Back at it: Different venue, but WNFR veterans will compete once again
The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is old hat for the veterans who’ve competed multiple times.
But nothing is “old hat” this year, with all the changes the COVID-19 pandemic has caused.
And that goes for pro rodeo, too.
The WNFR has been held in Las Vegas at the Thomas and Mack Center since 1985.
This year Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, home of the MLB Texas Rangers team, will host the World Series of Rodeo.
The change in venue and location causes uncertainties for the Finals qualifiers, but they’re ready to go.
One of the bigger changes for the barrel racers is the size of the pen and the pattern. The Thomas and Mack arena is small; Globe Life Field is much larger, more open. The PRCA and WPRA have stated the barrel racing pattern will be standard.
That helps WNFR qualifier Lisa Lockhart and her main horse, Rosas Cantina, “Rosa.” The ten-year-old buckskin loves bigger arenas, she said. “I’m definitely looking forward to it being a bigger arena and a bigger pattern,” she said. “That is definitely what Rosa desires. That part of it is exciting.”
But with a new venue, arena and city, there are plenty of unknowns, Lockhart said. “That part has been the hardest, the not-knowing. We all like to plan ahead and have a game plan, and at this time, there’s no game plan,” she laughed.
That’s the same for all the contestants, though. “It’s new to everybody so we’re all in the same boat. Nobody can ask anybody how to do it because it’s new to us all.”
The fourteen-time qualifier’s backup horse will be Tres Movidas, “Vida,” owned by Tom Jacobs, ridden and trained by Hallie Hanssen. Hanssen rode Vida to a first place finish at the Women’s World Rodeo Championship. Hanssen and Lockhart traveled together a few times this summer, and Lockhart got to know Vida better. “She’s an amazing athlete. She has her own personality and attitude, like they all do,” she said. “She’s small in stature but mighty in performance.”
Rodeo fans are familiar with the Oelrichs, S.D.’s long-time mount, Louie, who is on injured reserve, she said, and Cutter, who had complications from minor surgery in February. Cutter is improving, but not ready for competition yet.
After fourteen trips to the “big show,” her preparations don’t change much. She’ll go to Texas a few days early to spend time with Vida and get to know her better. But adapting and changing are things rodeo contestants are used to, Lockhart said. “We are adaptable, as rodeo contestants, because you have to be, all year round.”
“We do what we do all year long,” she said. “It might be more of a mindset, to go someplace to make practice runs. This year I’m definitely not going to a little indoor barn to prepare.”
Faith, South Dakota’s Cole Elshere is headed to the WNFR for his fourth trip, after having qualified in 2012-14.
Headed there in sixth place, he had a good winter, winning money at rodeos before the pandemic slowed competition to a crawl.
He planned on rodeoing more in the winter, because he and wife Kyndra were expecting their first baby, a girl.
“I went to more rodeos than I normally do in the winter, knowing we were going to have a baby in September.”
He won first in Waco, Texas, got third at the American in March, and did well at San Antonio, among others. Then the pandemic hit, with fewer rodeos, many of the small ones, and cowboys and cowgirls traveling double the miles for less money. “I didn’t want to do that,” Elshere said. “I didn’t want to put that stress on my family.” He went to half as many rodeos as he usually does, hitting about fifty events.
To prepare for the Finals, Elshere has been working around the ranch and tending to their baby girl, Everley. “We’re trying to get the ranch buttoned up so we can be gone for two weeks. Besides that, rocking a baby is mostly what I’ve been up to.”
The larger pen and more open atmosphere of Globe Life Field makes a difference for bucking horses, Elshere said. “It will definitely help some horses. There are some it might hurt, because they have more room to go so they’ll keep going instead of staying close. But for the most part, most of those horses not having to bounce around a fence will help them.”
Elshere has competed at the American, held at AT&T Stadium nearly across the street from Globe Life Field, so the area is familiar to him. “I’ve had some success at the American, and enjoyed it,” he said. “It was a great feeling. So I’m banking on it being similar to that. We are semi-familiar with the area, so I think we’ll be able to roll in there and have fun.”
Jessica Routier, of Buffalo, S.D., will ride the horse that’s carried her to a ninth place regular season finish.
Fiery Miss West, “Missy,” owned by Gary Westergren of Lincoln, Neb., a nine-year-old palomino, “is just really tough and gritty,” Routier said. “I think she really likes to win. The more the odds are stacked against her, the harder she tries. She’s adaptable to different situations, different sizes of arenas and pens. That’s beneficial for a rodeo horse because there are so many different situations you encounter.”
Missy is low maintenance, too, “and takes everything in stride, with the hauling that goes on with rodeo. It doesn’t take a big toll on her like it does on some horses.”
Like Lockhart, Routier feels the uncertainty of the new venue, location and arena can be daunting. “There are so many unknowns,” she said. “It’s pretty stressful. It really makes you appreciate how convenient Vegas was, which I don’t think any of us realized.”
The trip from northwest South Dakota to Texas isn’t any shorter of a trip, but there are no mountains to cross and less winter weather to watch for, so “it’s a much easier drive.”
Routier’s backup horse is High On Smoothies “Nickie,” a five-year-old out of her old sorrel mare, Smoothie. Nickie was Routier’s second choice; a full sister to the mare, Margie, was slated as backup. But Margie had colic surgery in October and isn’t ready for competition. “Her sister will have to pick up the slack,” Routier said. “Hopefully there’s no slack to pick up.”
This is Routier’s third trip to the Finals, but it’s “just as exciting,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll ever be able to take for granted going to the Finals because it’s so amazing. People work their whole lives to go.” This year’s Finals in Arlington put everybody on the same level, as to new surroundings. “I feel like (this Finals) is more like my first one. At the first one, I had never been to Vegas so I didn’t know what to expect. And now we’re in the same boat again, but everybody’s in that boat.
“I’m grateful they’re having it,” Routier said. “This year, if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that anything can happen.”
Other WNFR qualifiers from the area include, in the bareback riding, Orin Larsen, Inglis, Manitoba (now living in Gering, Neb.); Jamie Howlett, Rapid City, S.D.; Richmond Champion, Stevensville, Mont., and Cole Reiner, Buffalo, Wyo. Ty Breuer, Mandan, N.D. qualified, but a bicep injury that isn’t fully healed has caused him to forgo the Finals. Winn Ratliff, Leesville, La., the number sixteen man, will compete in his place.
In the saddle bronc riding, area Finals qualifiers include Brody Cress, Hillsdale, Wyo.; Shorty Garrett, Eagle Butte, S.D., Cole Elshere, Faith, S.D. and Chase Brooks, Deer Lodge, Mont.
Steer wrestling contestants are Jace Melvin, Ft. Pierre, S.D. and Bridger Anderson, Carrington, N.D.
In the team roping, qualifiers include Clay Tryan, Billings, Mont., as a header, and Levi Lord, Sturgis, S.D. and Chase Tryan, Helena, Mont. on the heel end.
Reigning world champion tie-down roper Haven Meged, Miles City, Mont., will compete at the Finals as well.
The Wrangler National Finals takes place over ten nights, from Dec. 3-12, and determines the PRCA world champions. Held at Globe Life Field, the home of the Texas Rangers, it will begin at 7 pm CT each night. It will air live each night on RFD-TV and the Cowboy Channel.