I've been lucky enough to back in the box at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo 290 times in the 29 years I’ve been there. I get asked a lot if I have any advice for the guys roping there now. I’m not really one to tell anyone else what to do, but there are a few things I’ve learned over the years that might come in handy, especially for guys roping at the Finals for the first time.
When you first start going to the NFR there’s definitely a year or two learning curve. You’re pretty amped up, it’s kind of a big deal and you want to do good because it’s the big payoff at the end of the year. It’s a lot. There’s also an art to roping in that little building. When the Finals moved to Las Vegas from Oklahoma City in 1985, it was my fifth NFR. I’d sort of settled in to the NFR swing and figured out how to kind of slow down and not try to be so fast. That’s when I started having success at the Finals.
Still, roping at the Thomas & Mack was a whole new ballgame. It’s a fast setup, but if you go there with the mindset that you’re going to try heeling super fast it doesn’t work very well. It always went a lot better for me when I focused on riding my horse better, seeing the run develop, being ready for my first good shot and not overrunning myself. So that became my mindset for my side of the equation.
As a team, the best mindset I found over time was to just do what we could do with each steer we drew within our comfort zone. There are only 15 teams. Those rounds can get easy. If you just go rope your steers, you can place along and also be there at the end for the big checks in the average. Of course if something goes wrong along the way, you have to change your game plan around and adjust accordingly. But I always wanted to start out just catching and placing. Ironically, I placed in the first round a lot by kind of backing off just a little bit.
Those 10 days are kind of a grind, because you only get to run one steer a day. There can be highs and lows, so you have to stay hooked mentally to stay on track with the game plan. I remember in 2012, when I roped with Chad Masters. We placed a few times in the first few rounds being long 4s and short 5s. Chad kept apologizing that he wasn’t turning steers faster, and was thinking we should change something up. I kept saying, “Let’s just keep going.” We ended up winning a bunch, including placing in five rounds and winning the average, and Chad won the world. I left there happy.
Being 4.8 in the current NFR conditions is just a good, up-tempo jackpot run that you can make virtually every time. If you’re trying to be 3.8 every round, you might only catch two or three steers, and are apt to break barriers and rope legs. I’ve been there when I went out in the first round, tried to win every round after that and didn’t win a dime. But you can be 4.8 in that building all day long.
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We’ve seen Bobby Hurley and Allen Bach win the last five rounds, but that’s only happened once. The law of averages says that if you make a good run on every steer, you’re going to win quite a bit in the rounds and do well in the average. If they guaranteed you $100,000 to $110,000 in your pocket without running a steer, most guys would take that bet.
As hard as it is to do, try to stay patient and be smart. Try not to let the electricity in that building freak you out when you’re riding up the tunnel and you see a couple 3s up on the scoreboard. Unless your back is against the wall—and you absolutely have to go fast and dirty—remember that every check at the Finals is worth winning.