GRANITE FALLS, Minn. – Any athlete can attest to injuries throughout a career and even through a season.
In bareback riding, the strain and stress the body takes during an eight-second ride can make injuries stack up. Cowboys wedge their hands into a tight-fitting handhold on a rigging that is strapped tightly to a bucking horse; they are nearly tied to 1,100 pounds of dynamite in bucking flesh.
Tanner Aus has been doing this for more than a decade, and he’s become one of the preeminent athletes in ProRodeo. He had another terrific season, pocketing $127,132, and will return to the National Finals Rodeo for the seventh time in his career as the ninth-ranked cowboy in the world standings.
“I was lucky I drew good horses all year, and I stayed healthy,” said Aus, 32, of Granite Falls. “That was the main thing. I’ve still got a little bit of fight in me that when I draw a horse I can’t win on, I still might go try it to see what I can do.”
What he did was excel all season long. He won at least a share of the title at 14 rodeos, an incredible feat.
“I attribute the money I made to just staying on the road and riding bucking horses,” he said, noting that many cowboys leave their families in late June and don’t return home until the regular season concludes the end of September. “I love riding bucking horses. I had kind of a slow winter and a pretty good spring, and I had a few licks in the summertime that kept me (high in the standings).”
Rodeo cowboys travel tens of thousands of miles a year in order to make a living. They may be in North Platte, Nebraska, one day and need to be in Reno, Nevada, the neext. There are times throughout the year when they may ride two rodeos in the same day, traveling many miles to make it happen.
But being on the road means being away from home. That’s tough on anyone, especially fathers. When he left home in June, he and his wife, Lonissa, had two little ones – 4-year-old Bristol and 2-year-old Rowan – and another on the way. Aus had been home for both their births and wasn’t going to miss out on No. 3.
“We were due Aug. 2, and Cheyenne (Wyoming) got over on (July) 31st,” he said. “I took off like wild heading home. I talked to Loni on the way, and she told me she wanted me rested and that I didn’t have to race home. I got to Mitchell, South Dakota, and I slept for the night.
“At 7 o’clock the next morning, she called and asked where I was. I told her I was in Mitchell, and she asked why I was still there. She said it was about time, so I took off and got home about noon. I showed, we ran into town, and they said, sure enough, it’s time. She ended up coming a day early.”
And Dad was there to be part of it all. It may not have gone as planned, but it worked well enough for the family.
“Everyone was just waiting on me for a few hours,” said Aus, who credits much of his success to his sponsors, Midwest Agri, Salty Dog Sister Boutique, Granite Falls Dairy Queen, Jug Waterers, Carroll Spur Co., Phoenix Performance Products and Wrangler. “It was an awesome way to spend a little time at home.”
Those times are always good, but he wasn’t home for long. It’s the life of a rodeo cowboy, and he knows all about that. His father, John, rode bareback horses for years and was the Great lakes Circuit titlist in 1988. Tanner Aus has been around the game all his life.
“I remember from the time I was very young – I was probably 9 years old when I started – I always wondered what it would be like to set making the NFR as a goal,” he said. “When you’re that young and have so many other things that can snag your attention, it feels like a pipe dream.”
Now, though, he’s a regular. Since his inaugural trip to Las Vegas seven years ago, he’s only missed returning one time. That year, injuries slowed him down, and he finished 18th in the world standings; only the top 15 on the money list at the end of the regular season qualify for the sport’s grand championship, and he’s been among that field more often than not.
“I pretty much take the same approach every year,” said Aus, who attended Iowa Central Community College before winning the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association title in 2012 while competing at Missouri Valley College. “You know it’s 10 in a row at the best rodeo you’ll ever get to go to. You show up, you take it one horse at a time, you make the best ride you can make on the stock that you have drawn and you fall back on your fundamentals and your training.
“Competing inside the Thomas & Mack is unreal, so much more than you expect. That first time, you’re about to nod your head at your first NFR, and you try to prepare yourself, but just the electricity in that place makes your hair stand up. I think it’s a shared sentiment with all the bareback riders no matter how many times you’ve been there. It’s a feeling that’s unlike any other I’ve ever experienced.”
In a year when the financial gains of ProRodeo are unprecedented, all 15 NFR bareback riders earned at least $100,000. Only $57,000 separates first to 15th, and with go-round winners earning $28,914 per night, that difference can be made up after Night 2.
“The competition this year stayed very tight,” said Aus, who recently was inducted into the Iowa Central Hall of Fame. “Now, it comes down to the next 10, and it’s pretty exciting.”