LAS VEGAS – To say Ty Atchison is a quick study might just be an understatement.
A lifelong cowboy who began riding horses as a toddler on his family’s southeastern Missouri place, Atchison grew up roping and wrestling steers. In fact, he didn’t mount a saddle bronc until just before his senior year in high school.
Nonetheless, he’s taking those bronc riding skills to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s year-end championship that is home to the elite contestants in the game.
“This is probably one of the greatest experiences of my life,” said Atchison, 26, of Jackson, Mo.“I’ve dreamed of going to the NFR … not always in bronc riding, but I’ve dreamed about it. It’s kind of surreal. I’ve seen these guys for years, and I’ve immortalized these bronc riders.
“It really means a lot to rodeo with guys like that and know you can beat them.”
That’s something Atchison did a lot in 2011. He had just four rodeo victories, but he finished better than most of the other bronc riders at a lot of events. He finished the season 12th in the world standings and gets to play on the grandest stage in the sport, which takes place Dec. 1-10 at the Thomas & Mack Center on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus.
“The big part for me was staying mentally tough,”Atchison said. “There were some rough spots this year. I had saddle trouble. I went to Canada for the first time, and I’m out of my element in Canada.
“But I went back to my basics; you’ve just got to take it one horse at a time.”
It’ll take that approach when he gets to Las Vegas, where the top 15 contestants in each event qualify for the NFR. The best bronc riders will be tested over 10 rugged days in the Nevada desert, where they’ll try their skills against the best horses in the business. The payoff is the incentive – go-round winners earn a $17,885 each night, and the average title is given to the cowboy who scores the best on 10 rides, worth an additional $45,865.
“I’m still 11 spots from where I want to be,”Atchison said, referring, of course, to finishing atop the standings and leaving Las Vegas with the coveted Montana Silversmiths gold buckle. “I’ve got some work to do.
“You’d think I’d be nervous, but when it really comes down to it, it’s just a great opportunity. It’s our job to capitalize on opportunities. I’m going out there and getting on 10 of the best horses in the world.”
He’s got his work cut out for him. Not only are the bucking horses the best, they’re also the rankest, and the field is a who’s who of bronc riding.
“You’re up against the top 15 at every rodeo you go to, so you just have to go out and take advantage of your opportunities,”Atchison said. “It’s a cliché, but success happens when opportunity meets preparation. That’s the finals. I think a guy can make himself nervous if he over-thinks it. Just do your job. Have fun while you do it, but do your job.
“I’m pretty fortunate to have Red Brand with me on the rodeo trail; they’re a great sponsor who takes really good care of me throughout the year. They know I’m going to do my job as well as I can.”
When cowboys sleep, they dream of gold buckles. They know the path to the biggest prize in the sport involves hard work and talent; also it means taking advantage of whatever breaks come your way.
“I have a lot of goals and a lot of different aspects, so I don’t think you can sum up what I want in one goal,” he said. “Who doesn’t want to win a gold buckle? But there are so many things out there. Life is short. If I can help myself and help other people while I do it, that’s what we’re here for.”
Atchison is naturally taken to rodeo, an extension of his love for horses. He grew up a timed-event cowboy, the son of Clint, a sale barn official who competed in rodeo as a team roper, and Debbie, whose family homesteaded and ran a cattle operation for decades. The family still has Diamond A Auction, which also is a partner in Atchison’s rodeo career.
“I shoe horses and day work for everybody,” he said, noting that he lives and works near Weatherford, Okla.“I’ve worked for several rodeo companies, picking up. When I get done riding broncs, I’d like to pick up.”
Pickup men are the quiet heroes in rodeo production, handling many behind-the-scenes duties while helping keep every performance clicking along in a timely fashion. It takes quite a hand to do it well, but Atchison is pretty good at about anything he does.
At the University of Tennessee-Martin, where he attended on a rodeo scholarship, Atchison qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in steer wrestling (once), team roping (twice) and bronc riding (three times). He finished second in the bronc riding in 2006.
“They told me when I was young that if you ever find something you would do for free, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he said. “That’s why I rodeo.”