FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Growing up in northern British Columbia, Stephen Culling didn’t have the typical childhood of a rodeo cowboy.
“My parents are both wildlife biologists,” said Culling, 29, a professional steer wrestler for Fort St. John who has qualified for the National Finals Rodeo for the first time. “We had some pretty interesting adventures. When I was really young, I never went to daycare much. I usually jumped in the helicopter with them; that was a pretty cool thing I got to do.
“The things that most people wouldn’t even think about is the way I was growing up. I got to see a lot of cool country from the helicopter and do a lot of things that most people don’t get a chance to do.”
Brad and Diane Culling raised Stephen and his older brother, Mac, around the understanding that nothing would be given to them. That foundation is what built the character the youngest still practices today. He relies on that work ethic to make his living in rodeo, a trade he’s plied since 2016.
“My parents made me work for everything,” said Culling, who attended both Western Oklahoma State University and Northwestern Oklahoma State University on rodeo scholarships. “If I wanted to buy a snowmobile, I had to go bust my butt. You realize there is value there, that right from a young age that if there’s something you want in life, you aren’t going to be afraid to put your nose to the grindstone to get it.”
Culling finished the 2023 regular season with $104,026, good enough for 10th in the world standings. That money is vital; not only does it help cover business expenses and take care of bills back home, it’s also how titles are won. In rodeo, dollars equal championship points, and the contestants with the most money earned at the conclusion of the NFR will be crowned world champions.
That’s right; Stephen Culling is in the middle of a world-championship race in his first adventure to the grand finale, set for Dec. 7-16 in Las Vegas.
“Making the NFR is a dream come true, something I’ve been working on since I first started bulldogging in high school,” he said. “I feel like in the early days, I was almost just doing it for fun. As the years went by, I just kept working at it.
“This is a huge accomplishment for me. That was one of the things I set out to do, and I’m really excited to show up in Vegas.”
Culling is involved in one of the most competitive events in the sport. Any steer wrestler in the top 50 has a chance to win on any given weekend, and there are always a few different names that qualify for the NFR each December. He is one of three first-time bulldoggers, joining the No. 15 man, Texan Don Payne, and the world standings leader, Oregonian Dalton Massey, the latter of whom is part of Culling’s traveling posse.
Massey and Culling will be riding the same horse, Eddie, which is owned by Canadian Tanner Milan; he will also serve as their hazer, helping keep the steers lined out during each run they make. Eddie, a 10-year-old bay gelding, was named the 2023 Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year.
“I’d say 100 guys can go make good enough runs to win some rodeos, but the one thing that separates the guys and puts them in the winner’s circle all the time is horsepower,” said Culling, who credits a good portion of his success with his sponsors, Resistol, CVS Controls, Cinch, Zesterra, VDM Trucking, Tracker Contracting, Trek Air and 8 Seconds Western Wear & Feed. “I’ve always been fortunate to be able to get on good horses.
“A few years ago I traveled with Curtis Cassidy and rode Tyson, and now I’ve been on Eddie. I’m pretty blessed that the guys who have horses of the year let me ride them. It’s pretty cool to have the best two horses in the world, and I’ve been able to ride both.”
He rode Eddie at the Canadian Finals Rodeo the first weekend of November and found some success. He placed in three of the final four go-rounds in Red Deer, Alberta, winning the fifth performance.
“It wasn’t the finals I’d wanted, because I took myself out of contention to win the Canadian title the first two nights,” he said, reflecting on two broken barriers that added a combined 20 seconds to his runs. “Once you do that, it changes your attitude, and you realize you still have a chance to catch some money in the final few rounds, so that’s what I went for.”
Culling started his rodeo life with a rope in his hand. He was a tie-down and team roper. While at some high school rodeos, he realized he spent most of his time waiting to make a run instead of competing, so he opted to add steer wrestling to his portfolio. He also received some tutelage from fellow British Columbia cowboy Clayton Moore, who helped Culling hone in on his skills.
“My parents would drop me off at Clayton’s house on Friday afternoon and come pick me up Sunday night,” he said. “We’d bulldog, rope, ride colts and do just about everything. It was pretty instrumental in my career to spend that much time with someone I looked up to and spend that much time with.
“He knew I was focused and had goals, and he more so treated me like an equal than a kid from just down the road that he was just helping out. He put me through the ringer pretty early on because he knew I’d survive it. We worked pretty hard at it, that was the main reason that I went from jumping my first steers in January to moving along pretty fast.”
It paid off. In 2010, he won the bulldogging titles at both the Canadian High School Finals Rodeo and the National High School Finals Rodeo, and a star was born. He carried that prestige with him to Oklahoma for his education.
“Guy Smith was the coach at Western Oklahoma, and he’s from Canada, so that made it convenient to go to school there because I was going to be around quite a few Canadians,” said Culling, a six-time CFR qualifier. “Guy knew what it was like to be a Canadian down there. That made it pretty easy to make the transition from British Columbia to Oklahoma, having someone who knew the ropes.
“When I got done with my first semester in Altus, that’s when Stockton (Graves) started coaching at Northwestern. When I finished my second year in Altus, I had my mind made up to where I wanted to go, because Stockton had been to the finals and there were some really good guys going to school there. You could just feed off it.”
He’s still feeding off those relationships. Each has helped build Culling to the man he is today and the steer wrestler battling for rodeo’s gold. Once he arrives in Las Vegas, he’ll make the runs of a lifetime, fighting for his share of the $1.3 million purse available in each event. Go-round winners will pocket almost $31,000 per day for 10 December nights.
He will have a chance to make some major cash in a week and a half in the City of Lights, home of the world’s richest rodeo. Most importantly, he has a chance to realize those gold buckle dreams he’s had since he was a young boy in northern British Columbia.
“This is what I’ve been working toward since high school,” Culling said. “The main goal is to make the NFR and win a gold buckle.”