GRANITE FALLS, Minn. – To be a champion in any sport, it takes great sacrifice, determination and talent.
For 25-year-old Tanner Aus, he’s experienced it all the last few years. Now the bareback rider from Granite Falls will showcase his grit to the world at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which takes place Dec. 3-12 in Las Vegas.
“It’s an amazing feeling knowing that I’m going to the NFR, because it’s something I’ve worked for my whole life,” said Aus, who competed in college rodeo at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo. “My parents put in the time and money, and it’s been a big group effort to get me to where I am now. It’s the culmination of all the work I’ve made to make my dream come true.”
The workload is there. No man will attach himself to a bucking horse without putting in the effort. It’s too dangerous to not be physically and mentally prepared. Aus not only put in the hours in the gym and in the practice pen, he also made other sacrifices needed to push him toward the elite athletes in rodeo.
Two years ago, the young cowboy had injured his groin so badly that it was threatening to his livelihood. He opted for an elective surgery to repair the ailment, but it wasn’t without trepidation – there still was uncertainty that he’d be able to ride bucking horses again.
“I had worked and saved up my money for the surgery, then I went to Philadelphia to have it done,” Aus said. “The pain from the surgery was as bad as when I hurt it the first time. It was a long, ugly recovery. When I could, I went back to work until I could ride again.”
With surgery in the fall of 2013, he returned to the arena five months later. He went through the 2014 season feeling better than he had in a long time, but he was still experiencing the pain; his surgeon had told Aus to expect it.
“It took a little while to get back into the swing of it,” he said. “I have a lot of scar tissue. My groin’s sore a lot of the time, but it’s not near what it was.
“They fixed me.”
It showed in 2015. Aus earned $85,660 through the regular season and heads to the finale eighth in the world standings – only the top 15 on the money list advance to the NFR, which offers a record $8.8 million purse. He earned at least a share of the title at nine rodeos through the course of the season, the biggest being his victory at the Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days.
“I was nervous the whole time about Cheyenne,” he said. “We were in the first set, and I was leading. By the end of the last set, I was still leading going into the short round. I was nervous. But I got on my short-round horse and monde one of the best feeling rides I’ve ever made.
“When the whistle blew, I couldn’t quit laughing because all I was thinking was, ‘I think I may of just won Cheyenne.’ It’s a dream come true, but it’s harder to explain than that.”
He won nearly $14,000 at that one rodeo, so maybe that’s explanation enough. That was a significant push to his first NFR qualification. Of course, this is the place Aus had always believed he would be since he first began riding bareback horses at age 9. That’s what happens to the son of a ProRodeo cowboy.
John Aus rode bareback horses for years and earned titles all along the way. His biggest victory came in 1988, two years before Tanner was born, when won the year-end championship in the Great Lakes Circuit – one of 12 regions that are part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the premier sanctioning body in the sport.
Tanner Aus is a two-time champion of the RAM Great Lakes Circuit Finals Rodeo, earning his most recent title in mid-November when he won all three go-rounds and the aggregate championship.
“Those are the last few horses I’ll be on until I nod my head in the Thomas & Mack,” Aus said, referring to the Las Vegas arena that has hosted the NFR since 1985. “People have asked me quite a bit if I’m ready for the NFR, and all I could tell them was, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready, but I’m excited.’
“By the time the bareback riding was over Saturday night at the circuit finals, I knew I was ready. It just couldn’t have been any better. I drew great and rode good, and it was fun.”
It also was the perfect place to prepare for the NFR, which not only features the top 15 cowboys in the world but also the top 100 bareback horses. Aus also realized some things taught to him in 2011 by veteran cowboy D.V. Fennell, a two-time NFR qualifier.
“D.V. told me that you’re going to win a few big licks, but it’s a grind day in and day out,” Aus said. “He told me to try to make $3,000 a week. If you maintain that and get in a couple big licks, it’ll all help. Some weeks you’re going to get skunked, but you’re also going to get your big licks in.”
Besides Fennell and his father, Tanner Aus has learned many valuable lessons along the way – some from his mom, Rae Ann, or his younger sisters, Dani and Braelee, but also from his longtime girlfriend, Lonissa Jones, and some longtime family friends.
“Wayne Herman is a good family friend of ours and one of my mentors,” Aus said of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame cowboy who won the bareback riding world title in 1992. “Between him and my dad, they got me started and taught me how to ride. He said, ‘You can have a bad round and still have a great finals.’
“That’s the way you have to approach rodeo. You can’t get too high or too low.”
Of course, having success early this season made the world of difference in the young cowboy’s mental game.
“After San Antonio in February, I had more money in my bank account than I’d ever had in my life,” said Aus, who won the college title in 2012 while at Missouri Valley. “It was just enough financial security that I could just go rodeo and not have to worry about the little things. I was able to take a step back, take a breath and handle my rodeo career more professionally instead of having $1,000 in the bank and $2,000 in entry fees to pay and wondering how I was going to do it.
“That helped me focus on the nitty gritty of being a good bareback rider. I could just focus on riding every horse like I was supposed to.”
Of course, it helps to have that great support all year long. Both his parents come from a rodeo background, and that has been a major attribute for the Minnesota cowboy. Since his surgery, he also has maintained better conditioning, thanks in large part to his girlfriend, Jones.
“She’s all about exercise, too, and she encourages me to eat better,” he said. “Family is everything to me. I’ve had people tell me that I don’t know how lucky I have it. I’ve got an awesome girlfriend I’ve been dating for four yours. Even my extended family is very tight. I make a point to not take it for granted.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I would’ve never made it this far without them.”
It’s the main reason why he has a shot at ProRodeo gold this year.