LAS VEGAS – Ryan Jarrett isn’t one to rest on his laurels.
Jarrett already owns the most coveted piece of hardware in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association: The gold buckle that is given to the all-around world champion cowboy. That came in 2005, when he was 21 years old.
Now he’s back in Las Vegas for his seventh qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, solidifying a spot to ProRodeo’s grand finale by finishing the regular season among the top 15 tie-down ropers in the world. The $74,758 he earned through the rigors of the 2012 campaign puts him in 10th place heading into the 10-round slugfest, the richest rodeo in the world with a $6.5 million purse.
“It’s good knowing you’re one of the top 15 ropers,” said Jarrett, 28, of Comanche, Okla.
Jarrett has proven that much of his career. He joined the PRCA in 2004, then qualified for the NFR a year later in both tie-down roping and steer wrestling. He won the calf roping average championship at finals that December, which propelled him to the No. 1 spot in the all-around standings. Not bad for a cowboy that was raised on a dairy ranch in northwest Georgia.
“Nobody from my family had ever been involved in rodeo,” said Jarrett, who began competing at age 8. “My dad had a friend that was from Texas that we used to sell dairy cattle to, and his son rodeoed. I hung around him for a couple of summers, and it went from there.”
Now he travels the circuit as one of the best in the business and credits his partnerships with Wrangler Jeans, Oxbow Tack, Cactus Ropes and Purina for helping him succeed in the sport he loves.
“I really couldn’t do it without their support,” he said.
That’s very true. Rodeo cowboys spend much of the season on the road, traveling more than 100,000 miles in a year to try to make their livings. Jarrett hauls multiple horses in a trailer that features living quarters – his home away from home. Between food, fuel, entry fees and other expenses, most contestants scrape by each season in order to qualify for the NFR.
But Las Vegas is the place to play. Go-round winners will earn $18,257 each night, and the contestant in each event with the best cumulative time or score at the conclusion of the NFR will add $46,821. Without sponsors, this is about the only chance the cowboys get to make a significant profit.
“I love it and love the competition,” Jarrett said. “There’s no other sport like it.”
There are no guarantees in rodeo. In addition to paying fees in order to compete, cowboys only earn money if they’ve performed better than most of the competition. At the NFR, for example, only the top six places earn money in the go-rounds; that means the other nine contestants in each event will fail to earn money that night.
That’s quite a bit different than most professional athletes. In addition, top hands know it takes a great partner to give themselves the best chance to win. In Jarrett’s case, he’s relying on an old friend, Country, a 13-year-old chestnut horse he sold to friend and occasional traveling partner Clint Robinson several years ago – Robinson is the fifth-ranked tie-down roper heading into Thursday’s first round.
“I rode him here in 2005 and ’06, and I rode him out here last year,” Jarrett said. “For this situation, he’s pretty good. This horse is good for short starts and timing fast.”
The NFR takes place in the Thomas and Mack Arena on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus. Dirt is packed into a space about the size of a basketball court, so tie-down roping is blink-of-the-eye fast. Jarrett knows that as well as anyone. He’s missed this grand championship just twice in his career – in 2007, after he tore the ACL in one of his knees, and in 2008, when he finished the regular season 16th in the world.
Last December, he placed in six go-rounds, including wins on the sixth and seventh nights. He finished 2011 fourth in the tie-down roping standings and fourth in the all-around.
But his biggest accomplishment came just before the 2010 NFR, when Jarrett married his longtime girlfriend, the former Shy-Anne Bowden. The nuptials took place Dec. 1 in Las Vegas, so oftentimes the couple celebrates its anniversary in the City of Lights.
“This year we were actually traveling to Vegas on our anniversary,” said Jarrett, who said Shy-Anne handles much of the work around their place when he’s traveling; while they’re in Vegas, they’ve enlisted the assistance of her mother, Billy and Sandy Bowden of Comanche. “She’s in control when I’m gone. She’s got some young horses and goes barrel racing at some amateur rodeos when she can.
“She takes care of a lot.”
That’s just part of the family life. Rodeo folks live the Western lifestyle, so they know the importance of caring for land and for livestock. It’s something Ryan Jarrett learned years ago in Georgia. His father, DeJuan, runs the dairy farm, while his mother, Joan, is a retired elementary school teacher. Jarrett has an older sister, Lauren.
“People have no idea how much family and friends do for you throughout the year and the sacrificed they have to make to allow for you to do this,” said Jarrett, who joins New Yorker Harry Tompkins as the only two all-around world champions from east of the Mississippi River.
Rodeo folks like to consider themselves family, so friends have a tight bond. They’re also willing to help along the way. Jarrett has had his fair share of help in his career and credits another East Coast cowboy, team roper Casey Cox, for getting him started.
“He taught me a lot about rodeoiong,” Jarrett said of Cox.
It’s worked pretty well. With his gold buckle firmly in place, Jarrett’s legacy will continue to live on for years after being inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in October 2010.
“It really means a lot to me,” he said. “Not everybody is inducted into there, so it’s pretty special.”
So is Jarrett.