MERRIMAN, Neb. – Oftentimes there is a fine line between great and awful.
Garrett Shadbolt walked that line over the summer of his 2022 ProRodeo regular season. In a two-week stretch from the end of July to the first of August, he experienced the highest of highs as a bareback rider, but it also led to some pretty big lows.
“The highlight of the year actually was those couple of weeks where I was just on a roll and was drawing really well,” said Shadbolt, 26, of Merriman, Nebraska. “It all started when I finished third in Cheyenne (Wyoming), but I won my performance and my semifinals. I got a check in Deadwood (South Dakota) that week, then the next week, I got a good check out of the long round in Dodge City (Kansas) and in Lovington (New Mexico), and I won Phillipsburg (Kansas).
“I went back to Dodge City and won the short round and got the Dodge City win. It was a really good stretch.”
In all, he pocketed nearly $22,000 in just two weeks of riding bucking horses, and it’s a big reason why he returns to the National Finals Rodeo for the second straight year. He finished the regular season with $103, 949 and holds down the 15th and last spot to qualify for the December championship in Las Vegas.
His championship round- and event-winning ride in southwest Kansas came on Aug. 7 when he rode Frontier Rodeo’s Gun Fire for 91.5 points. That ride capped off an impressive stand, and he added $6,014 to his earnings.
Gun Fire is also impressive, a powerful buckskin mare that was named the 2022 PRCA Bareback Horse of the Year based on voting by the cowboys that have ridden bucking broncs all season. Her power came into play right as the eight-second buzzer sounded, as she launched Shadbolt forward and the two combatants smacked heads together.
Shadbolt crashed to the dirt, and the victor needed a bit of assistance getting out of the arena after having suffered a concussion because of the collision. That incident, in essence, put him out of competition for the better part of the final two months.
“I’ve been rodeoing for quite a while but a career wrestler who competed at the college level was also part of that, so it’s been a pretty rough lifestyle,” said Shadbolt, who has support not only from his family but also his sponsors, East Sandhills Beef, Romsa Farm & Ranch, The Lodge at Deadwood, Raise American and Fuel Grill.
“When you have that kind of history and you take a hit like that, it can affect you for a while. I didn’t really feel right until recently, and that was affecting me. I tried to go at it again, but I just didn’t feel right.”
All the while, he kept watching more bareback riders pass him in the standings. Because of his excellent run in the winter and spring, he was able to hold on to his spot among the top 15, but he had fallen from fifth in the standings to 15th.
“I was pretty confident I could make it this year,” he said of the NFR. “I had a great winter, spring and early summer, then I was having some hard luck. I wasn’t drawing very good. I got on a lot of questionable horses in a row. I went to six rodeos over the Fourth of July run and didn’t win any money.
“I don’t think I made any mistakes, but bareback riding is just so competitive right now that it’s hard to win, especially over the Fourth run when everybody’s rodeoing.”
Cowboys are matched with their animals by random draw, and the better the horse, the better the score and the better the opportunity to win big money. While he was being matched with good horses through a stretch of the season, he was hoping other match-ups would help increase his earnings.
That’s just an aspect of rodeo that remains out of his control, though. He can control how he rides and how he approaches the game mentally. That’s been a big plus for the Nebraska cowboy. It’s also why he’s been a bit conservative when it comes to his head injury.
“I’ve had concussions in my past,” said Shadbolt, who lives on his family’s ranch outside Merriman with his wife, Katie, son George and daughter Mavis. “I don’t want to be brain dead when I’m 40. I’ve got a wife and kids to think about. It’s definitely not a fun injury to have. It’s hard to tell when you’re ready to go back and when you need to just stay home.”
There’s definitely a competitor deep in the heart of his 132-pound body, and it’s what drives him. Having been able to match moves with a powerful horse like Gun Fire is something that he can build on.
“For me, getting a match-up like that and getting tested and coming out on top is the pinnacle of success in bareback riding,” he said. “That’s the feeling I’m chasing. I like to say every man should know what he’s capable of. I enjoy that; some people don’t. There were a couple jumps on Gun Fire where I was riding a razor’s edge.”
That’s what happens when two determined athletes meet. When the NFR begins its 10-day run Dec. 1, he will have more opportunities to ride rank horses. Not only does the NFR feature the top bareback riders from this past season, but it also is home to the top 100 bucking horses in the game.
“Everything’s going to buck really hard, and I may have been a little overconfident in that first round and came out swinging for the fence last year,” Shadbolt said. “It really pays to recover from mistakes you make and finish your rides. I don’t want to safety up; that’s not my style or my strategy. I’m definitely going to try to finish all my rides.”
Only $57,000 separates first to 15th heading into the NFR. With go-round winners earning $28,914 per night, that difference can be made up after Night 2. That would put Shadbolt into contention for a world championship race in a hurry.
“It’s going to be tough this year,” he said. “There are a lot of very good bareback riders right now. If you safety up at the NFR, I don’t think it’s going to help you win checks. One of my goals this year is to win a round. I could be more conservative and go for a better spot in the average, but that’s not my style.
“It’s better for me to just go for it.”
That’s the mindset he needs as he battles for ProRodeo gold.