By Wyatt Denny with Kendra Santos

At 23, Wyatt Denny of Minden, Nevada, is well on his way to a stellar bareback riding career. He’s ridden at the last three straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeos, and just won $50,000 at the World Champions Rodeo Alliance’s $1 Million Windy City Roundup in Chicago. This after winning $52,400 at last summer’s Days of ’47 Cowboy Games & Rodeo in Salt Lake City. The 2015 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Resistol Bareback Riding Rookie of the Year and 2016 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Bareback Riding Champ is bullish on all big-money opportunities available to rodeo athletes today.

When the World Champions Rodeo Alliance came onto the rodeo scene, there was a lot of speculation with people wondering what it was all about, and if something based on the concept of cowboys going to fewer rodeos with a chance to win more money was too good to be true. As a bareback rider, I looked at it a little differently. Bareback riders’ bodies take a beating. So I just really wasn’t sure about having to go to more rodeos.

The gold buckle is everybody’s end goal. Putting more horses under your body isn’t ideal for a bareback rider, for sure. Bareback riders can count up to 100 rodeos toward the world standings in a season, so for the past few years I’ve been to about 100 a year, with 98 being the fewest. That’s not by choice, and the guys in a more comfortable position don’t have to do that. But I’ve been down at the lower end of the standings, so I had to keep going. Anyway, additional rodeos are tough on us. But we’re always going to show up for this kind of money. Rodeo is how we make a living, so when you’re talking about millions of new dollars, a guy’s got to try and get in on some of that.

Wyatt Denny rides Jumpin Lizard for 89.5 during the WCRA Windy City Roundup $1,000,000 Rodeo. Photo by Andy Watson/Bull Stock Media

There are a lot of things to like about what’s going on with the WCRA, in my mind starting with the way they have it set up so it’s fair for everybody to have a chance to be there. It’s not based on how you finished in the world standings last year, and everyone has an equal opportunity to nominate events and earn the points it takes to qualify for the big-money rodeos.

I travel with Clayton Biglow, who’s from Clements, California, and Kash Wilson from Gooding, Idaho. Clayton’s ridden at the last three NFRs, like I have. Kash is a dang good bareback rider with a good attitude. He hasn’t really gone a full year yet, but hopefully this will be his year. It’s cool that he has the same shot in the WCRA as Clayton and I do, and that’s going to bring a lot of talented circuit guys and weekend warriors out of the woodworks. This kind of money doesn’t come around very often, and in the WCRA, Joe Blow has the same shot as Tim O’Connell. That’s awesome.

Everybody knows there aren’t enough bareback riders in the world today, and that we’re a rather rare breed. Everybody also knows how strong cowboy camaraderie is. We’re roommates on the road. Rodeoing for a living is not an easy life, but it’s a whole lot easier when you don’t get up and argue about how the day’s going to go. There’s nothing but good vibes in our rig. We’re always having fun going down the road, whether we’re riding bucking horses, golfing, skiing, mountain biking or team roping. And yes, I entered every event except the saddle bronc riding in high school. We tend to like anything extreme, and we golf a lot. I actually kept all our scorecards from last year, and we played more rounds of golf than we went to rodeos.

I’d have to say that winning the first round at the 2018 NFR is the highlight of my bareback riding career so far. Those are buckles that don’t come around very often. There are only 10 of them a year, and to get one of those meant a lot. That was a $26,231 ride, but it meant more than the money to me. I ended up winning $40,462 at the Finals in December, which is a pretty good week anytime you can get it. I finished 14th in the world last year, and won $117,958 riding at 100 rodeos. I’m grateful for every dollar I win, but it also puts into perspective the new, big-money possibilities we’re riding for in the WCRA.

The fact that I’ve now won over $102,000 at two WCRA events is unreal. I got into the 2018 Days of ’47 last July by being the champ there in Salt Lake the summer before, in 2017 when it was a PRCA rodeo. Salt Lake’s obviously been very good to me. What’s kind of funny is that both times I went to it I was run down and tired, and not really in the bareback riding mood. And both years I didn’t feel very good about my first horse there. But two out of each set advance to the finals at that rodeo, and both years I had an awesome horse in the finals.

It’s always fun when more than one guy in the truck wins. In 2016, when I won the College Finals and our Feather River College Men’s Team won the national team title, Clayton was the reserve national bareback riding champ. In Salt Lake last summer, Clayton won the long round and I won second. Then I won the rodeo and Clayton was second. That’s great for morale in any buddy group.

The Days of ’47 was a great rodeo, and the crowds were even better in 2018 than they were in 2017. Clayton and I had been at Calgary the week before, and since it was our second year there and we were a little more comfortable, we decided to enter some other rodeos during Calgary. We entered Sheridan (Wyoming), Clayton rode second to last and was 88 points on Dakota Rodeo’s War Rock. He lit the whole atmosphere up. I rode last and was 88 points on Ike Sankey’s Sozo, so we were the co-champs and that was another awesome career highlight for me right there. A lot of people don’t realize that a week later, I won Salt Lake on Sozo, too.

Fast forward to last fall, when I was on the bubble and struggling to make the cut for my third NFR. I only had about a $1,500 lead over the 16th-place guy, and I drew Sozo in the short round at Pendleton (Oregon). I split fourth and fifth in the round and won third in the average for about $4,500. That’s what got me in. More people talked about me winning the rodeo in San Bernardino (California) right there at the end of the regular season, but it would have been pretty hard for anyone to bump me out after I placed third at Pendleton on that same horse.

Winning the Days of ’47 got me and all the other Salt Lake champs a bye into Chicago this month. I have a lot of good to say about that little $1 million rodeo, but would first back up to mention why I didn’t ride at the $500,000 WCRA Semi-Finals in November, in case anyone was wondering. I really wanted to be there, but my flight got delayed, then canceled. I made one call to Guthrie, they understood, and that was the end of it. Any cowboy who’s had to pay entry fees and sometimes a turnout fine for not being able to make it to a rodeo for any reason will understand how much I appreciated not getting any additional grief after trying my best to get to Guthrie.

Finding out I got to go to a big rodeo in Chicago gave me a flashback from when I was 18 and on my PRCA permit. We were driving from Sikeston, Missouri to Gerry, New York, and when we drove through Chicago I was telling the guy I was with how cool it would be to have a rodeo there. He said they used to have a big rodeo in Chicago back in the day, and I was pretty wide-eyed about how bright and shiny everything was there in that big city, just dreaming about it. All people could say when I told them I was going to Chicago in January this year was that I was going to freeze my butt off. Little did they know what a big deal it would turn out to be.

When we got to Chicago, we didn’t have to pay any entry fees and every contestant showed up knowing he (or she) was going to get paid. As a bareback rider, the caliber of horses is a big deal. At these WCRA events, it’s not half the guys getting on hoppers and the other half getting on eliminators. The horses in each set at these events give every guy a chance. One guy’s not getting on a hopper to where he could almost take his hand out of the riggin’ and keep spurring him, while another guy is getting on an eliminator and getting his arm jerked off. A chance is all any cowboy can ask for, and we’re getting that.

Kaycee Feild and I played a pretty fun game of trading places in Chicago. He was 90.5 points to win the first round, and I was second with 89.5 points. In the Championship Match Round, Kaycee was 88.5 points and I was 89.5. Talk about too close to call. Kaycee and I didn’t know which way it was going to go. For those of you who were there or watching it live on, they did take a little extra time to make sure they got it right before announcing which one of us won it. While we were waiting for the final verdict, I told Kaycee, “No matter what happens, we’re both leaving here with a buttload of money.”

As cowboys, we appreciate the WCRA taking whatever time it takes to be sure they get it right. I think that’s why the WCRA is really thriving—because they’re for the cowboys, bottom line and every time. They get what we do, because they’ve been there. Kaycee was the first guy to shake my hand in the arena, and I think he shook it four or five more times back behind the chutes when it was over. He was more stoked than maybe even I was, and the $25,000 he won for second was not too shabby, either.

We all help each other get down the road. When we’re not winning, we’re not getting paid. So we help each other out of bog holes all the time. We give each other rides, and know we’ll need a ride one of these days, too. We’re a big family in rodeo, and we work together. We have the same goals and mindset, and we push each other to win. That’s just cowboys.

Instant replay wasn’t needed in the bareback riding in Chicago, but I’m all for using it when it’s needed to get it right. There are so many times when things happen so fast, and we’re all human, including judges. If we can push a button, look at it again and make sure the money goes to the right guy, that’s a slight difference that can change somebody’s life. Why not use technology, if that’s what it takes to get the call right?

Wyatt Denny during the WCRA Windy City Roundup $1,000,000 Rodeo. Photo by Andy Watson

It’s hard to say how much it means to me to win $102,000 at two rodeos. It’s not about the money when you climb down into that chute. That’s not what we’re thinking about when it’s time to ride, anyway. But we do show up to win every time, and when you’re trying to make a living riding bareback horses—which is a very tough thing to do—this kind of money is life-changing.

Everybody wants to win the gold buckle. But when you see all this big money being thrown around, you’re going to try to be there and get in on some of it. That’s just good business, and that goes for so many guys, even those who don’t ride bucking horses for a living. The odds of getting into these WCRA rodeos for a chance to win this kind of money are also so much greater than other opportunities out there, most of which involve year-long commitments and a lot more sacrifice.

I honestly don’t know that I can think of how the WCRA can improve right now. But if I think of something, I’ll tell them. They want to hear it, and they’re listening, because they really do want to make rodeo better. We don’t get paid anywhere else for showing up, and that takes a lot of stress and worry off of the cowboys. They fed us when we got there, and showcased us in a state-of-the-art building with locker rooms used by other professional athletes in other sports. If a guy fell off in the long round at Chicago—which nobody did—he got paid $1,444 just for being there. When you go to a $5,000-added rodeo, you have to win the rodeo to win $1,400. It’s pretty cool to be treated like professional athletes, and it’s appreciated by the contestants.

Everybody’s going to get on board with what’s going on here, because it’s progress and it’s a good deal for the cowboys. I hope by the time I’m 30 that I’ve had half the career as guys like (WCRA President) Bobby Mote and Kaycee Feild, who are both four-time world champs and are always trying to make the sport better for all of us. Winning these big events changes lives, has a shot at changing the way we rodeo and saving our bodies. The WCRA actually has a chance to not only make us some big money now, but to also extend our careers. How cool is that?