MORGAN, Utah – The reason Caleb Bennett loves rodeo is very simple.
“The rodeo atmosphere is me,” said Bennett, a bareback rider from Morgan. “It’s like whiskey to a drunk or poker to a gambler; it’s just something you’ve got to have.
“I love it. I love traveling. I love 10-hour drives with buddies, and I love getting on bucking horses when I get there.”
That passion has carried the 26-year-old cowboy to his third straight qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s year-end championship set for Dec. 4-13 in Las Vegas. Only the top 15 contestants from the regular season in each event advance to the 10-round finale, which offers the greatest payout in the game, $6.375 million.
The combatants will all battle for the $19,000 payday during each go-round over 10 December nights in southern Nevada, and the contestants with the most money earned at its conclusion will be crowned world champions. Through the regular season, Bennett pocketed $85,225 and will arrive in Sin City next week No. 8 in the bareback riding world standings.
“Everyone starts the year with the goal of making it to the NFR,” said Bennett, who earned nearly $64,000 last December. “This is how we make our living, so it’s a huge goal.”
The Utah cowboy heads to the finals after his best regular season. He had nine Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association titles in 2014, including wins in Rapid City, S.D.; Clovis, Calif.; Pendleton, Ore.; and the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo.
“Winning the national championship was awesome,” he said of the April rodeo in which he won a boatload of cash and a voucher toward the purchase of a Ram pickup. “That’s always been a goal of mine to go to the Ram finals and win that, and this was only my second year of qualifying for that.
“It’s just another stepping stone and what I want to accomplish in my career.”
His year was solid from start to finish, and that helped him find a comfort zone to this year’s NFR. That’s quite a change from 2013, when he had to finish with a flourish in order to qualify in the 15th and last spot.
“I had a great season, and I tried to plan things differently this year,” Bennett said. “I tried to set up my winter runs by hitting the bigger, better rodeos and taking advantage of that. All summer long I entered like that. I tried to enter smarter instead of by quantity.
“I won more money this year than I had either year before when I qualified. That really made the month of September a lot easier on me. I could go to the bigger ones and relax a little bit and not have to worry about making it.”
That pressure-valve rele3ase paid off in Pendleton, one of the biggest and most historic events in ProRodeo. He rode Sankey Rodeo’s Thunder Monkey for 87 points to win the short go-round and share the average championship with fellow NFR qualifier Tim O’Connell.
“That’s a world-renowned rodeo that everybody wants to win,” said Bennett, who competed on the rodeo team at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, after a stellar career that saw him win the 2007 National High School Finals Rodeo bareback riding title in one of his four qualifications. “I’d never made the short round before, then I snuck in and happened to draw the best horse.”
Of course, nothing comes without assistance. He gets plenty of support from his family; his father, Bob Caldwell, rode bucking horses and continues to compete in team roping; his mother, Claudine, has always been around barrel racing. Bennett, two brothers and three sisters were all raised around the sport and all but one have competed.
“My family’s been a huge support for me,” Bennett said. “I swear my mom is my biggest fan. They’ve always been a great support group of mine to get from points A to B throughout the summer.”
That family also consists of his traveling posse, a foursome of bareback riders who go by the moniker “Flow Riders,” primarily because of their long hair. That group also includes NFR qualifier R.C. Landingham of Pendleton, who has finished 16th each of the past two seasons; Clint Laye of Cadogan, Alberta, among the top 25 in 2013-14; and J.R. Vezain of Cowley, Wyo., a three-time NFR qualifier sitting 10th in the world standings.
“The main reason we started growing our hair was to honor R.C.’s mom, Wendy Stiver, when she started losing her hair while battling cancer,” Bennett said. “She is such a strong woman, and it goes for anyone out there who battles cancer. She’s been an inspiration for all of us. We started growing our hair for her this year.”
Moments like that help the cowboy stay grounded. He realizes he has blessings and talent, and he plans to take advantage of both. He has an amazing support system, which also includes other cowboys.
“The first year I made the finals, Kaycee told me to just keep positive,” he said of Kaycee Feild, a seven-time NFR qualifier and the reigning three-time world champion bareback rider from Spanish Fork, Utah. “I’ve just taken that with me every year. If something didn’t go right, I just let it go and started to focus on the next one.
“That’s what I’m going to do this year. I feel healthier and stronger than I’ve ever felt. I have a good workout routine to hopefully better me. I’m going to just go in there with goals and a winning mindset, because I really want to win that rodeo.”
Doing so would mean finishing with the best 10-ride aggregate score. Feild has done that each of the past three seasons, which is a key reason he won those world championship gold buckles. It’s a great lesson for Bennett, who could add a $48,732 bonus if he were to win the NFR average.
“Anything can happen either way in Las Vegas,” Bennett said. “I’ve watch guys go in and struggle. Last year Kaycee struggled the first two rounds, then all of the sudden, he just stepped up and went hotter than a firecracker.
“To me, that is the biggest lesson. Even if you have a few bad rounds, you can still come back and do well. The last few years I started stronger than I finished, and this year my goal is to finish stronger than I start.”
With that goal in place, Bennett has his eyes set on the top prize in the game: The gold buckle.