NFR steer-wrestling team hits the water in training

To prepare for the National Finals Rodeo, Luke Branquinho has gotten up earlier than he'd like the past month to head to the swimming pool.

After drying, the 31-year-old burly bulldogger gets on an elliptical cross-training machine for longer than he cares to recall.

Competing in the world's biggest rodeo is serious business. Most of the 119 contestants will turn a profit for the year only if success is found at the Thomas & Mack Center.

And Branquinho, who packs 235 pounds on his 6-foot frame, isn't the only member of his steer-wrestling tandem to hit the water.

But his partner didn't have to join a YMCA a month ago or take his first wet stroke at 5:30 in the morning.

Gunner, Branquinho's 20-year-old horse, has been taking leisurely strolls in an equine pool.

"His knees are big with arthritis, and the concussion from hitting the ground on long trots isn't good for him," he said.

So Gunner gets to do some skinny dippin' in a hot tub.

A big hot tub.

The Aqua Tred system Branquinho uses provides water buoyancy to take up to 60 percent of Gunner's weight off his legs and allows for the steed to get a pain-free workout.

Branquinho, however, doesn't get a break when he dives into the water. He has to do all of his own swimming.

The water therapy has worked well for both over the past seven days of the event at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Branquinho, a two-time world champion, started the $6 million rodeo ranked third in the world standings but took the lead from Dean Gorsuch, another two-time champ, after the second go-round.

Olin Hannum of Malad, Idaho, won Wednesday night's round by pinning his steer in 3.8 seconds to win $17,885, the first check of his first Finals.

The three leading contenders for the world championship finished fourth or tied for fifth.

Branquinho's $171,537 leads Jason Miller of Lance Creek, Wyo., by about $27,000, after they tied for fifth in the round. Shawn Greenfield of Lakeview, Ore., moved closer to both by placing one spot better to receive a $7,500 check.

Greenfield is the only one of the top three who has not won a world title in seven tries. Miller, competing in his fourth Finals, won the gold in 2007.

This is the 10th trip for Branquinho, of Santa Maria, Calif., and his approach to the regular season has carried over to the NFR.

"This year was slow and steady," he said of winning four rodeo titles. "I was placing all along but didn't win that many.

"I told my wife (Lindsay) the other day that's how the Finals feel; just staying consistent and maybe win a round or two here and there.

"It's been paying off so far."

Branquinho has won a round and placed second three times to earn $83,798 in the Finals, where he and Miller are the only bulldoggers to earn checks in every round.

With only three go-rounds left in the 53rd annual Finals, eyes begin looking toward the NFR event standings determined by cumulative times over the 10-day rodeo, which pays hefty bonuses to the top-eight placers.

Branquinho leads Miller and Greenfield by a little less than two seconds.

About $100,000 still can be won, so like other leading contestants Branquinho is not looking beyond tonight's eighth round.

"You can't back down, and I have to stay consistent."

And Gunner just wants back in his hot tub. 

Jeff Wolf is a freelance reporter. He can be reached at (702) 406-8165 or