REXBURG, Idaho â€“ When Wyatt Smith looks back at 2014, he points to a certain moment as the turning point and a key reason as to why he qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
â€śSan Antonio was a huge boost for me,â€ť said Smith, who won the steer wrestling title in San Antonio this past February. â€śI got a lot of confidence from that, and I was able to stay very consistent through the year.â€ť
It paid off. Smith pocketed $57,188 through the regular season, which ran through the end of September. He heads to Las Vegas next week as the 13th ranked bulldogger â€“ only the top 15 contestants in each event earn the right to compete for the biggest pay in the game. Go-round winners will earn $19,000 each night for 10 nights.
â€śIt still hasnâ€™t really set in; all Iâ€™m doing is living out a dream,â€ť said Smith, 26, of Rexburg, Idaho.
The dream started two decades ago as a youngster in a rodeo family. His father, Lynn, and mother, Valorie, provided the tools for Wyatt and his younger brother, Garrett.
â€śRodeo is a lifestyle,â€ť Wyatt Smith said. â€śMy family is the big boost in every way that they can, from helping me take care of horses all the time to helping take care of everything when Iâ€™m gone. Everything we do is rodeo, rodeo, rodeo.
â€śMy mom helps me a lot with goal-setting. It would help me keep my focus and drive and take care of practice and everything else. When school was out, I was saddling horses, and we were practicing. My dad had everything ready for us when we needed.â€ť
That type of support means everything to Smith, who also won event titles in Evanston, Wyo., and Salt Lake City.
â€śThereâ€™s never a negative moment in our house,â€ť he said. â€śWe were just a little small family from Rexburg, Idaho. Iâ€™ve always had that positive influence and the push and drive.â€ť
That influence and a true passion has been a guiding force for Smith, who won both the National High School Rodeo Association and the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association championships in the all-around and steer wrestling. A big part of that was the dedication he had to getting better.
â€śWhen I was younger, my idol was Ty Murray,â€ť Smith said of the nine-time world champion. â€śHe did lots of gymnastics, learning to use his body and control his body. He was one of the greatest and a legend. If he was doing it, I wanted to learn.
â€śIt was just a way to stay in shape and keep the flexibility and control in my body.â€ť
It seems to have worked well for Smith, who began competing in ProRodeo in 2008. He has finished among the top 55 cowboys in the world standings each of the previous three years, but his run in 2014 is his best so far.
Through all the greatness that came his way over the last 12 months, there was one major challenge. In mid-May, he lost his main partner, a 14-year-old gelding he called Short Bus.
â€śIt was dang sure tough,â€ť Smith said, his voice cracking. â€śWhen we travel around, itâ€™s just just the traveling partners that become our family; our horses are, too. Itâ€™s how we make money and how we survive. Losing a good horse is tragic to a lot of things. I was just fortunate to have other horses to get on this year.â€ť
Short Bus suffered a brain aneurism while Smith was at the rodeo in Ramona, Calif. The horse died just before Smith was to compete.
â€śThat made it awful tough for the night,â€ť he said. â€śI held it together to bulldog and haze a few steers, then I handed the horses off and headed to the truck. I was done for the night.â€ť
That painful moment could have derailed everything Smith had worked for, but he viewed it more as a challenge to overcome. He knew there still was business ahead of him, so he tended to it, all while traveling with a team of steer wrestlers called â€śThe Recking Crewâ€ť: Smith, Tom Lewis, Sean Santucci and Christin Radabaugh.
â€śWhat I like most about rodeo is the lifestyle,â€ť he said. â€śWe get to travel around the country and see different places. We get to go anywhere we want and get to do what we love. You set yourself up to be around great people all the time.â€ť
Now he has the opportunity to ply his trade on rodeoâ€™s grandest stage, the NFR.
â€śThere are a lot of guys who could be at the finals right now that just didnâ€™t have the luck,â€ť Smith said. â€śThere are so many bulldoggers out there that bulldog outstanding. Itâ€™s such a privilege to be one of the top 15 in the world and get to go to the finals.
â€śIâ€™d love to win a round buckle. I want to go at it like I do at every rodeo I go to, and thatâ€™s to win as much money as I can.â€ť
When the dust settles on the final night of the 2014 season, the contestants who have earned the most money in each event will earn the gold buckle awarded to the world champion.
â€śThat would be outstanding and would be a lifelong achievement,â€ť he said. â€śIt is dang sure a possibility and is within reach if everything goes right. Youâ€™re always reaching for that, but in the back of your mind, youâ€™re going to take each pen of steers one at a time.
â€śI donâ€™t have to beat all the greats. I have to throw my steers down and let them play out the rest.â€ť