COMANCHE, Okla. – On the final day of ProRodeo’s regular season, Ryan Jarrett was 15 hours away from home in Kingman, Ariz.
A tie-down roper from Comanche, he was trying to scrape together enough money to earn his 12th qualification to the National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s grand finale that takes place Dec. 6-15 in Las Vegas.
“I won the rodeo,” said Jarrett, who pocketed $902 and edged out Blane Cox by just $456 to finish 15th in the world and return to the Nevada desert for the 11th time in his career – he also qualified in steer wrestling in 2005, the year he was crowned ProRodeo’s all-around world champion. “This year I took it better, but I’ve been there at the bottom several times trying to get the finals made.
“The last 30 days of rodeo were pretty tough on me mentally.”
He understands that part of the game. Rodeo’s regular season is a grind, 12 months in the making; at its conclusion on Sept. 30 every year, only the top 15 contestants on the money list in each event advance to the NFR, the world’s richest rodeo with a $10 million purse paid out over 10 December nights.
He’s fallen short, too. In 2007, a knee injury sidelined Jarrett for much of the year, and he missed that year’s championship. A year later, he finished 16th in the world standings – just one spot out of the honey hole. In 2014, the Georgia-born cowboy finished 18th, but not after a mad dash at the end of the regular season left him just short.
But more often than not, Jarrett has been among the best in the game. He proved that in his sophomore season in ProRodeo, when he went to Las Vegas in two events and left with rodeo gold. Although he is 15th in the rankings, he is less than $60,000 behind leader Shane Hanchey – at the NFR, that differential can be made up in three go-rounds.
“You know you can’t be late on the barrier or you won’t win anything, so you focus on getting that start down,” he said, referring to the head start calves are given.
If a roper is late, it will take him longer to do all the essentials to stop the clock in the fastest time. If the roper breaks the barrier, then he is saddled with a 10-second penalty. The set-up at the Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas is meant for being at the right place at the right time.
“You want to get you a go so you don’t jerk the calf down (which would result in a no-time), and you want a get a go from your horse so everything happens fluidly so you can leave your calf in the best place when you get down the rope to him,” he said.
“The NFR is an experience. You need to live it up while you can. If you think you’re capable of making the NFR, you better get at it, because you’ll look up and won’t be able to anymore.”
Jarrett was just 21 years old the first time he qualified for the NFR. In Vegas 13 years ago, he pocketed $263,665 in 10 days competing in both tie-down roping and steer wrestling. He won the tie-down roping average in the process, finishing with the fastest cumulative time in 10 runs, and became the third-youngest all-around world champion in the sport’s history behind Ty Murray and Jim Shoulders.
Now 36, Jarrett has finished among the top six in the tie-down roping world standings five times.
“It’s hard to be consistent at the NFR,” he said. “It can all change in one run. You’ve just got to hope things go your way, that you get on the right end of the drawing.”
Contestants are matched with the animals on which they compete via random draw. The cowboys have the say in what 60 calves will be in Las Vegas, and they are separated into three herds to make each pen as even as possible. But there are some calves that will be better than the others, which is why the draw can be a factor in the game.
The key to surviving Sin City is to take advantage of the good calves while being smart with the animals that aren’t so hot.
“What makes it hard is that one minute you want to rope for the average, then the next minute you want to rope at the go-round win,” said Jarrett, who explained that roping for the rounds constitutes taking more risk, which could result in a no-time. “You get stuck in a hard situation there.”
But with go-rounds paying more than $26,000 per night for 10 rounds, it’s imperative that contestants consider all options. That’s something that happens through the season, too, even if it means roping for less than $1,000. Any win, as he proved in Arizona on the final day of the season, can help.
When times were tough, he relied on his experience and a call to his wife, Shy-Anne, to keep him grounded and somewhat sane with the rodeo world got a bit crazy.
“After I missed in the short round in Nampa (Idaho in July), I did not win a good check for a while,” he said. “I came up empty-handed every time, and I went to some good-paying rodeos. One part of your body tells you that you don’t need to be entered anywhere and just sit out for a few days, then show up when you’re craving it more.
“The other side of your body tells you to keep grinding. You’ve got a lot of things running through your head constantly. It gets intense and a little aggravating. I call home, but it gets hard on you. You’ve just got to bear down and do what you know how to do.”
He also leans a bit on his horse, Snoopy, a sorrel gelding he used in Vegas last year.
“He’s my No. 1 and my No. 2 horse,” Jarrett said. “He got all but five runs I made this year, and I rode someone else’s horse on those five. He did his share of rodeoing this year. That’s a lot to say for an 8-year-old.”
It is, but that could be advantageous when it comes to those 10 nights in December, when he will look out at the 17,000 fans packed inside the Thomas & Mack Center for ProRodeo’s grand championship.
He’ll also have his wife and other family members in the Nevada desert for support. He and Shy-Anne will celebrate their eighth anniversary in Vegas and are expecting their first child in the spring. That may be all the motivation he needs to find his NFR success.
“I’m looking forward to the prize money,” Jarrett said. “If I could win $100,000, I’d be satisfied, but I’m going out there with the intention of winning more. I’m going out there to win some life-changing money.”
If that happens, the chances of him taking home another Montana Silversmiths gold buckle increase, too, and that would just be icing on the cake.