EASTLAND, Texas – A year ago, Jared Smith was living at his parents’ home near Williston, Fla., doing whatever he could while on injured reserve from rodeo.
This year, he’s busy preparing his body for the rigors that come with 10 days of riding bareback horses at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s grand finale that is scheduled for Dec. 5-14 in Las Vegas.
“The NFR was all I thought about last year when I sat at home shoeing horses every day in the Florida heat,” said Smith, who competed on rodeo teams at both Ranger (Texas) College and Western Texas College in Snyder and now lives in Eastland, Texas, about an hour east of Abilene. “Now it’s an accomplishment that I’ve reached on the way to another goal.”
Like every cowboy that makes a living on the rodeo trail, Smith has his gold buckle dreams that only can be culminated by being awarded the world championship; the only way to earn it is by having a strong regular season buoyed with a fantastic showing at the NFR. He is in position, but it’s taken some time to get there.
You see, Smith took a 10-month break from competition while recovering from an injury in which his collarbone was separated from his sternum. The results were a healthier body and a distinctive hunger to compete.
“A lot of things are healed up, even as far as my mind,” he said. “I don’t look at the sport like I did a year ago or even before that.”
That’s a good thing. Through the regular season, which ended Sept. 30, Smith earned $68,026 and goes into the NFR 14th in the world standings – only the top 15 on the money list earn the right to compete for the biggest pay in rodeo through that magical 10 days in December.
“What’s the point of rodeoing if you’re not going to try to make the NFR,” said Smith, who spent nearly as much as he earned while covering expenses for traveling across the country in order to compete. “That’s where you make your living is in Las Vegas. I can go from 14th to who knows where while I’m there because there’s so much money in Vegas.”
That’s true. Go-round winners will earn checks worth $18,630 each night, and just finishing among the top six in each round is lucrative. The top prize for the NFR average championship – for the best cumulative time or score through 10 rounds – is nearly $48,000.
“I think being there before will help, but my mental game’s pretty tough if I’m not hurting,” said Smith, who suffered a back injury in late July and continued to compete. “Knowing what to expect from the last time I was at the finals, I know all the things that go into it. There’s definitely going to be more excitement.”
Smith qualified the first time in 2009, then finished 16th in the next year and 22nd in 2011. After a year on the sidelines, he’s looking forward to his business trip to the Nevada desert. He’s also glad the therapy and hard work he’s put in toward recuperating his back injury seems to be paying off.
“The injury just put a stop to my winnings for the 2013 season,” he said, noting that of his 2013 earnings, all but $10,000 were pocketed before he suffered the mishap in Cheyenne, Wyo. “The older I get, the more I see that you can’t ride hurt. You can ride, but you can’t win. You can’t be competitive. It’s hard enough to beat that top group of guys when you’re riding at 100 percent, much less when you’re 50 percent or 40 percent.
“I can think of the times that my legs were killing me or that I just didn’t have the feeling in them that I needed. I look back, and I realize that I’m not going to do that stuff again.”
Since the regular season ended nearly two months ago, Smith has followed doctor’s orders and found the right regimen to get his body in the best working condition possible.
“I’m just trying to get in better shape, especially with my back the way it was,” he said. “I couldn’t make myself do a full set of sit-ups; it hurt. I’ve got injections, and my workouts … those guys are busting me up getting me ready.
“I want to go to Vegas with toned muscles and in shape.”
That’s something Smith has enjoyed most of his life. He grew up in Florida to a rodeo family. His father, Chris, rode saddle broncs and competed in team roping, while his mother, Jule, competed in all the women’s events in high school.
“A lot of people don’t know, but Jared is a very accomplished team roper,” Jule Smith said, adding that Jared and his older brother, Casey, have competed in rodeo all their lives.
More importantly, Jared Smith is one of the elite bareback riders in the rodeo, and he gets to prove it in Las Vegas in December.