Some are household names in the rodeo world. Others haven’t been heard from quite as much before now. But all eight of the bareback riders that advanced from the $500,000 World Champions Rodeo Alliance Semi-Finals, held May 18-19 at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma, to the next $1 million WCRA major is making a name for himself. And they’re all busting with anxious anticipation about being Green Bay bound.

Nate McFadden, Mike Solberg, Wyatt Denny, Seth Hardwick and Clayton Biglow at the $500,000 WCRA Semi-Finals in Guthrie. Photo Credit: Kendra Santos

Nebraska’s Garrett Shadbolt and Wyoming’s Seth Hardwick bested their respective pools in the finals at the Semis to lead the charge to the $1 million Titletown Stampede, which will headline at the Resch Center on June 1 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Joining Shadbolt and Hardwick in cashing checks on Sunday at the Lazy E were Canadian cowboy Mike Solberg of Sunnynook, Alberta, North Dakotan Ty Breuer, Nebraskan Nate McFadden, Californian Clayton Biglow, South Dakotan Shane O’Connell and Montanan George Gillespie. Wyatt Denny of Minden, Nevada, also got in on the Semi-Finals dough, but already had a bye into Green Bay by way of both Salt Lake City and Chicago.

The leaders of the Semi-Finals pack in every event will do battle at the Titletown Stampede alongside the exemption-earning champs from last summer’s Days of ’47 Cowboy Games & Rodeo in Salt Lake City and January’s Windy City Roundup in Chicago. The 2018 International Professional Rodeo Association champions also earned byes into Green Bay, where they’ll ride, rope, wrestle steers and run barrels for $50,000 checks.

With 87.5 and 88 points, respectively, Ty Breuer and Garrett Shadbolt had the two highest bareback riding scores on Championship Sunday at the WCRA Semis.
Photo Credit: Kendra Santos

Shadbolt, who had the 88-point, high-marked ride on Championship Sunday, is a ranch-raised 23-year-old from Merriman, which Wikipedia classifies as “a village in Cherry County, Nebraska” of about 100 people.

“I’m really making a big push this year,” Shadbolt said. “This is my first year going at it. I’ve been going to some of these WCRA rodeos. I hadn’t done any good before, but I turned that around this weekend. I’m going to keep going to these and making the most of this that I can.

Nebraska’s Garrett Shadbolt plans to use this momentum to hit the rodeo trail a little harder. Photo Credit: Bull Stock Media

“I have a steady job at home on the ranch. But rodeo’s been paying pretty good, so here I am. I’m super excited about Green Bay. Riding against these guys really makes you compete to your best ability. You have to rise to the occasion, like what happened here today. This is fun.”

Hardwick rode bareback horses at the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, where he placed in seven rounds and finished third in the world. He finished 19th in the world in 2018 and 23rd in 2017, so his banker is loving the WCRA as much as he is.

“Finishing right there on the (top 15) bubble is hard on a guy’s wallet,” smiled Seth, who’s 30 and lives in remote Ranchester in Sheridan County, Wyoming. “This money might not count toward the world standings, but it counts in your pocket. Rodeoing is not cheap. You have to spend money to have a chance to make money, and what we win here helps get us down the road.

“Anytime you have a chance to win some good money, it makes your life a little easier. It lets you be a little more picky and choosy about where you go, to fly more and get to more rodeos. It also lets you afford to stay home to heal up when you need to watch your health. I’m pretty stoked about all of it. Now we get to go to Green Bay. Having a one-day rodeo where you can win 50,000 bucks is pretty cool. This is history in the making.”

The diversity in the contestant crowd in every event was obvious, and cowboy and cowgirl camaraderie does not discriminate based on how hard you choose to travel or much of anything else.

“There are a lot of different kinds of guys who end up here in the WCRA,” Hardwick said. “There are some college kids, NFR guys, amateur rodeo guys. The cream of all associations comes here, and they all ride great.

“And in our eight-man final round today, there were mostly horses that have been to the NFR. It makes a big difference when we get on horses that buck hard. They’re very capable of bucking guys off, but they’re the kind you can also be 90 points on. Nobody likes going to rodeos where you get on lesser-quality horses. That’s no fun. These horses are tough, but if you ride well, you win. That’s how it’s supposed to be. (WCRA President and four-time World Champion Bareback Rider) Bob Mote knows everything there is to know about bareback riding, so there’s no better person to put this together so it’s fair for the cowboys and good watching for the crowd.”

Mike Solberg is from a Southern Alberta “hamlet” they call Sunnynook. Solberg made his way to the WCRA Semi-Finals by nominating a few Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos this winter and spring, such as Odessa, Texas, Rapid City, South Dakota, and Red Bluff, California.

“I saw (fellow Canadian bareback rider) Jake Vold and all my buddies getting to come here last year,” said Solberg, an eight-time qualifier for the Canadian Finals Rodeo who at 34 is on the older side of the average-age spectrum for this very physically demanding event. “I didn’t know what the WCRA was, but another buddy of mine got to go to Days of ’47 last summer. The WCRA is a great deal for a guy like me, who can stay mostly up in Canada, then come ride at big-money rodeos. Green Bay, here we come. I can’t wait.”

Breuer was the blink of an eye away from missing the bareback riding money boat at the Lazy E. His horse blasted out of the chute so fast and furiously that judging the mark-out was basically like analyzing a blur. Enter instant replay, which the WCRA uses as needed to make sure the money ends up in the right hands. Upon further review, Breuer’s 87.5-point ride was the second highest of the championship round.

The ride that earned Breuer a trip to Green Bay. Photo Credit: Bull Stock Media

“I never question the judges anywhere I ride,” said four-time NFR qualifier Breuer of Mandan, North Dakota. “The mark-out happens so fast that it’s easy not to be sure, and it’s often a pretty close call. It was cool that they reviewed it, and made sure they got it right. Us cowboys appreciate everything these guys are doing to try and get it right and keep it fair.”

The WCRA’s use of instant replay helped get it right for Breuer in Guthrie. Photo Credit: Kendra Santos

McFadden’s hometown of Elsmere is “an unincorporated community in Southeastern Cherry County, Nebraska” that’s also home to saddle bronc rider Cort Scheer. Nate grew up ranching and rodeoing, and is all about the WCRA.

“I think the WCRA is cool,” McFadden said. “It’s just such a good opportunity, and anybody can nominate and get into it. Then when you do get here, it’s such an even playing field. They bring such good horses and good stock. They do their best to give everybody a chance, and they bring in horses that give us all a shot at winning. It makes it a riding contest, so you can go out there, show off your skills and do what you love doing.”

Biglow has ridden at the last three NFRs. “Little Big” travels with Denny, who would make the perfect poster boy for the life-changing money being offered by the WCRA.  

“The WCRA gives everybody a chance to go to great rodeos,” said Biglow, 23. “Some guys stay closer to home to help take care of kids or a ranch or whatever. Some guys have a different job during the week. With the WCRA, they can go to a few rodeos and nominate them, then from a handful of rodeos find themselves riding where they can win $50,000. It’s not a year-long commitment, like trying to make the NFR is.

“Guys who don’t have the chance to rodeo full time for whatever reason can actually make a living going to a few WCRA rodeos if they ride good. You see a little bit of everything here at a rodeo like this. There are high school and college kids who are still in school—kids in some events don’t even have their driver’s license yet. It’s good for them and helps get their name out there. The horses here are great. They picked the cream of the crop for stock contractors at this rodeo. Bob Mote knows who has good horses, and how to give everyone a chance to win money.”

Biglow pointed out that you can pick your pace when you rodeo in the WCRA.

“We’re all here because we’re trying to make a living one way or another,” he said. “Your WCRA season is how many rodeos you want to make it. This is just as good a deal for a guy who only wants to circuit rodeo as it is for a guy like me. That’s pretty cool. The WCRA gives everybody a chance.

“I’m here to try to win that $50,000. I’ve never been to Green Bay before, but I’m super excited to get to go. Every rodeo that pays $50,000 is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of rodeo. And you usually have to spend all year and a bunch of money to get to ride at that big of a rodeo. Nominate, people. If you’re a cowboy, this is a good deal. And that’s a no brainer.”

There’s naturally a lot of buzz about the $1 million majors, like Salt Lake, Chicago and Green Bay. But the $500,000 up for contestant grabs at the WCRA Semi-Finals isn’t exactly chump change. Denny didn’t need to be at the Lazy E for last week’s Semis. He punched his ticket not once, but twice, with wins at both the Days of ’47 and Windy City Roundup. At those two rodeos alone, Wyatt won $102,400.

“If you ride good at any WCRA rodeo, it’s going to put good money in your bank,” said Denny, 23, of Minden, Nevada, of why he entered the WCRA Semis. “And you’re going to get on good horses here. I like coming to these rodeos because it’s just an awesome atmosphere. It’s so laid back and cowboy friendly. We’re not pressured or rushed. The production is still run on a strict time schedule, but you aren’t getting yelled at for things that aren’t in your control. At a lot of rodeos, you might get in trouble for not having your riggin’ on fast enough, but it was because the horses maybe weren’t loaded in the back fast enough. It’s nice that that stuff doesn’t happen here.”

Like his traveling buddy, Biglow, Denny has ridden bareback horses at the last three NFRs. The 2015 Resistol Bareback Riding Rookie of the Year was the 2016 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Bareback Riding Champion, the year his and Biglow’s Feather River (California) College men’s team also won the national men’s team title.

“Everybody at these WCRA rodeos knows what’s going on, because they’re cowboys,” Denny continued. “This atmosphere helps us cowboys relax. And when we can relax and just do our jobs, we ride that much better. 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. 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.”