LAS VEGAS – The 2011 rodeo season was one of redemption for Matt Bright.
Bright qualified for the 2010 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and then he struggled with is bareback riding. As the gate opened for his eight-round ride, Carr Pro Rodeo’s Real Deal rared and slammed the Tennessee-born cowboy into the chute’s steel bars. Bright missed the remainder of ProRodeo’s championship event and the next four months of competition while his body healed.
Since he returned to the arena, his focus has been on returning to the City of Lights and battling for the world championship. That targeted approach to bareback riding has paid off quite well for the Azle, Texas, cowboy, entering the rugged 10-round competition No. 11 in the bareback riding world standings – only the top 15 cowboys at the conclusion of the regular season qualify for the NFR.
“A guy goes to the NFR wanting to make a statement, but I feel I’ve made a pretty good statement this year,” said Bright, a former standout on the University of Tennessee-Martin rodeo team. “I got to the NFR last year, and I didn’t ride very good and I didn’t have a good finals before I got hurt. Some people thought me making it that one year was a fluke.
“I didn’t want to be one of the flash-in-the-pan kind of guys. I feel like I’ve made a statement this year with having to miss some of the year and still making the finals. Hopefully I can be successful through the finals.”
Bright has earned $72,781 this year, a substantial living for most anyone. But unlike most other professional athletes, rodeo cowboys pay their own traveling expenses; they even pay an entry fee in order to compete. Oftentimes, expenses equal money earned, so a good finals is important to the bottom line. Dollars pay bills, but also they’re the points system in rodeo – the cowboy who finishes the season with the most money won in each event is crowned world champion.
“You just have to look at it like 10 big rodeos,” Bright said, noting the fact that go-round winners will earn $17,885 each night. “If you go at it like you’re going to try to win 10 big rodeos, there’s so much money there that it can make a big difference. That’s the biggest payday you’ll get in one day. If a guy goes at it like he’s going to try to win first at this rodeo, then he’s giving himself a good chance every night.
“I look at it like I’m at San Antonio one night; I’m at Denver another. Whatever the big rodeos are, I just stack them on 10 days like that. It’s the best approach for me.”
Of course, he has the advantage of having been under the brightest lights of ProRodeo before, even if the experience was less than spectacular.
“I guarantee it’s going to be a big help, because I’d never been to the NFR before,” he said. “The first time I’d ever been to Las Vegas was last year. It was really overwhelming to me. When I went, it was a complete culture shock. The first time I was standing behind the chutes two days before the first round, I was nervous then. I think this year, having seen all that stuff, I hope to be able to stay a little bit more calm and collected throughout the whole week.”
How will Bright respond to climbing over those bright yellow chutes and onto the greatest bucking horses in the world when he suffered a broken back the last time he did so?
“I’ve been to rodeos where I got hurt, and you go back the next year; it’s going to turn out different,” he said. “I don’t believe I’ve got bad luck at this rodeo or that rodeo. That could’ve happened at any rodeo throughout the year. It was just a fluke deal, and it happened to be in Las Vegas.”
Besides, the NFR offers a purse of $6 million. If he’s qualified, the young cowboy wants to shine in the City of Lights and collect as big of a chunk of that cash as possible while he’s there.
“When it comes down to Oct. 1 and you look at the world standings and see that you’re in the top 15 at the end of the regular season, that’s a pretty good feeling,” said Bright, 28. “That first year, knowing I made it, knowing that now I’m going to the NFR … that was pretty spectacular right there.
“All the horses you get on at the finals are the horses you want to get on throughout the year. They’re the best horses in the business, and to know you get to get on them for 10 nights really gets your motor running even more.”
Bright’s motor runs pretty hot most of the time. His father, R.A., rode bareback horses and bulls, and his mom, Yvonne, has competed in barrel racing. Younger brother Jacob, a former mixed martial arts fighter, works construction.
“My dad’s done a little bit of everything in rodeo,” Bright said, noting that both his parents are also Tennessee born. “Actually I went to my frist rodeo when I was a few weeks old. I was born in the middle of the summer, and my dad was rodeoing pretty regularly.
“With my brother, I always thought it was funny that my parents kids got into some non-traditional stuff. I always said he was the tougher one; horses aren’t going to hit you in the face.”
Still, it takes someone quite tough to attach his hand to a rigging that’s strapped tightly around the chest of bareback horses. Bright began his rodeo career riding calves when he was 8 years old. He dabbled in team roping and steer wrestling, but his focus was on riding bulls and bareback horses. His prowess carried Bright to the University of Tennessee-Martin on a rodeo scholarship.
“The whole reason I started riding bareback in high school was that I was going to all these rodeos, and there weren’t very many good bareback riders,” he said. “Just two or three could ride OK, so I saw it as a way to earn some all-around points with my bull riding. With my dad’s help, bareback riding actually came pretty naturally to me. The very first horse I got on, I scratched at it and made a pretty decent spur ride.
“Then at Martin, I got in with coach John Luthi, who’s been known as a bareback riding teacher. He knows how to teach you how to ride bareback horses. He taught me to be more controlled. He taught me how to ride a horse for what it is.”
Now Bright is taking those lessons to the grandest stage in the sport.
“I’ve had a lot of assistance, from Cinch clothing and Phoenix Performance Products helping me out financially all year long to traveling with Clint Cannon,” Bright said, referring to the three-time NFR qualifier from Waller, Texas. “He’s a veteran, and he likes to rodeo hard, which is what I needed to make up some ground and qualify for the NFR. He’s the most positive guy in the world and is really great to be around.”