MILAN, Minn. – Some folks just get by with a little help from their friends.
Professional rodeo cowboys thrive in those situations. Steer wrestler J.D. Struxness is a prime example. He had a goal of making it back to the National Finals Rodeo on his horse, Izzy, an 11-year-old sorrel mare. Things were going well, and Izzy was doing her job.
That helped Struxness move up the money list, taking advantage of good opportunities and building on his brand of bulldogging. When Izzy suffered an injury and was sidelined for the remainder of the regular season, the Minnesota-born cowboy made the necessary adjustments and will be back in Las Vegas for the fifth time in his career.
“You have your ups and downs with the horses and other things that happen, but it’s always exciting and feels good to accomplish one of the goals for the year and get a chance to go back there,” said Struxness, 29, originally from Milan but now living in Perrin, Texas, with his fiancé, Jayden, and their two daughters, Everlee, 4, and Lilly, 2.
“It’s a big deal, and having been there before, you feel like you have an understanding of how things go. You know where to go, and you know what you need to do when you get there.”
The NFR is a 10-day battle toward the world championship at the $14.9-million rodeo. In a sport where dollars equal championship points, every cent counts. Go-round winners will pocket nearly $31,000 each night. As the money grows individually, so do those chances to win the elusive Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
Izzy is still on injured reserve, and Struxness hopes to have a chance to ride her again. For now, he’ll just pray for her healing and move on, much like he did through the final few months of the season
“Only time will tell with her,” he said. “She’s getting better, but we still don’t know. I got to ride her quite a bit this summer before she got hurt. She had really stepped up this year and was playing a role in my success.
“When she went down, I went into a little bit of a slump because I was trying to find a horse that was like her, ran like her style.”
He found a few that worked for him, like Bridger Chambers’ mount, Ringo. Struxness also mounted Eddie, a powerful bay that was named the Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year and is owned by Canadian Tanner Milan. Those were just two of several horses Struxness rode that helped him accumulate $122,397 through the regular season.
He will stroll into the NFR sixth in the world standings, then he will have 10 nights to build on his earnings. The contestants in each event who finish the year with the most earnings will be crowned world champions.
“A big part of my success this year was rodeoing up north and getting to see my family all together,” he said, noting that Jayden and the girls spent most of the summer in her native Alberta, and Struxness spent a considerable amount of time rodeoing north of the border; he even qualified for the Canadian Finals Rodeo. “I was able to see my family a little bit almost every week, and that was a huge relief during the summer.
“Being around them takes a lot of weight off my shoulders. Being able to have that family time and also being able to get on all the horses I got to ride this year, that opened the door for me to have a lot of success. Having horses like that just makes your job so much easier. There were great opportunities to ride those horses, and they helped me chip away at it all summer long.”
While there will be 15 steer wrestlers in the NFR field, there will only be a handful of bulldogging horses. Cowboys want to ride the horses that will give them the best chance at winning, and that’s why Struxness will ride a horse owned by fellow bulldogger Ty Erickson, the No. 5 man in the world standings and the 2019 world champion.
“I’m going to ride Ty’s horse, Crush, out there,” said Struxness, who won the intercollegiate national championship in 2016 and qualified for his first NFR later that year. “(NFR veteran) Matt Reeves will be doing the hazing for me. I spent a lot of time thinking about it and trying to figure out what was going to be the best move for me when we got to Vegas, and I think this will give me the best shot.”
Seven years ago, he set the bulldogging world on fire in making his first trip to Vegas. He followed that with another in 2017 and has returned in 2019 and last year. Of his four previous NFRs, he has never finished worse than seventh in the final world standings.
“I learned a lot about last year as far as it being a stepping stone and having a learning curve,” said Struxness, who credits part of his success to his sponsors, Arena Trailer Sales, Unbeetable Feeds, 4-Star Trailers, Wrangler and Nutrena. “I felt like I was very prepared, but I didn’t have the finals that I wanted. I was able to win a little bit of money. All you can do is try your best and make the decisions you can make for yourself, and when you get out there, just let it roll.”
Each day is a new opportunity to cash in, but it’s also a chance for him to spend time with those closest to him. He cherishes his time with his fiancé and girls, watching Everlee and Lilly grow. He’s excited to spend part of his December in the City of Lights with them as he battles for rodeo’s gold.
“The girls are getting old enough to where they know what’s going on, so it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Struxness said. “I like watching how they mold into little humans, helping them learn and teaching them new things and finding out what their interests are. There’s nothing else like watching them grow up. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a good day or a bad day, they’re going to love you no matter what.
“Having them out there makes it more fun. I’m going out there to bulldog, and they’re going to be there cheering me on. Because of that, I’m going out there to lay it all on the line and see what happens.”