The future of rodeo is on display at this week’s Junior National Finals Rodeo presented by YETI. The event brings together almost 600 cowboys and cowgirls from 34 states, as well as from Canada, Mexico and Australia.
And while rodeo’s present is currently on display at the Thomas & Mack Center, it’s also noticeable at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena behind the chutes at the Junior NFR. Rodeo fans might want to get used to seeing this collection of the sport’s present and future stars together.
Laci Demers, the Junior NFR programmer for the junior saddle bronc riding and bareback bronc riding events, has put together a program that brings together professional cowboys and competitors who are just now finding their way on the youth rodeo circuit.
“They actually started the program last year in Montana,” Demers said. “We tried pairing up some PRCA athletes with some of our younger cowboys. Those guys are in the chutes with them and coaching them all down the road.
“Guys like Heath Ford and Nick LaDuke attend these schools and these clinics and they have taken it upon themselves to try and help these kids.”
Friday, LaDuke and bareback bronc rider JR Vezain, a five-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier, were at the Junior NFR, offering advice to the young bronc riders.
The Rodeo Mentor Program might be in its infancy, but Demers believes it will only continue to grow.
“Our goal is to have scholarship money for the winners at the Junior NFR next year,” she said. “And on a secondary level for the kids who finish second and third have a (rodeo) school scholarship program.
“Everybody wants to make it happen, but we have to get things figured out as to who is going to put the money up. Who is going to be willing to take the time out of their rodeoing to help these kids?”
The answer is cowboys like Vezain and LaDuke, each of whom brings a different perspective to the program.
LaDuke grew up in Livermore, California, and wasn’t afforded the same opportunities that a lot of cowboys who grew up on ranches or in rural communities were. But that didn’t stop LaDuke from doing what he loves.
“I was raised in California in the middle of town,” LaDuke said, “and I would only ride a saddle horse two weeks out of the year. I’m 33 and I still haven’t qualified for the NFR, and a lot of people in my situation would have already retired because they didn’t get what they wanted out of rodeo.”
LaDuke persevered, however. He battled back from a foot injury two years ago to finish a career-best 29th in the saddle bronc world standings.
“I guess I was blessed with a serious reconstruction on my foot in 2015,” LaDuke said. “That put me on the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund for six months, which enabled me to go all across the country for the PRCA, doing their camps. The injury held me back from my own goals, but in turn it allowed me to get out and get my public speaking going.”
He spoke at the both the junior high and high school national finals, as well as representing the PRCA at the national FFA convention in Louisville, Kentucky.
“All of this stuff taught me about life,” LaDuke said. “I got a college education and I got my bachelor’s degree from UNLV. Every contact I have in my phone to this day all came out of my want to be an athlete and rodeo.
“My angle has definitely made me a better human being.”
Now LaDuke enjoys passing those life lessons along to the next generation of rodeo stars.
“I’d sure like to help these kids realize that life is bigger than just the rodeo arena,” he said. “(In saddle bronc riding) we’re talking about eight seconds of athletic work. That’s a minimal amount of cardio needed and that’s a lot of mentality and that’s a lot of center of balance.
“It takes a long time to develop as an elite-enough athlete to control your body in some of these scenarios, but there’s more stuff that I’m going to do outside of the arena that is going to pertain to me becoming a great human being and a great athlete at the same time. So for me it’s 100 percent about helping people open their eyes to what life really is. Get them to focus on that.”
Vezain, meanwhile, is more than willing to share his rodeo experiences with rodeo’s future generation. A native of Cowley, Wyoming, the 25-year-old was a national champion bareback bronc rider in both high school and college and finished fourth in the world standings in 2012. He learned how to ride from family and friends, but programs like the Junior NFR weren’t around when he started out.
“My uncle put me on steers growing up, but there wasn’t much of this type of thing going on,” he said. “You just went to your hometown local pumpkin rollers and got on steers at the local fair rodeos.”
But Vezain went to a school put on by former world champ Kelly Timberman when he was 16 and continued to improve by combining what he learned at the school with watching some of the top bareback riders. There was also a lot of trial and error.
“I learned from all of those guys and added it to my own arsenal,” Vezain said. “I took what worked and used it and took what didn’t work and tried it a couple times to make sure it really didn’t work.”
These days, Vezain works at various rodeo schools and clinics.
“I teach everything at them schools,” he said. “I tell those kids that the thing about rodeo is you have to be super open-minded. Nobody’s style is the same, so try different things and if they don’t work so be it. You won’t offend me if you don’t do what I do because I don’t want you to beat me anyways.”
While the messages LaDuke and Vezain might differ, the goal is the same: To teach the future generation of rodeo what it takes to be successful, both in and out of the arena.
“I see the hunger in the younger guys in trying to be like these pros,” Demers said. “And I see the hunger for these pros wanting to see the future really happen again. We have a motto – ‘We’re filling the chutes of the future’ – and we’re going to make this happen.”
In addition, Demers wants kids to remain involved with rodeo even if they no longer want to compete.
“We have kids who don’t want to ride bucking ponies anymore, but they have the heart to keep going in rodeo,” she said. “So we’ve expanded it to have a judge mentor program so those kids can learn what it takes to be a judge.
“And this year all of our (entertainment) acts are little kids. Granted, sometimes they forget their lines, but the crowd loves them.”