SALINA, Kan. – It’s been 15 years since Justin McBride slid his hand into a bareback rigging in competition.
McBride, a two-time world champion on the Professional Bull Riders tour, is the all-time highest money earner in Western sports, having pocketed more than $5 million in PBR earnings in his career. With his place firmly set among the legendary bull riders in the game, the Nebraska cowboy retired from bull riding in 2008, shortly after claiming his second gold buckle.
Now McBride is ready to test athleticism against some of the greatest horses in the game during the Professional Roughstock Series’ Midwest Classic, set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, at the Bicentennial Center in Salina.
“The last time I rode a bareback horse was in 1998 at an amateur rodeo in Seymour, Texas,” said McBride, who was raised in western Nebraska and attended college on a rodeo scholarship at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he rode bareback horses and bulls. “I was going to (PBR) Touring Pros then trying to get qualified for the Built Ford Tough Series, but I wasn’t doing that good at them at the time and it cost a buck to enter those.
“I didn’t have any money, so I had my mom and dad mail me my bareback rigging, and I started going to these amateur rodeos in Texas to make enough money to ride in the PBR.”
So bareback riding funded a bull riding career that established McBride as one of the greatest ever, at least in the early years. Now he’d like his bull riding reputation to pay off in bareback riding.
You see, not only is the Midwest Classic a major stop on the Professional Roughstock Series schedule, it also is the first qualifier for bareback riders and saddle bronc riders hoping to get into the field of the upcoming championship event, The American, which will feature 15 contestants in each of the traditional rodeo events.
The American will be an invitational for the top 10 contestants in each event based on certain criteria. The remaining contestants will be based on one exemption and five who have earned the right to compete through the qualifiers. McBride will compete in Salina with hopes of advancing to The American semifinals, which will take place Feb. 21-23 in Mesquite, Texas. The top four from the semifinals in each event move on to The American, set for March 2 at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
“We want to grow the overall Western lifestyle and Western sports,” said Randy Bernard, president and CEO of Rural Media Group, which is producing The American, will televise it live on RFD-TV and broadcast it live on its Sirrius station, RURAL RADIO. “We have to build our cowboys and cowgirls, and I think this is one way we can do that.
“It’s exciting for us to have someone like Justin in this. He’s introducing millions of fans who have followed the PBR to part of the sport they don’t know. Justin’s a winner. I love the fact that he’s going to take the approach that he’s going to come through the qualifier and try to prove that he should be there.”
Bernard has known McBride for years; he was the president and CEO of the PBR while McBride was one of the elite bull riders in the game. But there are plenty of others who know just how qualified McBride as a bareback rider.
“I think this is good for the entire sport of rodeo,” said Steven Dent, a five-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier in bareback riding from Mullen, Neb. “Look at the publicity that the PRS is already getting out of this. With somebody like Justin trying to go ride bareback horses in the PRS, look at the PBR fans or bull riding fans that could come over just to watch that.”
The PBR found success primarily through exposure. It found a home on television and continues to be a major attraction for fans. PRS is televised on RFD-TV, which helps viewers, contestants, contractors and others associated with the sport. In fact, that’s where McBride has kept up with the goings-on with the association.
“I know when we get to Salina, it’s going to be the very best guys in bareback riding,” McBride said. “That’s what you want to see. You want to see the good guys coming out.”
In bareback riding alone, the field of 12 will include at least eight men who have competed at the NFR, including world champion Justin McDaniel, Dent, Brian Bain, Jared Smith, Winn Ratliff, Josi Young, Matt Bright and Steven Peebles.
“I think it’s a good deal with the PRS,” said Peebles, a regular on the tour. “It’s a cool show and a change to rodeo. It’s like the PBR and how big and popular it got. Now we’re having two more roughstock events, so it’s making it even more exciting.
“I’ve watched Justin McBride since I was a little kid. As a cowboy, he’s accomplished a lot. I never thought I’d get to ride against Justin McBride in bareback riding. That’s pretty cool He’ll probably hop out there and knock it out of them.”
That’s just what McBride is hoping to do, too. Though he’s been away from competition a few years, he’s stayed in good shape and understands the techniques and training it’s going to take for him to be ready to ride wild horses.
“When I started doing some things, I fell right back in the same routine,” he said. “It’s been such a long time, but I don’t think it’ll be that big of an adjustment. There are certain horses out there that everybody wants to ride, and you’re dang sure going to have to be ready for that.
“I’ve probably never been on a really rank horse, but I think that’s part of the excitement for me is the chance to try to ride one of those, to feel what it’s like. I think it’s going to be a blast.”
That’s what fans are expecting, too.