CARRINGTON, N.D. – It’s crazy how things work out.
Take Bridger Anderson as an example. He had competed all year and was inching closer to a second National Finals Rodeo qualification.
In order to secure that bid, he had hoped to compete at the Cinch Playoff Series Championship, which featured the top 12 contestants from the tour standings. By the time he realized he wouldn’t be able to compete in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he had one option left: Edmonton, Alberta.
In order to wrestle steers there, though, he needed to have a Canadian Professional Rodeo Association membership. Fortunately, he had one, albeit in a strange quirk of circumstances.
“I actually bought my Canadian card to go to Ponoka (Alberta) but didn’t end up getting into Ponoka because I bought my card too late,” said Anderson, 25, originally from Carrington but now living near Hico, Texas. “Thankfully I had my Canadian card and entered Edmonton and got my head off the chopping block on the last day of the season.”
The chopping block is also known as the NFR bubble, a place where those close to the 15th spot in the world standings resided as the regular season came to a close Sept. 30. He needed to win to be in, and he did just that, placing high enough to secure $1,100 and secure his spot among the top 15 and return to the grand championship for the first time since 2020.
“It took me a couple of years to get back, but I’m excited to go to Vegas and get to compete in the Thomas & Mack,” he said.
The Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas has been the home of the NFR since 1985, except for that one year. When COVID created a worldwide pandemic, the finale was moved to its one-year home in Arlington, Texas. Now that it’s back in its rightful place, Anderson will have a chance to see what it’s like to battle for rodeo’s gold in the Nevada desert.
While this will be his inaugural trip to Las Vegas for the NFR, he has competed in Sin City during December. The last time he did, he came away the champion.
“We’ve got a good streak in Vegas,” said Anderson, the 2019 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association steer wrestling champion while competing at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. “The only time I ever competed there, it went well for me at the Ote Berry Junior World Championships, so hopefully we can go back and continue to have success.”
The circumstances have definitely changed. Since six years ago, Anderson has proven to be an elite bulldogger. Three seasons ago, he finished his first NFR ninth in the world standings. He was 32nd the next year and 21st last year, so he’s continued to build his skills in one of the most competitive events in ProRodeo.
Anderson finished the 2023 campaign with $85,511, good enough for 14th in the world standings. He trails the top bulldogger, Oregonian Dalton Massey, by $108,000, but that ground can quickly be made up once the cowboys arrive in the City of Lights, where go-round winners will collect $30,706 each day for 10 nights.
“We just won a little more, had a few better licks, and we capitalized on a few more steers to end up with enough to be in the top 15,” said Anderson, the son of Glenn and Robin Anderson and brother to Cedar and Dawsyn. “This year, we got my horse, Whiskers, back, and we got to use him all year, which helped us be consistent. We were consistently getting good goes. Justin Shaffer did most of the hazing on my horse, Slim. We had a good crew, and I think that helped a lot.”
In addition to Shaffer, Anderson spent the year traveling with Canadian Riley Westhaver and Californian Tucker Allen. Their kindship on the road was beneficial to Anderson’s season.
“It was awesome to have that group of guys with everybody wanting to win and keeping a positive mindset to keep everything in check,” he said. “Tucker came real close to making the finals and was in the top 15 for most of the year. Justin had a pretty decent year, and Riley had some trouble, but we just kept pushing each other and trying to win something. It ended up working out for me.”
The others all took pride in his accomplishment. Once they arrive in Las Vegas, Shaffer will continue to haze; in steer wrestling, a hazer rides on the right side of the steer to keep that animal in line to help the bulldogger get the best shot at making a good run. As a key member of the team, the hazer can also offer advice on the best ways to win.
“We’ve been focusing on the mindset that winning is expected and that losing is a fluke, so that when it goes good, you don’t get too high on it because that’s what we expected to do,” said Anderson, who credits his success to his partners, Cinch, Korral Supply, Signature Quarters, Taylor Bang Cattle Sales, Legendary Steaks ND, AH Inc., DEFY, Hepper Ranch and Performing Horses, Diamond S Performance Horses, New Dawn Crop Performance and Smiles for Jake.
“I read a statistic that guys that are most consistent win 42 percent of the time. To make the finals, you’ve got to win 42 percent of the time, which means you’re losing 58 percent of the time. That’s the majority of the time you nod your head. You just realize you’re not going to do good sometimes, and you just have to deal with that. When you do better, it’s what you expected to do.”
The mental approach might be the most important aspect for professional rodeo cowboys. They travel North America chasing their dreams, and time on the road can be cumbersome. When slumps come, combatants must continue to face the challenges with a good attitude; getting down won’t help them win.
Each day offers a new beginning. For Anderson, he has faith in his ability and the talents of the men who surround him. He’s been to ProRodeo’s championship event before, though that one took place on the same diamond on which the Texas Rangers just won the World Series. He’s in for a brand new experience inside the 18,000-seat Thomas & Mack Center.
“Back in 2020, we were just excited to have an NFR, which was in a totally different stadium than normal,” he said, pointing out that he was one of just 119 people to have competed at a national finals in a baseball stadium. “But this is the Thomas & Mack, the building that we’ve always dreamed of competing in since we were little kids.
“Now, it’s becoming a reality, so I’m looking forward to finally figuring out what it’s like to run a steer in that building.”
He will be one of four Northwestern steer wrestlers in the field of 15 men when the action takes place Dec. 7-16; he will be joined by Stephen Culling, 2016 national champion J.D. Struxness and Cody Devers, who was the reserve college champion in 2018.
“We’re real proud of that program and what’s been done there,” Anderson said. “Devers and J.D. were actually there when I decided to go to school there, and one of the reasons I wanted to go there was some of those guys that were doing so good. I wanted to get my butt kicked when I got down there and practice with them.
“I know there’s a lot to be learned at Northwestern and learned from (coach) Stockton Graves. I think having four of us bulldoggers at the finals says a lot about that program.”
Over the course of his young career, Anderson has proven he has the championship mettle. Now, he gets to showcase it on the game’s biggest stage in the Entertainment Capital of the World.