READY TO RIDE: Cowboy qualifies at the last minute for The American | TSLN.com

READY TO RIDE: Cowboy qualifies at the last minute for The American

Sitting in 11th place in the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association standings, saddle bronc rider Chuck Schmidt, Keldron, S.D., might be thinking "Vegas" this December. He competed in the 2011 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, so it wouldn't be his first time.

But right now he's thinking "Arlington, Texas" and probably "$1 million."

The 26-year old rancher and former college champion earned a spot in the second annual "world's richest one-day rodeo," hosted and sponsored by RFD-TV, by first riding a bronc during the Black Hills Stock Show earlier this month.

While at press time the rodeo has yet to take place, the March 1, event will be over by the time most newspapers arrive in mailboxes. Perhaps Schmidt will be the big $1 million winner.

"The world's richest one-day rodeo will return to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to payout $2 million dollars to the days victors and award over half a million in prizes. Athletes will battle through qualifiers, Semifinals and World Finals for a chance to compete at the home of the Dallas Cowboys," announces the official website.

The PRCA's top ten in each rodeo event following the WNFR are invited to take part in the event. Bull riders are invited based on Professional Bull Riders association standings. Additionally, cowboys and cowgirls of any age, ability or experience level can claw their way up to the finals through qualifiers held around the country.

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The "underdogs" are paid the best if they win, with $1.1 million set aside to be divided among as many of the event winners that are not top ten PRCA or PBR cowboys or Womens Professional Rodeo cowgirls. Last year Texas bareback rider Richmond Champion went home with the whole kitty, as every other event was won by a top ten cowboy or cowgirl. There is a separate purse set aside for the invitees. South Dakota's Lisa Lockhart rode off with the barrel racing title and $100,000 last year.

While some cowboys and cowgirls have known for months that they were qualified for the semi-finals, Schmidt, recovering from a broken neck, waited until the last possible qualifying event before taking the chance on a bucking horse.

Schmidt entered the qualifier held in Rapid City, South Dakota, at the Civic Center on Feb. 2, held in conjunction with a colt futurity match.

"This year they had so many events going on (during the Black Hills Stock Show) that they combined it. They held the qualifier with the colt futurity. There were a group of colts that were someone's better end of their pen. The colts were judged for the futurity and the cowboys were judged for their riding."

Because the horses were young, the cowboys didn't know as much about the way they would buck, Schmidt said, but he drew a good one of Russ Kling's. "They've taken him to futurities before, so I talked a to a few guys that have been on him before." The unnamed horse was "a good honest colt," with "nothing out of line, nothing hard to ride," Schmidt said.

After he "happened to win" the last of the qualifiers, Schmidt and one of his traveling buddies, Jesse Bail from Camp Crook, S.D., headed south to vie for wins in the semis and the finals – and a chance at much bigger money.

The top 12 after the first semi-final round were still in the running, then the top five in the average on two advanced to the The American Rodeo.

Schmidt first rode Cat Power of Sparky Dreeson's, who was "really nice to ride." Then he got on Lonesome Night owned by Frontier Rodeo Company.

"Lonesome Night was quite a bit stronger. He about had me bucked off right out of the chute. I happened to scramble and finish my ride and finish the second half in good style, I guess."

While "getting crunched up like an accordion" when he was thrown off a bronc in Okatoks, Alberta, on Aug. 30, 2013, Schmidt broke vertebrae and crushed a disc at the base of his neck. Recovery has kept him out of commission until lately, when Schmidt decided it was time to re-enter the rodeo scene, which he did with a bang. Winning the Bismarck, North Dakota, and Jackson, Mississippi professional rodeos recently has boosted his confidence and helped reassure Schmidt that riding broncs is the right thing for him to be doing now.

"The fusion isn't completely healed but it's good enough to rodeo," he says in true cowboy fashion.

Riding broncs is still feeling a little "awkward" he said, but he's gaining confidence with each horse. "I don't feel like I'm as good as I was before I got hurt but the best thing you can do is to get on one. Even if I get bucked off there is something I can take away from that."

The first time he got on a bucking horse in an arena was at a clinic hosted by Korkow Rodeo Company near Pierre, taught by Tom Miller, Faith, South Dakota. He was 14. The Dakotas are full of great bronc riders, Schmidt said, and many have helped him, particularly Red Lemmel, Bud Longbrake and Brad Gjermundson. J.J. Elshere and Jesse Bail, who he competes with regularly, have helped mentor him too, he said, as have many others.

This season Schmidt travels with fellow South Dakota bronc riders Dawson Jandreau, Kennebec, Jade Blackwell, Rapid City and Bail.

When he's not riding broncs, Schmidt ranches with his parents Stuart and Lisa Schmidt of Keldron, S.D.

South Dakota saddle bronc rider, J.J. Elshere of Hereford, will also compete in The American bronc riding event. As the Professional Roughstock Series champion, he was invited to participate so he is not eligible for the $1 million payout but would nonetheless earn a considerable check if he were to win – a cut of the $1 million set aside for the automatic qualifiers.