Congratulations to you guys who just qualified for the 2021 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo! That’s the goal of every cowboy who ropes for a living, and it’s a big accomplishment when you get it done—especially for the first time.
That first year you go hard, you don’t really know how you stack up. It’s all unfamiliar territory, and everything is new at every rodeo. Before you make that all-important NFR cut the first time, there’s a lot of self-evaluation and a learning curve to navigate.
That first year I rodeoed hard—with Bret Beach in 1981—was a whirlwind. When we got to the rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, we were the last team in the last perf at the biggest Fourth of July rodeo, and up until that point had only won one check at Scottsdale, Arizona that winter for $1,499. I was broke.
Bret and I had been very successful for several years on the amateur rodeo and jackpot trail, so we had the confidence to go get the money at those. But the professional rodeos were a whole new ballgame, and the first half of that first year was extremely eye-opening and humbling.
It’s amazing how one steer can turn the whole thing around. Bret and I made a smoking run and won Cody, and we were off to the races. We went on to win Salinas later that month, too, and by the time the Cow Palace (in San Francisco) rolled around, we were safely inside the margin of making our first NFR.
Looking back now—after roping at 29 NFRs—I realize that after getting over the hump that first time, I never had that same feeling like I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it again. But I remember well what it felt like to accomplish that goal of making the Finals the first time, so I’m really happy for you guys who got to live that this year.
Now that you’ve officially made the cut and know you get to compete on that grand stage in December, just know that you’re going to have butterflies in your stomach when you roll in there that first time. Back when we made our first one, the Cow Palace finished the regular season in early November, so there was only a month of lead-up time. There’s a two-month gap now, so that anxiety and excitement has an extra 30 days to build.
The first thing you need when you get back home is a break. I lived in Arizona when we made our first Finals, and we went straight home to practice every day and start preparing for The Big Show.
In those early years, we probably overdid our pre-NFR practice. We tried to make super fast runs every day, and I think we overcooked our horses a little bit. It took us a few years to figure out the best way to practice for the Finals, but our first few NFRs were in Oklahoma City and it was different there. Once the Finals moved to Vegas in that extremely small arena, the pre-NFR planning and practice routine got even more complicated trying to figure out those conditions and that left wall. I think that strategizing is good, but if you start confining everything down in your preparations, you can get there with your horses too tight.
Learn from Clay O'Brien Cooper on Roping.com.
I think the hardest part is just overcoming the anxiety and that buildup of going and competing in that (Thomas & Mack Center) building. After the first run or two, you start to get your bearings and realize that it really is just another rodeo as far as what you’re there to do. You just have to go make a run—10 times.
I faced those feelings 290 times in 29 trips to the Finals. It was exciting to get to go every time, and in my head I wanted to go tear the world up. But I learned over time that you need to manage those emotions, so you can go do what you know how to do. Some of the young guys go there trying to be fast on every steer.
But the guys who make seven-eight-nine runs out of 10 within the margin of safety for the setup know that the average is the big kicker at the end. You’ve done the work to get there. Now go trust the work. Make a good game plan, and go execute it.