Welch, Oklahoma’s Zac Small had a storybook year in 2016 that included winning the BFI in June; marrying his wife, Cayla Melby Small, in October; and competing alongside his brand new bride at that year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, where Zac headed for now reigning World Champion Heeler Wesley Thorp. Then Small resumed his original life plan and fell off of the roping and rodeo radar.
What made that 2016 dream season even more amazing was the fact that after winning the BFI in June, Small started veterinary school in August. Yes, after three and a half years of majoring in biomedical science at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, Zac started working toward his veterinary degree at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.
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“I rodeoed until August that year, then started vet school,” said Small, who’s 25 now, and graduated from vet school last month—May 16—though the last round of clinical rotations and graduation ceremonies were canceled due to coronavirus. “It was hard trying to just go to rodeos on the weekends and still make the Finals.”
Small was actually a bubble boy—ranked 15 in the world among headers heading down the 2016 backstretch the last week of the regular season—just before getting married on October 29.
“Cayla and I both made it in 10th place,” he said. “That last week was pretty hairy, but we had a good week of rodeoing. Let’s just say my first semester of vet school was a little crazy.”
Flashing back to the fairytale also known as 2016 really is borderline insane. But his ball just kept bouncing in a blessed direction.
“My mom had just printed off some financial aid stuff for vet school that day,” Zac said. “When we won the BFI, she threw it in the trash.”
Small never set out to rope for a living.
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“When I started roping as a kid, I didn’t set a lot of goals,” he said. “There was always something we were practicing for—mainly to do good at the next jackpot. We went to the USTRC Finals in Oklahoma City every year since I was pretty young, so we always practiced for jackpots and to do good there. I never really had intentions of rodeoing growing up.”
Small and Thorp won $74,519 at the 2016 NFR, and with $143,787 on the year Zac finished ninth in the world on the heading side.
“Just walking into that (Thomas & Mack Center) building and seeing it for the first time knowing I actually made it is what stands out in my mind about the NFR,” Small said. “Getting the jacket that says NFR on it was probably as much of an accomplishment and as big a deal as roping there every night.”
That year’s NFR barrel racers received mopeds from the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. Cayla got a second one for being the 2016 rookie of the year.
“I put 40-some miles on that thing in Vegas that week,” Zac smiles. “Cayla was just sure I was going to kill myself on that moped. My anatomy professor was nice enough to move my anatomy final until after the Finals, so I studied until noon out there in Vegas every day.”
Small wasn’t the least bit surprised to see Thorp take the heeling throne with that gold buckle last December.
“No, I’m not surprised, but I am super excited he got it done,” Small said. “I’ve been telling people Wesley gave me a bump on my resume without even knowing it, because now I can say I roped with a world champion. Wesley’s a winner and he works hard at it every day.”
Was it hard to walk away from the rodeo trail at the top of his game?
“It was definitely a decision I put some thought into,” Small said. “For me, it was more about sticking with the plan I’d had for a long time. I hadn’t planned on rodeoing, but we were blessed to do really good that first year of full-time rodeoing. I’d set my mind on becoming a veterinarian, and that’s the way it was going to be.
“Vet school has definitely been challenging. But if you work at it and make time to study, it’s manageable. It’s a lot like roping, really. If you treat it as a job, you can be successful at it.”
Zac’s mom, Kristi Small, and dad, Dr. Tony Small, own and operate Flying Cow Genetics in Welch, which offers cattle reproductive services, including in-vitro fertilization. Zac will now help out with the family business.
“People ask me if I’d ever go back out there and rodeo,” Zac said. “I haven’t made any hard and fast plans to do a lot of roping. My wife and I have a bunch of colts we’ve been riding. Maybe in the next few years if I end up with a good one, I’ll go to some rodeos. But there are so many things that have to come together to do good rodeoing.”
These years of veterinary school and training have put a twist on Small’s perspective about rope-horse soundness.
“I see things differently now,” he said. “When they aren’t working how they’re supposed to, there’s a decent chance that it’s not just a bad attitude on their part. It’s worth getting a horse checked out to see if there’s a physical explanation. A lameness exam is worth the money.
“There’s a lot that goes into keeping a rope-horse sound. Simple things like keeping horses shod correctly, keeping them in shape and booting them properly when you use them all add up and help keep them sound. Taking shortcuts may work for a while, but doing what you can do every day to prevent problems is just smart. There aren’t a bunch of miracle therapies out there, so common sense goes a long way.”
Small knows firsthand how hard it is when you’re struggling to keep a horse sound. His signature steed, Sun, that he won the BFI and made the Finals on, strained a distal check ligament a couple weeks before the NFR in 2016.
“I was practicing in Tennessee when it happened,” he said. “Someone took Sun home to a vet in Oklahoma for me, and I ended up having to ride one of Coleman Proctor’s horses for the first four rounds at the Finals. I got back on Sun and rode him from the fifth round on, but I’d ridden him when we ran the steers through before the Finals started and he didn’t feel very good. So I gave him a few days off first. We all know how important a good horse is to a team roper. The extra effort it takes to treat one right and give him his best shot at staying sound really is worth it.”