ALTAMONT, Utah – Dean Thompson isn’t an ordinary first-year rodeo cowboy.
He entered 2023 with a boatload of confidence, a swagger he carried through the season while also building upon it. Now, he’s heading to ProRodeo’s grand championship, the National Finals Rodeo, which takes place Dec. 7-16 in Las Vegas.
“After having such a great season on my PRCA permit last year, I was all-in and really thought I had a good chance to make it,” said Thompson, 21, of Altamont, a community of 239 souls tucked in the mountains of eastern Utah. “Making the finals this year has been the greatest accomplishment of my life.”
It’s a big step for any cowboy who makes a living in the sport, whether they’re newcomers or 20-year veterans. Only the top 15 contestants in the world standings in each event at the conclusion of the regular season earn the right to battle for rodeo’s gold in Sin City.
It’s a major accomplishment for someone like Thompson, one of three bronc busters who not only will compete for the world championship but also will battle for the Bareback Riding Resistol Rookie of the Year award.
“There’s only one event in rodeo where the Rookie of the Year hasn’t been decided yet,” said Thompson, who attended Western Texas College in Snyder on a rodeo scholarship. “Keenan Hayes, Kade Sonnier and I are in the running for it, and it won’t be decided until the finals are over.”
The rookie title goes to the contestants who earn the most money in their respective disciplines. Hayes is the favorite at this stage because he also is the No. 1 man in the bareback riding world standings with nearly $266,000 in earnings. Sonnier is third with $160,000, and Thompson is eighth at $131,452.
It’s one thing to have three rookies at the NFR; it’s quite another to have all three among the top 10 prior to their arrival in Las Vegas.
“This has been the most entertaining and most electric rookie race in a long time and maybe ever,” Thompson said. “I’m a little biased because I love bareback riding, but I think it’s so cool to be in the mix in such an amazing race.”
He’s certainly done his part to be in the where he is, earning at least a share of eight rodeo titles over the course of the regular season, which ended Sept. 30. His biggest wins came at Oregon rodeos in Pendleton and Hermiston, earning $17,000 between those two events during the last month and a half of the campaign.
One of this other wins – at Guymon, Oklahoma, in early May – might be the most unforgettable moment of his rookie season. That’s where he rode 2022 Bareback Horse of the Year Gun Fire from the Frontier Rodeo string for 92.5 points.
“It’s crazy to see how big of a part of my season that ride was, getting on that horse and being 92.5,” said Thompson, who credits part of his success to his sponsors, Beddy’s Beds and War Bonnet Hats. “I had no idea what that was going to mean. All these months later and after all I went through, that’s my favorite ride. It didn’t feel as great to me until I was able to look back, and I gained a lot of appreciation for what I was able to do.”
It’s a moment that brings great pride. He has some amazing things from which to reflect on his inaugural regular season in ProRodeo, and he’ll have 10 more nights to add more memories. The NFR is rodeo’s Super Bowl and World Series wrapped up into a week and a half of competition in the Nevada desert. Some cowboys work for years just to earn the right to compete inside that arena and be part of the electric atmosphere that comes with the yellow bucking chutes.
The rodeo trail is long and winding. Cowboys that ride bucking horses for a living will travel tens of thousands of miles and get on about 100 broncs just hoping to qualify for the NFR. Of course, playing the game on the biggest stage in Las Vegas is the goal for any cowboy in any event, but there are only 120 out of thousands of competitors that will get the chance every year.
“I feel like I was pretty confident starting this season,” said Thompson, the youngest of four sons born to Chris and Kristie Thompson. “I knew I had a really good shot to make it to the finals on my rookie card, but I can honestly say that my confidence was nowhere near what it is now, because I have accomplished the goal that I’ve always wanted.”
Having looked up to his older brothers – Blake, Derrik and Danny – was easy for Dean Thompson. The family raises sheep, and the boys sold them in the market every year as a way to learn to care for others while also being responsible for animals. Rodeo and wrestling were a way of life for Dean Thompson, a four-time state-tournament qualifier and the 2020 state titlist at 152 pounds.
“The rodeo and wrestling worlds didn’t really collide,” he said. “In the fall and spring, you had rodeo; in the winter, you had wrestling. I could just roll from one to the other. Wrestling taught me hard work.
“Wrestling teaches you how to struggle and understand how to overcome it, and there’s definitely some struggle that happens in rodeo, just a different type. It’s absolutely necessary for every human being if they want to be good at any aspect of their life, they have to be winning to go through days where they have to rely on self-discipline to make it happen.”
It’s one of the reasons why he’s excelled at such a young age. While bareback riding is his marquee event, Thompson grew up as an all-around cowboy, also competing in bull riding and steer wrestling, the latter of which is a bit deceiving; bulldoggers are typically a lot bigger than his 5-foot-9, 165-pound stature.
“I packed those same three events off to college with me,” he said. “If I could knock the dust off, I’d love to get on bulls again, and I love bulldogging. Cash Robb is actually the guy that got me into bulldogging. We live like a mile from each other, so whenever he would practice, I’d go over and was able to learn how to throw steers pretty good.”
Though an injury late in the season ended Robb’s run toward the NFR, he finished the campaign as the Steer Wrestling Rookie of the Year. There’s a chance Altamont could have two top newcomers by the time ProRodeo’s grand finale comes to a close.
Dean Thompson is already one of the premier bareback riders in professional rodeo. He knew a long time ago that he wanted to be a world champion, but he didn’t zero in on this avenue until his second year in college. Once he put that as his focus, he flattened the learning curve and began building a resume of greatness.
“I absolutely love this sport, the energy you get and the fighter’s mentality you need if you’re going to be successful at it,” he said. “It’s the coolest thing to be able to bring that out and focus on a task like bareback riding, where you know it’s painful and you know you’re going to walk away sore, but you keep at it and keep fighting.”
That’s the lure, the thing that draws him to the rough-and-tumble event of bareback riding. He’s taken to the bait, and he’s battling for that world champion’s gold buckle at just 21 years of age.
“I think this is what I was meant to do,” Thompson said.
Yes, it is.