First time: Three locals qualify to ride broncs, barebacks
Three regional cowboys count themselves as first-timers at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) next month.
Jamie Howlett, Rapid City, S.D. and Cole Reiner, Buffalo, Wyo., will compete in the bareback riding while Shorty Garrett, Eagle Butte, S.D., will compete in the saddle bronc riding.
For all three men, this is their first qualification to the “big show,” the PRCA’s world championship, held December 3-12 in Arlington, Texas at Globe Life Field, the home of MLB’s Texas Rangers.
Of the three, Howlett is a transplant, having grown up in Australia. He came to the U.S. in 2009 and again in 2010 as a contestant at the National High School Finals Rodeo. Three years later, he was offered a rodeo scholarship to West Texas College in Snyder and came to the U.S. to stay.
While in college, he became friends with fellow bareback rider Shane O’Connell, of Rapid City. Howlett was unable to travel home at Christmas, so O’Connell’s parents invited him to join them for the holiday. He accepted, and since then, the O’Connell have been his “second parents.”
The thirty-year-old had a good winter rodeo season to kick off the 2020 year. He placed in the top five at Ft. Worth and did well in San Antonio, San Angelo, Houston, (before it was postponed) and Grand Island, Neb.
He’s rehabbing two injuries that he hopes will be in better shape before the WNFR starts. He tore a hamstring at the Badlands Circuit Finals in October during the first performance, but continued to rodeo, since the winnings count for the 2021 season. He wanted to win the year-end title, as well, which he did. “I kept getting on and making it work,” he said.
The hamstring is nearly back to normal but his second injury isn’t. It’s a bulging disc in his neck which causes him to lose control of his free arm. That’s a problem when he’s trying to dismount after his ride. “It’s flopping around and I can’t grab,” he said. “It can get sketchy when I try to get off.” Surgery might be an option in the future, when he can take some time off. For now, he’s rehabbing it.
Howlett is also preparing mentally for the Finals, picturing his rides, reminding himself that “I’ve done everything to be at this level,” he said. He is “letting things happen, reminding myself that I know how to do this.”
His parents, Paul and Joanne Howlett, will not be able to make the trip from Roma, Queensland, Australia, to Texas. Howlett has set them up with the Cowboy Channel so they can watch his rides in real time, which will be about mid-morning of the next day. His dad is taking off much of those two weeks, so he isn’t interrupted, and his mom, who is a caretaker for Howlett’s grandma, will be able to watch as well.
And his “U.S. parents,” Jiggs and Ann O’Connell, and Shane, too, will be in Texas to cheer him on, which is “pretty awesome,” Howlett said. “I’ll have some kind of family down there.”
Howlett enters the WNFR in sixth place, with $66,582 in regular season earnings.
For Cole Reiner, who is 21 years old, rodeo was not his first love.
The Buffalo, Wyo. cowboy prioritized wrestling over rodeo, and did well at it, winning high school state titles two years and reserve titles two years.
But, because signing day for college rodeo came before signing day for wrestling, he chose rodeo. “The Sheridan (College in Wyo.) coach offered me a good scholarship to rodeo and I thought it sounded like a lot more fun (than wrestling), to be honest. There’s just too much that I could experience. I didn’t want to go to a large town and live that lifestyle,” he said. “I’d rather be a cowboy.”
This is his first year as a PRCA cardholder; the last two years he rodeoed on his permit. And like Howlett, he had a good winter, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and rodeos were shut down. And when competition started back up, it was hard to get things going. “It was a struggle, once things started back up,” Reiner said, “to get momentum built up.” He went more than four months without winning a check. “From February 21 to July 2, I didn’t win a dime.”
But things swung his way, and he was back to winning.
To prepare, he and fellow bareback rider Leighton Berry, who will also compete at the WNFR this year, have been working out, riding the bucking machine, and using the spur board. He gets on practice horses a couple of times a week at the Steiner Ranch in Texas.
He’s living in Weatherford, Texas with Berry, which is a forty mile drive to Arlington, Texas, and he’s trying not to think about the “big show” too much. “I haven’t put much thought into it,” he said. “It can be exhausting if you think about it too early. I know when we get our back numbers and put our bags in the locker room, it will hit. It’ll be special.”
There are plenty of “unknowns” in Arlington: the layout of the arena, the location of locker rooms, the feel of the venue. But that doesn’t bother Reiner. “When we get to Arlington, there is going to be 120 contestants who don’t know what’s going on. I think it’ll be fun to experience it for the first one (qualification). And hopefully I’ll make the Finals next year and have another rookie year in Vegas.”
Reiner enters the WNFR in twelfth place with $45,042 in season earnings. He won the Resistol Rookie of the Year Bareback Riding title and is the son of Joe and Michelle Reiner.
Saddle bronc rider Shorty Garrett hails from a long line of WNFR contestants.
His uncles, Marvin and Mark Garrett, have a combined five world titles. His uncle TC Holloway, his half-brother, JD Garrett, his brother-in-law, Chason Floyd, his uncle, and his great-great uncle Casey Tibbs all were WNFR qualifiers. Even his uncle, Chuck Holloway, picked up at the WNFR in 1999.
Garrett didn’t start riding broncs till his senior year of high school, as his granddad Johnny’s rule was the boy must weigh 100 lbs. before he could get on a bronc. He rode bulls, saddle broncs and team roped in college.
“It was fun, actually,” he said, of bulls and roping. “The bull riding was paying for me to ride broncs at the amateur level,” in the South Dakota Rodeo Association and the Northwest Rodeo Cowboys Association. He still enjoys team roping.
He, like Howlett and Reiner, had a good winter. In San Antonio, he finished in the top three. He won money at Rodeo Rapid City, in Ft. Worth, the New Year’s Eve Bucking Ball, and Houston.
“We were going to jump on things right away,” he said. “We made sure we kept going through the winter and I’m really glad we did. We had a heck of a good start on the year, and we were blessed with that.”
Garrett’s summer went as well as his winter. He won the Jordan, Mont. bronc match for the second time and did well at the Xtreme Broncs in Rapid City, Sentinel Butte’s Xtreme Broncs, and others. “I was having so much fun I didn’t worry about what rodeo we were at. It was clicking.”
He’s running the tamping bar as his “workout” for the WNFR, building new corrals at his granddad Johnny’s place, where he grew up and where he now lives. He keeps heifer calves for replacements and bucket feeds everything, about 25 buckets a day, “so that keeps a guy pretty physically active.”
Garrett considers himself “laidback,” so he’s not too excited or anxious about Arlington. “I try not to overthink things too much,” he said. “It’ll be just another rodeo for me. That’s the way I’m going to treat it, anyway.” The significance of his accomplishment might still hit him, though. “I’m not saying it’s not going to stand the hair up on the back of my neck. But I’m going to keep it as low-key as I can.”
Garrett will marry Alex Bush in May of next year; she, along with his parents Juan and Johnilyn will be at the WNFR, as well as other relatives.
The Wrangler NFR consists of ten rounds, one a night, from Dec. 3 through 22. At the end, world champions are crowned. The rodeo starts at 7 pm nightly and can be watched live on The Cowboy Channel and RFD-TV. For more information, visit the PRCA’s website at http://www.prorodeo.com.