ARLINGTON, Texas – Jess Pope arrived at the 2020 National Finals Rodeo as a man on a mission, and he’s getting to live out a fantasy life in real time.
“I came here with a goal, and I’m just taking it one horse at a time,” said Pope, 22, a first-time NFR qualifier in bareback riding from Waverly, Kansas. “I’m really enjoying this moment. It’s what I’ve dreamed about my entire life, and I’m here getting to live it now; it’s more than you could ever imagine.”
On Saturday night, he earned is second paycheck in three nights by riding C5 Rodeo’s Black Eye for 86 points to finish fourth in the go-round. That’s worth $11,000, and he pushed his NFR earnings to $39,192. More importantly, he’s moved up two spots to ninth in the world standings with $88,804.
In the one round in which he didn’t place – he finished in a tie for second place in Thursday’s opening night – he still rode well and sits tied for third place in the aggregate standings with 255.5 cumulative points on three rides. If that continues, he will continue to climb up the money list.
Saturday’s round featured the “Eliminator Pen,” the toughest-to-ride bareback horses in the game. Black Eye definitely fit into that category.
“I’d only seen him once, but I did my homework on him,” said Pope, a senior at Missouri Valley College. ‘I knew he was really going to buck and have a big rear out of the chutes, and it was going to be a dog fight. He throws his big old head back in the air, and he pushes those shoulders down.
“He then whacks you in the back. It’s a boxing match the whole time. The only think I could think before I got on was, ‘If you’re going to start a fight, you better finish it and if he backs you in a corner, you better be ready to fight your way out.’ That’s what I did.”
Bareback riding is often likened to a boxing match or even a street fight. The powerful equine animals can pack quite a whollop, and the best way to counter that is to punch back; in this case, it comes in the form of the spurring motion. With the “Eliminator Pen” of horses, their right cross is just a little bit harder than the others.
“I was a little nervous, but we’re bucking horse riders,” he said. “That’s what we were called to do, and that’s what we live for. It’s about being able to get on them. Anybody could ride a fluffy hopper (the easiest-to-ride broncs), but not everyone can ride those son-of-a-bucks.”
There are 100 bucking horses selected by the bareback riders to perform at the NFR. They are broken down in to five pens, with 20 horses in each. The Round 3 and 8 horses are the rankest of them all, but there will be opportunities for a variety of mounts.
ProRodeo’s grand finale is meant to be a test for everyone in the top 15 in each event, and it allows each bareback rider to challenge himself against the best bucking beasts in the game for 10 nights.
“We get two more nights in a row of easier horses, then it’s back to the buckers again,” Pope said. “I’m ready for them every round. I’m excited for it.”