By: Kendra Santos

GUTHRIE, Oklahoma—-Ryle Smith rodeos for a living. So the 31-year-old California native is big on anything and everything aimed at making the cowboy sport bigger and better for all involved. That’s why he’s roping at the $500,000 World Champions Rodeo Alliance (WCRA) Semi-Finals here at the Lazy E Arena this week.

“This rodeo fits in great with my fall,” said Smith, who next month will compete at his third straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. “This is a great spot for me to get ready for the Finals—to get behind the barrier with a lot of good competition. It’s set up similar to the NFR, as far as the start, the cattle, and the competition go. And the best guys are here.

“This is a great financial opportunity for us, and the fact that it fits into everybody’s schedule so conveniently is very much appreciated by us cowboys. I think it’s important for new entities and first-time events to not compete or conflict with existing rodeos’ dates. As cowboys, there are only so many opportunities that are this good, and we shouldn’t have to choose.”

Smith’s snappy, 7.51-second tie-down roping run in the opening round of the preliminaries won that round and advances him to Saturday’s progressive round, along with the top four in each of those first two preliminary rounds and the top 24 in the two-head average. Ryle’s riding his main mount, Trouble, that he’ll also ride at Rodeo’s Super Bowl next month in Vegas. Ryle and Trouble are a time-tested team, having bonded since Smith was 19 and Trouble was 3.

“The WCRA is breaking ground in new areas,” said Smith, who’s here with his wife, Nika, and their year-old daughter, Remy. “I like that they’re doing their own thing, and generating new events like this one, and the million-dollar rodeo that’s coming up in Chicago (the Windy City Roundup will be held in January at Allstate Arena in Chicago in conjunction with the Professional Bull Riders Elite-Tour event). They’re producing events that pay a substantial amount of money that weren’t here before. I also like the idea that they give everybody an equal chance to get to this rodeo, Chicago, and the other million-dollar rodeos.”

Smith is an all-around cowboy who grew up in the original Cowboy Capital of the World in Oakdale. He now has a second home in Texas. Smith qualified for his first NFR as a tie-down roper in 2016, and is returning in that event this year. In 2017, he wrestled steers at his second Finals.

“I’d like to thank all committees and rodeo producers, including those putting on this event, who understand what we do, are aware of our schedules and goals, and understand that we can’t be two places at once. If you make us choose, everybody loses—the cowboys, committees, stock contractors, and fans—because we’re split up and spread out. It feels like we’re heading in a good direction in rodeo today, and I sure hope that trend continues. It doesn’t have to be the rat race it’s always been, and everyone really can win.

“I hope that the WCRA, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) and all major rodeos and rodeo committees can come together. I hope they will preserve the (PRCA) rule book, and continue to bring more money to the table for the cowboys. We don’t need to throw the rule book out the window or compromise the integrity of the sport to make more money. It does not have to be either/or. It took 60 years for that rule book to evolve, and it’s there to keep it fair and make sure the right guy wins. The oldest, most established rules are there to protect the cowboys and the judges, and to make this a truly professional sport.”

Like the rest of the cowboy contingent, Smith is bullish on positive, industry-wide progress.

“The WCRA is planting a seed, and we all want to be a part of it,” Smith said. “We’re hoping it’ll grow into something great. I like their vision, which will ultimately mean more major events where cowboys can win good money, and less travel. The old rodeo model has no breaks, so it’s extremely exhausting, and as everyone knows the economics of it are very tough.

“The point of the WCRA is to bring the best together, have great talent go at it for good money, and put on a great show for the fans. My next rodeo after this one is the biggest rodeo of the year. The NFR is, without a doubt, the best rodeo in the world. There’s not one cowboy breathing who doesn’t want to be there. This rodeo is a chance to warm up and get ready for the Finals, make some much-needed money, and also try to make it to Chicago, so you have that in your back pocket. The WCRA and the PRCA are both headed in a good, positive direction. I think it’s only a matter of time until they meet up and work together to take the sport to the next level.”