NFR is a celebration for Braden

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Hardy Braden has had the best season of his career. He hopes to improve it at his first qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (GREG WESTFALL PHOTO)
Hardy Braden has had the best season of his career. He hopes to improve it at his first qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. (GREG WESTFALL PHOTO)

WELCH, Okla. – How good was 2017 to saddle bronc rider Hardy Braden?

He earned nearly as much money during the regular season as he had the previous six years combined. It is, by far, his greatest season in ProRodeo, and he will cap the campaign with his inaugural trip to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s grand finale set for Dec. 7-16 in Las Vegas.

“It’s just now starting to sink in that I’m going to the NFR,” said Braden, who attended both Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College and Oklahoma Panhandle State University on rodeo scholarships. “When a person first starts rodeoing, it’s something you strive to come. There comes a time, especially when you’re younger, that you just think you’re going to go.

“It takes longer than people realize. As long as a guy keeps his head straight and stays positive, he can work toward it. It worked out this year, and I’m ecstatic.”

Hardy Braden
Hardy Braden

He should be. Braden earned $102,774 through the 2017 campaign and heads to the Nevada desert seventh in the world standings. The turning point actually came in February, when he found great success at the San Antonio (Texas) Stock Show and Rodeo.

While there, he earned more than $22,000. In a short span, he jumped to No. 5 in the world standings and remained among the top 10 all season long.

“That sure helped boost me up there in the standings, but fortunately I kept nickel-and-diming along to stay up there,” said Braden, whose father, Butch, is a former bronc rider-turned pickup man, and his mother, Tammy, is a timer who has worked the NFR in the past. “The reality of being able to make the NFR came sometime after Cheyenne (Wyoming at the end of July).

“I mentioned to my traveling partner, Will Smith, that I wanted to make enough money through the season that I can look back, subtract the money I won in San Antonio, and I still would’ve had enough to qualify for the NFR.”

He did that, proving to himself that he had done everything in his power to earn that spot inside the coveted top 15 – only the top cowboys and cowgirls in each event advance to the NFR, which offers the largest purse in the game. Go-round winners will pocket more than $26,000 a night for 10 rounds.

“I may not have won that many rodeos, but I placed at nearly every rodeo I went to,” he said. “(Nine-time NFR qualifier) Danny Etbauer told us when I was in college that you don’t have to win every rodeo; those second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes are what’s going to get you down the road.

“I didn’t always have the horse to win the rodeo, but I ended up placing a lot. That paid off pretty well.”

As with every person who plays this game, the goal is to finish the year with the world championship. In rodeo, dollars equal points, so the contestants in each event who complete the NFR with the most money won are awarded the gold buckle.

Braden has had a great season, especially by his standards, but he still trails the leader, Jacobs Crawley, by more than $80,000. He understands that things are going to have to go his way in his first championship if he were to leave Las Vegas with gold.

“I do not take this for granted,” he said, noting that his career earnings prior to this year were just $106,000. “I realize this is probably not going to happen every year. You’re going to have those years. I’m not going to expect to have as such an awesome year as I did this year, but I’m going to approach it the same way I did this year.”

Braden grew up around the game. That’s what happens when one’s family is involved. He watched his dad ride broncs and was around rodeo all is life. His early lessons came from his father, who brought him along slowly.

Butch Braden qualified for the Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo several times through the 1990s, so he knows quite a bit about riding broncs. He knew his son was interested, so Butch Braden kept his son interested without breaking his spirit.

“From the time I was 14, we had talked about bronc riding,” Hardy Braden said. “I never got on anything until my senior year in high school when I was 18. There was a time period we didn’t do anything but talk about it. But he told me about what a guy needs to do if a horse does this or that, what that feeling was like, getting an idea of what needed to happen.

“I think doing that a few years before ever getting on anything definitely cut the learning curve three-fourths for me. There’s a rule of thumb that says you need to get on 100 horses before you get the hang of things; I had only been on 30 horses before I made the college finals.”

Having those years of learning muscle memory has paid off. He qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in 2010 and 2011 and is a three-time Prairie Circuit champion. If he wasn’t getting advice from his dad, he was getting much needed support from his mom.

Tammy Braden has been her son’s executive assistant, of sorts. She keeps him up to date on the business end of the rodeo trail. That is a saving grace, especially for cowboys who are making a living at this.

“This will be the first time she’s going to the NFR and gets to be a fan,” Hardy Braden said. “My whole family’s ecstatic. It’s going to be a neat deal for everybody; it’s the biggest stage ProRodeo has to offer. I’m excited, and I know they are.”

There will be plenty of excitement to fill the air. ProRodeo’s grand championship has that Super Bowl feel to it, and it happens for 10 straight nights.

“I’m just going to look at it like I did all year; just do your best with what you have,” he said. “Like they say, ‘Eight seconds in the saddle is worth a lifetime in the stands.’ How many people, since the NFR’s inception, have actually competed at the NFR? I actually get to go do that and get on 10 of the best horses that were going down the road at that time.

“I love pressure. It makes me a little more nervous, but I probably handle it a little different than most.”

It’s a good trait to have in Las Vegas, and it will come in handy as he rides into the Thomas & Mack Center for the first time.

“This is the coolest thing I could possibly do,” he said.

Yes, it is.


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