Some college kids spend their spring breaks in Cancun; others go to Cabo. Oklahoma’s Zac Small? He spent his spring break from the rigors of vet school at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., banking $55,000 at RodeoHouston with South Dakota heeler Levi Lord.
The duo paired up at Houston when their regular partners—Will Woodfin for Small and Tyler Waters for Lord—didn’t qualify for the limited, non-sanctioned rodeo. The same thing had happened to them at the San Antonio (Texas) Stock Show and Rodeo last year, so when both realized they needed a run for Houston, they thought they’d try it again.
Houston is a 19-day, tournament-style rodeo, where the Super Series is organized into five three-day series, plus two Semifinal rounds, a Wild Card round and a Championship. Each series includes three rounds, with one round per day. There are eight teams in each series, and the top four money winners in each set advance to one of the two Semifinal rounds, where 10 teams compete. The top four advance to the championship. The remaining six move to the Wild Card round for a second chance at earning a spot in the Championship. From the Wild Card, the top two teams in each event advance to the Championship. The Championship round includes all 10 teams competing in each event. The top four advance and immediately ride again in the Shootout round to determine the champion.
“We were in Super Series III, and the first round we were 5.2,” Lord said. “We had a good steer and that put us head of the game, and we won second. We were 5.4 on another good steer and won second again that took the pressure off. We were 4.5 on the third, but I slipped leg.”
Small, coming off his first WNFR qualification in 2016 with Wesley Thorp, had to fly back to Tennessee as classes started back up and fly back to Houston for their semifinals run. Small’s wife, NFR barrel racer Cayla Melby Small, hauled his horse, 12-year-old Sun, down for the rodeo. (“Without my wife, I’d be a-foot,” Small said.)
“We were ninth out in the semifinals, so we knew we needed to just catch. We were 6.8 to make the top 10. We got really lucky in the top 10 round and were ninth out again and knew exactly what we had to do to get to the top four. I thought there was no way all those great teams would all have heck, but they did. We did the exact same thing and were 6.9 to make it back to the top four.”
Small and Lord watched as Adam Rose had an illegal head catch for Byron Wilkerson, and the duo then backed into the box to run their steer second.
“I thought I pushed the barrier a little bit much, but it worked out perfect. Charly (Crawford) and Walt (Woodard) were after us and then Erich (Rogers) and Cory (Petska). They were trying to beat 4.1. That’s how it goes,” Small said.
Their 4.1-second run tied the arena record in Houston’s NRG Stadium, Lord said, even with the extra swing he took to be sure he caught.
“We were just going to try to make a good run,” Lord said. “We thought if we’d be some-kind-of-four, we’d have a shot. If you made the short round, you made good money, but it just worked out a little faster than we expected. Zac scored so well and hit the barrier just right.”
The $55,000 windfall likely will go toward Small’s hefty college expenses, while Lord plans to use it to hit the rodeo trail harder than ever in 2017. Lord’s spent the last three years mostly in the Badlands Circuit, but he and Waters are going to California this spring and then on to the summer run. This winter, Lord has called Stephenville home, where he and Waters rope at Jade Corkill’s to help build their team.
“That kind of money in our sport will go a long way,” Lord said. “I’m going to try to get more horses to go with and money to travel on and have the means to go rodeo. We’re going to try it for a little while. As much money as there is to win, there’s no reason to be sitting at home. I haven’t really left the circuit and tried to go to 75 rodeos. I’m ready to try to get out there and see where I can go. I think we both have it in mind that we could have a chance to make the NFR. If we go catch steers at the right places, we could have some things come together. We could be there at the end of the season.”
Lord comes from a rodeo family—in which dad JB is an all-around legend in the Badlands Circuit, and brother Eli is a Badlands Circuit Finalist and all-around hand roping with Paul Griemsman in 2017.
“All my rodeo background came from my dad’s side,” Lord said. “My mom (Kelly) married into all of this. My grandfather was a great cowboy. He grew up on a ranch in Nebraska and could do every event at the highest level. He was good in the roughstock, handy with a rope and good with a horse. He never got off the ranch and tried to rodeo, but I’ve heard from a lot of people he could have had a gold buckle if he did. He stayed home and pushed the cows around and raised the kids.”
That family horse-sense rubbed off on Lord, who picked out the horse he’d eventually win Rodeo Houston on when he was just 14.
“I had just won my second truck,” Lord remembered. “I sold it looking for a horse. I found him in an ad on Craigs-list. I drove down there to a guy named Bruce Standefer who had him. He was too much horse for him. I bought him in Mineral Wells. They weren’t using him. I got to ride him twice, and there was no way I couldn’t buy him. When I got him, I went from a #5 to a #9.”
JB named the horse Little Bay when he came home to South Dakota, and despite the grain and hay the family poured to him, he stayed tiny. The 850-pound gelding can stay with any head horse, Lord said, and has been the key to his success so far.
“That’s just a special horse,” Lord said. “He gives me the same shot every time. I know exactly what he’s going to do. When you get to ride one for that long, it starts clicking.”
While Lord has spent the winter in Stephenville hitting the jackpots and winter rodeos, Small has been hitting the books in Tennessee without any horses to swing a leg over.
“I don’t do a whole lot but study,” Small said. “We went to San Antone, Denver, Fort Worth and San Angelo. I kind of entered those and got up good on the weekends. I’ve been running them in my mind, just not actually chasing them.”
After the Championship Shootout Saturday night, Small hopped a flight first thing Sunday morning back to Tennessee, where he had to prepare for Monday’s tests in anatomy and physiology, with seven weeks left in his semester.
While Small and Lord each went their own way after getting their coveted RodeoHouston buckles on the arena floor, Lord had some parting thoughts about his one-time partner.
“You’ve got to give him a lot of respect for what he’s doing. He’s coming off his first NFR and giving it up to go to school and set himself up for the future. Then to be able to come and get right on his horse, not practice and come in and be able to compete against the best guys in the world and come out on top, that’s saying a lot about him.” SWR