LAS VEGAS – Just qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo is a major accomplishment for bareback rider Jacob Lees.
He finished the regular season 14th in the world standings to earn his spot during the 10-day championship, which takes place at the Thomas & Mack Center. There’s a learning curve when it comes to competing at this championship, but he’s taking to it well.
Lees has placed in four so far, his latest coming from an 87-point ride on Pete Carr Pro Rodeo’s San Angelo Sam, which earned him a second-place finish in Thursday’s eighth round, worth $24,268.
“This is the third time I’ve been on that horse,” said Lees, originally from Caldwell, Idaho, but now living in Boyd, Texas. “I barely got by him the first time, and I was 83 points. The second time … he drilled me in the dirt at about three seconds (into the ride) and hurt me pretty good, so this was kind of a revenge ride.
“I knew I had to get by him. It felt good to get a piece of the money.”
He earned a chunk of cash for the second time; Lees also shared the sixth-round victory with Minnesotan Tanner Aus. He has deposited $81,070 with two rounds remaining on the 2023 season, two more chances to add to his bank account. He’s also eighth in the aggregate race with 667 cumulative points on eight rides. Should he remain in that spot when the rodeo ends Saturday night, the Arroyo Grande (California) High School graduate will add a $7,500 bonus.
To top it off, his second-biggest check of the week came in the eliminator pen, the grouping of the hardest-to-ride bucking horses in the business.
“I’m a pretty mellow guy and nothing really riles me up, but the eliminators rile me up, and I personally feel like I ride those ones better,” said Lees, who credits much of his success to his sponsors, Toste Construction, ProHats, Double-J Quarter Horses, Bet Hesa Boon; Servi Quarter Horses, Ghostwood Distilling Co., Fenoglio Boots and Gentry Custom Cowboy Shop.
“I don’t feel like I get any less scared than the next guy, but I usually do better if I know a horse is harder to ride. I like the big, strong, heavy ones. I feel like they make me stay back and make me ride correctly, and I usually get a high score.”
Being a newcomer to the richest rodeo in the world takes some adjusting. The famous yellow bucking chutes can be intimidating, but it’s still a competition he’s been doing professionally for five years. He’s kept that focus.
“I started well before this just telling myself over and over that this is just like another rodeo,” said Lees, who also supports 17 Strong, a foundation based in Arroyo Grande that provides “victory trips” to young adults between the ages of 18 and 40 after they battled a life-threatening illness. “I’ve had so many guys tell me they don’t even remember their first round, and I wanted to remember my first round at the NFR.”
Lees wasn’t raised around rodeo, but he came from a ranching family that raises livestock. He listened closely to an uncle who was competitive in team penning. He paid attention to that while dreaming of being a professional rodeo cowboy.
“I always wanted to ride bulls since I was a little kid, and when I started listening to Chris LeDoux, I thought, ‘What’s this bareback riding thing,’ ” he said about the bareback riding world champion-turned-country artist. “I got into that and never looked back. I rode bulls for a long time but never really picked it up like I did bareback riding, which has brought me a long way.”
Yes, it has. He finished 33rd in the world standings the last two years and was 54th in 2020. His rise toward the top is proof that hard work pays off. Riding bucking horses isn’t easy, and to score points, a cowboy must spur from the front of the animal’s shoulders back to his rigging in rhythm with the broncs bucking motion.
Doing it on the biggest stage of his career is like a dream come true, and he has more than $80,000 reasons why he wants to get back.
“At the beginning of the week, it seemed like it was never going to end,” said Lees, who attended West Hills (California) Community College and Western Texas College on rodeo scholarships. “Now, it’s coming to an end, and I wish there was another 10 days.”