CODY, Wyo. – For the hundreds of thousands of visitors who enjoy this picturesque and vibrant community each summer, the Cody Nite Rodeo is a spectacle and a family-friendly piece of their time in Wyoming.
For rodeo’s rising stars, it is the standard-bearer as a proving ground. It features 90 nights to hone one’s craft in a competitive atmosphere. It provides valuable lessons that can be carried throughout the year and over a career.
Some of the biggest stars in the sport today took advantage of their time at the Cody Nite Rodeo, men like Kaycee Feild, the winningest bareback rider in ProRodeo history with six world championships and 13 qualifications to the National Finals Rodeo. They are athletes like Dusty Tuckness, recognized 10 times as the PRCA’s Bullfighter of the Year.
“Cody is a great place to learn your craft, grow and experience it every night,” said Tuckness, a 14-time National Finals Rodeo bullfighter from Meeteetse, Wyoming. “For some, you can enter every night. I got to work the entire summer of 2005. You get a lot of experience, and you see a little bit of everything.
“There’s so much opportunity there to chase your dreams. Some world champions in all events have come through the Nite Rodeo over the years. Over the 18 years since I first started, there are ore opportunities, more places for people to stay while they’re there for the summer. It’s really blossomed.”
To understand just how important the Cody Nite Rodeo is to the development of the sport’s stars, it takes just a peak under the hood to see what has developed the last few years. While it’s been a couple decades since Feild and Tuckness got their starts inside Stampede Park, there are a handful of others who just came through the system and took full advantage of the experience and the chance to get on some of the animals provided by Maury Tate, owner of Mo Betta Rodeo and the Nite Rodeo’s producer:
- Wacey Schalla, the 2023 National High School Rodeo Association Finals all-around and bull riding champion
- Weston Timberman, the 2023 intercollegiate national champion bareback rider
- Shae Fornier, the 2022 college champion saddle bronc rider
- Cole Franks, the 2021 all-around and bareback riding college titlist
- Brody Wells, a former College National Finals Rodeo qualifier who has twice finished among the top 35 saddle bronc riders
- Sam Petersen, a college finalist who finished among the top 20 bareback riders in 2023
- Kade Sonnier, the No. 2-ranked bareback rider in the 2023 standings at the end of the regular season
“I went up there the first time in 2019 and spent two weeks,” said Franks, the 2021 Bareback Riding Resistol Rookie of the Year and a two-time NFR qualifier. “It’s the only place you can get on horses every single day. I think that’s a big deal, because you’re getting on continuously and learning what it takes. When you’re young, the more horses you can get on the better.”
Each step taken in that regard is a valuable one. When Isaac Diaz was a rookie in 2005, he took advantage of the opportunity before him while also trying to figure out what it takes to make a living in ProRodeo. Since then, he’s been recognized as one of the greatest saddle bronc riders in the game.
“Me and my best friend, Tyler Moody, rented an apartment on the east end of town,” said Diaz, a seven-time NFR qualifier from Desdemona, Texas. “We were rodeoing hard that year. I would go to rodeos, and it was just a good, central location to come back to. Whenever I didn’t have a PRCA rodeo to go to, I’d go to the Nite Rodeo every night. It was hard enough to win enough money to keep going down the road.
“Riding at the Nite Rodeo would supplement my rodeoing and pay for our apartment, and I always got on good horses.”
For competitors that have gold-buckle dreams, they know the work it takes to get to an elite level. World champions are likely blessed with talent, but the ability to harness that and put it together on a consistent basis comes through the layers of hard work and development.
“The more horses you get on at that age is only going to help,” Diaz said. “That place is good for every level of up-and-comer. The guys that ride pretty good can do the things to stay sharp, and the ones that haven’t gotten over the hump yet can get on every night for a small fee and not spend the money to travel anywhere. They also get to get on good horses.
“A lot of guys have gone through there, and it’s definitely benefited them.”
While cowboys and cowgirls learn through rides and runs, the folks involved in other facets of rodeo also earn perks through the nightly opportunities. Rodeo clowns and entertainers can perfect their jokes and acts; announcers will gain texture in their voices and a continuity to their deliveries; bullfighters will see a variety of moves from their bovine counterparts; and judges will have a chance to perfect their understanding of the rules and scoring criteria.
“There are so many ways you can learn and grow and do it the right way,” Tuckness said. “Cody is a great foundation for anybody. I know some of the people at the professional ranks that still stop by there.
“You can enter every day or, like me, you can work the rodeo every day. You can work a job during the day and ride every night. It’s also a chance for some guys who may be struggling just a little bit; they can come back to the Nite Rodeo and tune themselves up or try out a new saddle or a new rigging. They can spend a few nights there and really give themselves a boost confidence-wise.”
On top of all that, Tate, the producer, makes sure there are other avenues that can help out the youngsters trying to gain a little footing in a sport they love.
“Maury does free schools over the summer, and he has some world champions and other great guys that come in and help out,” Tuckness said, noting that bronc rider Dan Mortensen, bull riders Justin McBride and Cody Custer and bareback riders Mark Gomes and Jeffrey Collins are a few of the world titlists that have helped youngsters in Cody. “It’s a great chance to get some important lessons from people that really know what it takes to win at a high level.”
Franks has seen that up close and understands the value of the tutelage that comes from established veterans. His father, Bret Franks, is a rodeo coach and one of the regular instructors in Cody.
“They try their butts off to get good instructors, getting someone who’s always there and can always help someone,” Cole Franks said. “Everyone there is giving and easy to work with, and they’re always looking out for the kids coming to get on.”
Rodeo’s future is tied to what’s happening in the developing stages of the cowboys’ and cowgirls’ careers. The Cody Nite Rodeo is the perfect proving ground for anyone who has ever dreamed of wearing a world champion’s gold buckle.