFR hump

Orin Larsen 2015

I’ve heard cowboys say it over and over again over the years: “That first Finals is the hardest one to make.

They’re talking about the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Polaris RANGER, and they all have their own variations on that statement. But generally speaking, the common theme to getting over the Top 15 hump seems to be experience—as in lessons learned—and the fact that guys basically exhale after being knotted up for so long with all focus on the brass ring of their lifelong cowboy dream. The world title is the ultimate. But you’ve got to get to the Finals first.

The list of Finals freshmen at last year’s WNFR was extraordinarily long. Nearly a quarter of the NFR ’15 field—25 of 119 contestants, to be exact—hadn’t been there before. I watched two of the roughstock riding phenoms win National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association titles a couple years ago alongside my tie-down roping son Taylor (who was a Cal Poly freshman then and is a Sam Houston State junior now) and his bull riding bad boy but all-around good guy cousin Joe Frost. Orin Larsen won the bareback riding and CoBurn Bradshaw won the saddle bronc riding in Casper that year, and went on to make their first NFR last December. 

“I think that first Finals is tough because it’s something you dream of your whole life,” said Canada native Larsen of Inglis, Manitoba. “You want to make it happen so, so bad, so getting it done is like climbing Everest. Making it again is going to be difficult, but making it once was unbelievable.”

Larsen won back-to-back NIRA titles, the first for the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls in 2013 and the second for Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell in 2014. What he learned in arenas along the way that helped him over the NFR-cut hurdle included making the best of every ride.

“Don’t try to be 95 on an 82-point horse,” he said. “You have to take what you get, make the best of it and go on. I’m still learning new things every day about how to rodeo smarter and better. There’s always going to be a learning curve for me. The biggest thing for me and my traveling partner, Seth Hardwick, is that we didn’t go to 100 rodeos and we didn’t get on horses that were no chance. By August, we were still pretty fresh and excited. If you go to too many to the point where you’re sore, worn out and want to go home you’ve lost the battle. Our strategy was Seth’s idea, and it was a good one for us. Giving 120 percent at every rodeo and rodeoing smarter, not harder, has been a big deal for us.

“I’ve had a lot of good advice from a lot of different people, but I think the one thing that’s helped me most is not to take things to heart. If something doesn’t go your way there’s no sense beating yourself up over it and having it hurt you at the next one. You need to blow it off and go on. We’re all trying to win first every time, but that can’t happen. And when it doesn’t happen you can’t let it eat at your confidence and at your mind.”

Larsen and Hardwick were two of six Finals first-timers in the bareback riding field last December.

“The next generation of bareback riders is coming along to fill the shoes of the guys who are on the way out,” Larsen said. “As some guys retire, other guys are ready. Every bareback rider in the world standings deserves to be there, without a doubt. It’s a relief to have that first one down. I sure hope it’s not the only time I make it.”

Highly unlikely, given that he’s winning the world in the early going of this 2016 season. “The first year going to the NFR, that dressing room is so full of emotion,” Larsen said. “I’d planned on being oblivious to all of that, but that’s not possible in Vegas. It’s fun, it’s exciting and you have no idea what to expect. I told my brother after the 10th round last year that we were going to have more fun this year than last year just because we know the ropes a little bit better.”

His bronc riding big brother, Tyrel, was one of four guys at their first Finals in that event last year. Another of them was Bradshaw. He’s married to Wright sister Rebecca, who is fellow 2015 first timer Rusty Wright’s aunt (Rusty is two-time Champ of the World Cody’s son). The fourth in that talented mix was six-time NFR bronc rider Skeeter Thurston’s son Zeke, and I can’t go a single sentence further without mentioning that CoBurn edged Zeke by a mere half a point over four rounds for the national title at that 2014 College National Finals Rodeo.

Bradshaw—a native of Beaver, Utah, who’s still living in Beaver County but in Milford now—is second only to reigning World Champ Jacobs Crawley so far in 2016. Bradshaw was a student at Western Texas College in Snyder when he won his college title a couple years ago.

“It really is hard to make that first one (WNFR),” Bradshaw said. “I don’t know if it’s the confidence that comes with making it or what, but I felt like I got better in 10 days than I did all year, and I feel like I’ve been better ever since making it. I think traveling partners are a big thing—having good help and staying positive.”

Bradshaw’s traveling with brothers-in-law and three of Bill and Evelyn Wright’s 13 kids, Jake, Jesse and Alex. Bradshaw says some of the wisest words he’s heard have come from his father-in-law, Bill. 

“Bill says that to win a world championship you have to learn to win on horses that normal people can’t win on,” Bradshaw said. “You have to learn how to win on whatever you get, because one horse can cost you the Finals. You have to learn how to spur them all, so you’re winning checks most of the time instead of every now and then when you get a really good horse. You have to make up for horses that aren’t as good with your ride, Bill says, and he’s right. All the Wrights are really positive people and they’re full of good advice.”

Bradshaw says he didn’t feel too much pressure to make the Finals last year, because, “It’s not very often a rookie makes the Finals—not many ever have in the bronc riding. I think Zeke pushed me to the Finals, because we were both rookies and I had to keep trying harder to try to win rookie of the year.

“There are a ton of kids coming up in high school right now that are better than we were at that age, so it’s just going to keep getting tougher. Bill’s other really good advice is that importance of staying positive. He says he’s seen a lot of guys of world champion quality who went through a streak of not winning or got sour on the travel and it cost them world championships. Everybody has slumps, but if you stay positive you come out of them a lot faster. This is a mental game, and you just have to keep going. You ride a lot better when you’re confident.”

Steer wrestler Tyler Waguespack made his first Finals last year, and it’d be hard to find someone who worked harder or wanted it more. “Before I made it, it felt like there was a barrier you have to break to get the ice broken to get to the Thomas & Mack the first time,” said Waguespack, who’s from Gonzales, La., and currently a top-five contender. “It’s a lot easier to breathe now that I’ve been there. People look at you differently, like you’re supposed to be there instead of the new kid on the block. Before you get there, that’s everybody’s goal. It’s a lot more relaxing trying to do it again.

“I used to think if somebody was fast I had to be faster than that. Ote (Berry) and my dad (bulldogger Mike Waguespack) and Tom (Carney) told me you can’t make a 6-second steer a 3-second steer, and that I needed to just slow down, make the best possible run on whatever I drew and place. They taught me that they pay several holes, and that you can’t win first on every steer. They were right, and I use my head more now that I have more experience. If you consistently make your best run on every steer you draw, your share of the winnings will come your way.”

Waguespack spent a lot of time in Checotah, Okla. —the Steer Wrestling Capital of the World—on his way up, bunking at Berry’s place and practicing at Bill Duvall’s arena. Checotah’s been renowned bulldogging country for decades, as ProRodeo Hall of Famers and old traveling partners Roy Duvall and Berry, along with World Steer Wrestling Champs Teddy Johnson (2003), late brothers Benny (1955) and Willard (1957) Combs and the late Billy Hale (1971) have all called the small rural town home. And it’s not just bulldogging country—it’s Duvall country.

Bill’s boys, Sam and Spud, are both two-time National Finalists, and Bill and Roy’s cousin Tom wrestled steers at the Big Show twice, too. Bill hazed at the NFR for a number of notables over the years, including Roy, Ote, Sam, Rod Lyman and the late Ricky Huddleston. Sam’s son, Riley, looks to be on the brink of his first Finals. Roy won gold buckles in 1967, ’69 and ’72, and owns the record for the most NFR steer wrestling qualifications ever at 24.

So, “Legend,” why do you think that first Finals is the hardest to make?

“You’re up against all the big names and the tough guys, so you’re going to get nervous,” said Roy, who bulldogged at the NFR 21 straight years from 1966-86, and in 1990-91 and ’94. “I was at the Finals many a time, and was nervous every time I went. I wasn’t scared to be there, it’s just a thrilling rodeo. I think part of why it’s tough to make that first one is because you’re wanting to make the Finals so bad that you make a lot of mistakes with your bulldogging. You try to get in too big a hurry. If you force things you’re going to make more mistakes. If you slow down and go make your run you’ll do a lot better. A guy needs to block everything other than your run out of your mind.

“I really believe Riley will make it this year. I watch him practice, and he’s catching more steers and throwing them down better all the time. Some of the young guys get in too big a hurry. We tell them all to slow down, slide the steer and throw him down, whether you’re practicing or for the money. Slow down and make good runs when you practice, and do the same thing at the rodeos. It sounds simple, and it is.”

Great advice on getting to one. But 24?

“I was a country boy and had chopped cotton and everything else to start rodeoing,” Roy said. “If I didn’t win I couldn’t go. So I didn’t worry about anything but catching that steer and making a good run. I had to win to go to the next one. I’ve been to a rodeo without a penny in my pocket. I’ve ridden in the box in the short round and didn’t know how I was going to get from Reno to Greeley, Colorado. You bear down a lot harder when you have to win. Some guys can’t handle that. I didn’t have a choice.” 

Dakota Eldridge has bulldogged at the last three NFRs, and won last December’s 10-steer NFR average. 

“I was lucky enough to make it the first year I rodeoed, but I made it in 15th, so it was close,” Eldridge said. “But I do agree that first one is the hardest to make. You start competing against all your heroes and everyone you’ve looked up to. Everybody’s so unsure how much it takes. Once you make it there once, you have the confidence that you know you can make it again. It’s not so scary out there once you’ve made it. It takes skill and horsepower and a little luck to get there. 

“Making the Finals was always my dream, but I look at it as a business. It has to pencil out. I think a good attitude and a positive mindset are big. There are so many ups and downs in rodeo, and you have to get through those times to make it. You’re going to draw bad, and you’re not going to win every single time you nod your head. You have to be able to overcome not having a good winter or spring. There have been times I drove all night and thought I had a tough job, but then I looked at it like I could be building fence instead. I feel lucky and fortunate to get to do this. 

“Being thankful has helped me a lot. So has trying to stay right in the middle. When you’re winning you can’t stop practicing and coast. You have to stay grounded. When things don’t go my way I don’t let it drag on. I get over it and get on to the next one. You can’t get too excited or too depressed. You have to keep grinding it out, and you can take nothing for granted. That’s how you stay on top. And nothing carries over in this sport. Every time I back in the box now I tell myself, ‘This is to make the NFR right here,’ whether it’s a little circuit rodeo or Reno. You need that mindset that you’re going to win. Every run counts and can make the difference. If you have a bad steer you can’t win first on, go win third or fourth on him. I don’t win first a lot, but I’ve placed a lot throughout my career. Not beating yourself is part of learning how to win. My Uncle Marlow always instilled in me that we were there to win.” 

Roy Duvall made 24 NFRs, and fellow Oklahoman Clay Smith, 24, team roped at his first one last December. Header Smith was one of three Lone Rangers at last year’s Finals. There was also just one Finals freshman heeler, Travis Woodard, and one first-time tie-down roper, Marcos Costa. 

“It seems like it’s true that the first one is the toughest, because it always takes a little longer than what you would want it to,” Smith said. “There are times you doubt yourself until you get there. There’s some intimidation involved in roping against all the guys you’ve always heard of and looked up to. It’s like trying to play basketball against Michael Jordan, even if you’re close to being as good. Until you actually get over that hill it can be a little bit overwhelming. A lot of it is about learning what kind of horse you need to have. That takes some learning, too. 

“The good part about getting out there is that you figure out those guys have good days and bad days just like everybody else. They’re no different than anybody else. Once you realize that, it comes down to how much hard work you put into it. Once you make the Finals the first time there’s a big weight off your shoulders. You should get better every year, and making it the first time made me want to get better. I realized there were a lot of things I could have done better, like having a better horse here or there, or I should have gone to this or that rodeo.” 

One of the common threads here is that success can’t be forced or obtained instantly in any event.

“The more steers you catch, the better,” Smith said. “Stopping the clock is the most important thing, and sometimes that means slowing down instead of trying to win first all the time. You have to stop the clock to win. Make your run that you’re proud of, do it over and over again, and you will win. It took me a while to learn that. There are 60 teams that can win day in and day out. The difference is horsepower and catching. 

“I’m really happy I made the Finals, but I don’t feel comfortable at all. If you ever start feeling comfortable people start getting better than you. You can never lay back or guys will start outworking you and you’ll win less.”

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