CLEMENTS, Calif. – Clayton Biglow wasn’t quite sure if he would be allowed to defend his bareback riding world championship.
A year ago, he pocketed nearly $250,000 over 10 December nights at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which propelled him to the coveted Montana Silversmiths gold buckle and just shy of $426,000 in season earnings.
“Once Houston shut down in March, I was wondering if we were going to have a season,” said Biglow, 24, of Clements, California. “Once the season got started rolling again, it was great to be out there rodeoing, but it definitely had an odd feeling.”
He and everyone else will be hard-pressed to match his 2019 earnings, thanks in large part to the global pandemic, which cut off the sport for two and a half months in the spring and reduced the number of rodeos by more than half. Less rodeos meant less opportunities for cowboys to cash in.
This is how Biglow and all the other full-time cowboys make their livings, but it goes beyond that. In rodeo, dollars equal championship points; only the top 15 on the money list in each event at the conclusion of the regular season advance to the NFR each year, and the contestants in each event who earn the most money when the NFR is over are crowned world titlists.
Still weeks away from his 25th birthday, the California buckaroo is a five-time NFR qualifier and already ranked as one of the greatest to ever play the game. In the last decade, he was one of just five individuals to have earned bareback riding’s gold. That buckle is something he will cherish every day, even if he adds more to the trophy case.
“Every time I put it on, I get little chill that go down my back,” said Biglow, who credits his sponsors – Bloomer Trailers, Resistol, Wrangler, Pete Carr Pro Rodeo and MY Chevrolet in Salinas, Calif. – with much of his career success. “Any other buckle you wear means something to you, but there’s nothing like wearing this gold buckle.”
It’s one of many prizes he earned during his magical run in 2019. He also added four go-round buckles and, by winning the most money of any contestant at the NFR, the Ram Top Gun Award, which was a new RAM pickup. He’s added a camper to that vehicle’s bed, and it’s been the truck that’s carried him through the up-and-down 2020 season.
“Being a five-time NFR qualifier means a whole lot,” he said. “I want to be a 10-time qualifier. When I hit 30, I think I should have done that. It’s especially gratifying on a year like this. The money was different, and the competition was different. Everyone was at every little rodeo. It was a drawing contest and a riding contest. It was tough everywhere you went.”
Yes, it was. A year ago, he went into the NFR No. 1 in the standings with more than $180,000. This year, he sits fifth with $70,973.
“Any year is going to be tough to make the finals, but this year is one of the tougher ones we’ll experience,” he said. “You couldn’t duck off anywhere. You weren’t going to Cheyenne (Wyoming) or Pendleton (Oregon) and getting a big check. You’re not winning $10,000 on a weekend. If you won $5,000 or $6,000, that was a good week.”
It worked out to give him a shot to repeat as the world champion, but the lull in the rodeo season – time off in the spring and fewer rodeos in which to compete – allowed Biglow the opportunity to take care of things closer to home. That included prep work for his October wedding to his longtime girlfriend, Annierose.
“It was honestly a good thing, because I’m building a house and I was planning a wedding,” he said. “It was nice to get the ducks in a row for that. Once I got that figured out, I started helping a friend with his fence building operation and working around here.
“If you’re ever feeling that you’re not riding well, go build fence. It will change your thoughts on rodeo in a hurry.”
Much of 2020 has been a disruption for everyone. The global pandemic has meant adjustments for everyone. Students have been educated by remote learning, and social distancing has become a curious mindset. Some areas of North America are more open than others, which is one reason the rodeo schedule has been so affected.
Even the NFR has been touched. Because of restrictions in Nevada, this year’s championship will take place Dec. 3-12 at Globe Life Field, the home of the Texas Rangers and the 2020 World Series in Arlington, Texas. The hope is that it’s a one-year hiatus from Las Vegas, but the large stadium offers ample seating while allowing the spaces necessary for social distancing.
“I’m excited about this year’s NFR, because I’m a baseball fan,” Biglow said. “Going to the baseball stadium is pretty cool to me. It’s not Vegas, but I think Arlington will be good. I’m just glad we’re having the NFR; that’s the most exciting part of it.”
Rodeo has been part of Clayton Biglow’s life all his life. His father, Russ, was a bareback rider and team roper until the children came along. His mother, Jessie, trains jumping horses. His sisters, Taylor and Maddie, have also been involved with horses all their lives.
This is a rough-and-tumble game with many miles in between. He knows that if he has any chances to repeat as the world champion, he will have had to put in many hours of training and keeping his body and mind in the best shape possible. He’s got a gold buckle and four years of previous NFRs to help guide him.
“By now, you know exactly what you need to do to get things done,” Biglow said. “It’s rodeo, and it’s different every time, but you have the right mindset going in. No matter how many times you’ve made it, you still have the butterflies. You still get amped up. I don’t think that ever leaves.”