God's Hands

Buckle Up: The Rodeo Roller Coaster Ride of Paden Bray’s Life
From a California Rodeo Salinas all-around win, to a death-defying low, and back on top with the Utah Days of ’47 win.
Brenten Hall and Paden Bray pose with their gold medals for winning the 2023 Utah Days of ’47 Rodeo.
Monday night’s medal-stand celebration at Utah Days of ’47 in Salt Lake City is this wild-ride story’s happy ending. And yes, that’s the Salinas buckle on Bray’s belt. | Utah Days of ’47 Courtesy Photo by Andersen CBarC

In a little over 24 hours, Paden Bray rode the renowned rodeo roller coaster from one thrilling high to a death-defying low, then back to the top of the tracks again. He has a buckle, saddle, trophy spurs and gold medal to show for the highlights of this wild ride. A new appreciation for life also arose out of the scariest situation he’s ever walked away from. 

“I’m the luckiest guy ever, if you ask me,” were his first words to me when we talked after the dust settled and the bright lights dimmed. 

How do such wise words come from such a young man of only 24 years? Let me tell you…

Brenten Hall and Paden Bray running down a steer at the 2023 California Rodeo Salinas.
Brenten Hall on Wyatt Bray’s Blackjack and Paden Bray on his home-grown special Slider at Salinas. | Click Thompson Photo

California Rodeo Salinas crowned its 2023 champions last Sunday afternoon, July 23, and Bray won the all-around. He was also entered in the tie-down, but won it with team roping earnings, after taking the first round with Brenten Hall in 6.6, and splitting fourth and fifth in the third round in 9.2. Those checks totaled a little over $3,500 a man, but the value of this bucket-list win for Paden was priceless. 

“I have the buckle on right now,” said Bray, who heeled for Erich Rogers at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2020 and ’21, and won the NFR average that first year, when Rodeo’s Super Bowl was held in Texas due to COVID closing down Vegas. “My childhood hero, Marty Becker, has a Salinas all-around buckle. 

“Derrick Begay gave me his old iPhone one time when I was a kid. It still had some videos and photos on it, including a picture of his Salinas buckle. That was the screen saver on my phone for quite a while. What a special win. Salinas is the buckle everybody wants to win.”

Bray and Slider heeling a steer at Salinas.
Bray and Slider hammering one at Salinas. | Click Thompson Photo

The renowned Silacci Ranch awarded him trophy spurs, and area team roper Darrick Hoskins of MYCars presented Paden the Salinas all-around saddle. I watched Bray make a money run in the tie-down one day, too, only to have it taken away because he unknowingly ran the wrong calf. It’s typically pretty easy to see the eartag on what they run in there for you, but the plexiglass on the chute at Salinas makes it virtually impossible if you’re not standing right there next to that chute. 

I watched how Bray reacted to the congratulatory whoops and hollers from the crowd (with class and gratitude), and also the news from the judges that he had to ride right back in and run another one (no cussing or throwing anything, he just pulled his hat back down tight and rode back in to the left side of the chute, where calf ropers and heelers also come from at Salinas). 

“The cards were dealt, and I couldn’t change the situation,” he said. “So I told myself, ‘No big deal. Blast the barrier, and give yourself a chance.’ I did that. And it almost worked out.”

The calf Bray had actually drawn wasn’t nearly as good, and that money run was replaced by a longer one. But from where I sat, Bray felt worse for Connor Atkinson, who actually drew that good one and had to run the extra. All I could think in the moment is that I needed to relay what I watched to Paden’s parents, because that young man did the Bray family proud in how he handled a tough break. 

Paden didn’t make the short round. But he was there to watch and support his little brother, Wyatt, who’s 23, and his partner, Josh Patton, who did. They placed second in the short round and seventh in the average. Wyatt rode his badass black, Blackjack, as did Brenten for Paden the rest of the rodeo. 

Wyatt Bray on his game-changer Blackjack running one with Josh Patton at Salinas.
Wyatt Bray on his game-changer Blackjack running one with Josh Patton at Salinas. Sadly, it was Blackjack’s last rodeo. | Click Thompson Photo

It was a successful Salinas for the rig. And as soon as Paden picked up his all-around awards in front of the packed house, they loaded the horses and set sail for Utah, where they were due up at Ogden slack at 9 the next morning. 

There were four people and four horses in the rig, including both Bray brothers, Paden’s girlfriend, Harley Meged, and the Brays’ dear friend Dakota Smitherman. Blackjack, Dirty, Slider and Hot Rod were in the trailer. 

The Brays bought Blackjack from family friend and NFR header Logan Olson, and in big brother’s words, “That black head horse has made Wyatt one of the best headers in the world in certain set-ups. He’s ridden him at the BFI the last couple years, and Salinas. Blackjack was the top head horse at the Cody Nesmith roping. Great horse.”

Dirty is Wyatt’s good bay head horse. They bought him from Charly and Jackie Crawford, who also live in the Cowboy Capital of the World in Stephenville, Texas. Dirty was there in Salinas as back-up to Blackjack, and was the only horse in the trailer who wasn’t ridden there. 

Paden halter-broke his sorrel heel horse Slider, and that should surely tell you something about how special he is to him and his family. 

Hot Rod is Patton’s heel horse, and what he rode to win those two checks behind Wyatt there at Salinas. 

Paden’s calf horse and Hall’s good bay head horse have been sidelined since July 6 at Idaho Equine Clinic in Nampa trying to get over a strain of strangles. So they were already having heck with horsepower. 

Paden Bray putting up his calf roping ropes.
Paden Bray handling a tough break in the tie-down at Salinas like a professional. | Kendra Santos Photo

But things went from bad to way worse at about 7 Monday morning on their way to Ogden. They were by then on I-80 out in the remote desert country somewhat near Wendover, Nevada, when their truck ran off the road. It was a single-vehicle accident in which the truck stayed upright, but the trailer came unhooked and rolled.  

The trailer came to rest on its side, with the load/unload door now on top. The horses were nose to the ground. The humans ran up onto the new top of the trailer. They were far from any towns, so firefighters and other help were on the way—but it would be a while.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Paden said. “We were all on top of the trailer looking down on our horses, and there was nothing we could do to help them until help arrived. My brother was holding Blackjack by the lead rope, just trying to keep him calm. But you can imagine how bad those horses wanted out of there.”

Being many miles from any towns, it took firefighters close to an hour to get there. Meanwhile, Paden called Utah cowboy Jake Hannum to see if he could send friends faster. Kelly Elton and his son, Ty Allred and Josh’s buddy Cody Johnson raced to their rescue, and were a huge help. 

“The firefighters helped us cut a hole by the pod on the roof of the trailer, and we got the horses out one at a time,” Paden said.

Miraculously, Hot Rod was standing. They got him out first. 

Slider was in a ball with his feet behind his head, and couldn’t get up. 

“We put a Navajo blanket around his front feet, and pulled him out of there by his front feet with a skid steer,” Paden said. “It was Slider’s only way out.”

By now, Dirty and Blackjack were wedged between the same divider. 

“We kept cutting more metal,” Paden said. “It took a while, but five or six guys pulled and pulled, and we finally got Dirty out. His sheath was cut really bad from Blackjack trying to climb the wall of the trailer, but we got him out.

“By the time we got to Blackjack, it was too late. He’d worn himself out, got his head down, couldn’t get any more air and passed away.”

One of the Good Samaritans brought a stock trailer. They loaded up Hot Rod, Slider and Dirty, and Wyatt, Josh and Harley rode one-person-per-horse in the back of that trailer with those horses the 45 minutes it took to reach a vet for help. 

Paden stayed behind with Blackjack, and got him buried at Johnson’s place in Utah. The big brother took care of the little brother’s horse to spare the little brother more sadness.  

“The other three horses are all stable and seem to be OK,” Paden said. “All I care about with Slider is that he can make it home to our pasture. He might end up being fine. If not, he owes me nothing. He’s family.”

With the equipment now on scene, they rolled the trailer back onto its six wheels, hooked it back up to the truck and pulled it about 30 miles to the next safe spot to park it. They obviously did not make 9 a.m. slack at Ogden that morning. But they did get to Salt Lake City in time for that night’s Gold Medal Round at the Utah Days of ’47 Rodeo. Brenten rode Wyatt’s roan mare, Sandy, and Paden rode his own wild roan, John Wick. They were wiped-out tired, but still running on adrenaline from the scene of the accident and surviving such a close call.

Eight teams roped for the medals Monday night in Salt Lake, and Hall and Bray were third out. Marcus Theriot and Cole Curry were 4.8. The second team out of Ty Arnold and Kaden Profili answered with a 4 flat. Then Hall and Bray scorched one in 3.9, which was the same time they were on their first steer there. Brenten and Paden won the first round at Salinas last Thursday morning, then flew to Salt Lake, where they were 3.9 in the Semifinals that same night. 

“Winning Salt Lake City was crazy,” Bray said. “We’d been trying to deal with the wreck, and I hadn’t eaten all day. I told myself, ‘Just relax, and do you.’ When I saw Brenten cock it, I knew BHall was about to bring smoke. I heeled him first legal, and we were 3.9.”

Their run stood up through five more teams for the gold. 

Paden Bray posing with his prizes from winning the 2023 California Rodeo Salinas.
Paden called it a bucket-list win. Joining him in the California Rodeo Salinas winner’s circle last Sunday afternoon, left to right, Salinas President Fred Hooker, spurs donor Cindy Silacci, Bray, saddle sponsor Darrick Hoskins and Miss California Rodeo 2023 Rose Escobar. | California Rodeo Salinas Courtesy Photo by Mag One Media

“The stars lined up, and the cards played out in our favor,” Paden said. “Brenten and I were both in the moment, and brought our best when we needed it.”

Hall and Bray won $12,000 a man in Salt Lake City, and about $20,000 each last week between Salinas, Spanish Fork and Salt Lake. It’s a great big boost toward keeping Bray away from the National Finals bubble that burst last fall, when he finished 17th after back-to-back NFRs. 

My Hall of Fame bull rider friend Tuff Hedeman used to tell me, “Making the whistle cures all ills.” Cowboys have to win to stay in the game, and nobody likes to lose. But Paden Bray’s perspective has gained even more than his bank account here lately. 

“I’ve never been in a wreck before, and there’s not a scratch on me,” he said. “We’re all happy and healthy, and we got very lucky with the three horses that lived. I’m upset for my brother. Blackjack was family to us. But I’m so grateful that everyone in the rig is OK, and it’s amazing we got those other three horses out. 

Brenten Hall and Paden Bray roping their steer to win the 2023 Utah Days of '47 Rodeo.
Hall and Bray bringing down the house in 3.9 Monday night to grab the gold in Salt Lake City and rise from the devastation of the accident earlier that day. | Utah Days of ’47 Courtesy Photo by Andersen CBarC

“I just feel blessed. We get to blowing and going, and don’t always take the time to appreciate what we have. We got some stuff thrown at us, and got tested. I had to go walk off a couple times by myself to pull it together. But I left it all to God, and He saved the day. I can’t tell you how many people have reached out offering us everything from horses to hugs. I can’t thank the rodeo family enough. The tough times tend to bring everybody together, and everyone’s been awesome.”

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