Jhett Johnson, the 2011 world champion heeler, got a first-hand look at the Junior National Finals Rodeo last year as sons Kellan and Carson both competed in the team roping competition.
Hillsdale, Wyoming, saddle bronc rider Brody Cress, who enters his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo this week sixth in the world standings, is looking forward to seeing this year’s Junior NFR presented by YETI for the first time. Rough stock competition – Leal’s Junior Bull Riding, Mini Bareback Riding and Mini Saddle Bronc Riding – begins Thursday at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena, which is located on the second floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
“I’m hoping I get to go watch some of it because it’s really cool to see those miniature ponies buck,” Cress said. “For those kids to be in that environment in front of that many people I think is great for them.
“It’s awesome for those kids to go out there and have that experience. I really do wish I could have had that experience when I was younger.”
Cress’s sentiments are likely shared by the majority of this year’s WNFR contestants, who didn’t have the luxury of competing for a world title like the 500-plus kids who will be showcasing their skills at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena.
Instead, Cress took an approach probably duplicated by most of the WNFR roughstock contestants.
“I was able to do a lot of stuff where I was riding sheep and then got into calf riding,” Cress said. “After that I kind of focused on roping.”
Jhett Johnson, of course, knows all about roping. In addition to winning the WNFR average title with Turtle Powell in 2011, the Casper College rodeo coach was a five-time WNFR qualifier. His son Kellan, a freshman at Gillette (Wyo.) College, is currently tied for the top spot in the heading standings in the Central Rocky Mountain Region. Kellan also will be competing in this year’s Junior NFR.
“It’s an awesome thing,” Jhett Johnson said of the Junior NFR. “I think it gives those kids a boost in confidence and exposes them to the hubbub of the sport without exposing them to 100 percent of the pressure.
“For those kids (the Junior NFR) is no less important than the NFR is to the guys competing at the Thomas & Mack. If I was a rich man I would definitely put some money in it.”
While Cress believes the Junior NFR is a great opportunity for the competitors, he admits to having concerns.
“You want to make sure you’re doing it right and doing it safe,” he said. “You want to keep it fun for them, so when they get to the next level they aren’t burnt out and in a situation where it’s not fun anymore.”
The safety issue has been properly addressed, according to Lacie Demers, the programmer for both the Mini Saddle Bronc and Mini Bareback qualifiers.
“Our biggest concern is keeping kids safe,” she said. “These kids don’t ride with regular gear. There are companies that have invested in making quality saddles and bareback riggings that are size-friendly.
“And we have people who design special neck rolls for the kids. We do everything we can to keep these kids safe considering the events they’re entering.”
In addition, there will be two to three pickup men in the arena during the roughstock events ready to help out as needed. Not to mention there will be an added attraction for both the Mini Bareback and Mini Saddle Bronc events.
“We have hired and trained guys that work on the ground like a bullfighter,” Demers said. “We call them pony muggers.”
All of which should make for an enjoyable and safe roughstock portion of the Junior NFR. Cress, for one, expects to make some time this week to watch the sport’s future stars.
“I just love rodeo,” he said. “I would go to a rodeo every day of my life if I could. It’s where I’m comfortable, it’s the atmosphere I like to be around and it’s with the people I like to be around.”