When she was 3, Cayla Melby boldly proclaimed to her parents that she would compete in the National Finals Rodeo at age 18.
Now 18 and newly married, Cayla Small, a barrel racer, will make that dream come true as NFR returns to Las Vegas on Thursday, running through Dec. 10.
“It’s just going to be really exciting, and I don’t feel like it’s really going to be imaginable until (I) actually get there and do it,” she said.
But she won’t be doing it alone.
Her husband will be there, too, and he’ll be doing more than just cheering her on.
Zac Small, 21, like his wife, has also qualified for his first NFR. Small is a team roper and will compete with Wesley Thorp.
The newlyweds, who got married in October, met at a summer rodeo in 2013. They will both come into the competition 10th in their respective events.
“I talked about it with her … how cool it would be if we both made it the same year — her first rookie year and my first year really trying to make the finals,” Zac said.
But it’s something that didn’t come easy. Small went from 15th place to 10th place near the end of competition, but it was a hectic last couple months of rodeos as he and Thorp worked toward NFR.
In August, he started veterinarian school at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. For the month of August, while he was trying to balance school and leaving on the weekends, he wasn’t as successful roping.
“The rodeoing wasn’t too hectic until I started school, and then it got a little crazy, got kind of hard to win. Being gone all the time and trying to fly in for rodeos didn’t seem to work very well,” he said. “We stuck with it … ended up having a pretty good week the very last week. We were probably going to make it anyways, but the last week was really good for me.”
Trying to rodeo and do vet school simultaneously wasn’t an option moving forward, which put a bit more pressure on making it to the NFR this year.
“We were going to give it everything we had and just see if it was good enough this year or not, and it felt like I had one good shot to do it,” he said. “Not that I wouldn’t ever try it again once I was out of school — I might. I might not. I don’t know, but I had a good shot this year and we were just going try our best.”
While Zac plans on finishing out vet school and working for his dad — also a vet during the summers — Cayla will continue to barrel race and ride horses.
Her mother, Jane, is also a barrel racer, and helped ignite her passion as a kid.
Jane Melby has competed twice in the NFR, and her daughter has come to watch her both times. Now, the roles are reverses.
Her father is also a PRCA member, and her brother is a competitor, too.
“We’ve kind of just been working at it every since I was little and we’ve rodeoed my whole life,” Cayla said.
This year, she became the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association’s Rookie of the Year on her way to qualifying for NFR.
When she does fulfill that lifelong goal this week, she’s happy to have Zac by her side.
“I think it’ll be awesome,” Cayla said. “I think it’s better that we’re both competing than one of us just sitting there watching.”
Contact Betsy Helfand at email@example.com. Follow @BetsyHelfand on Twitter.
IF YOU GO:
What: Wrangler National Finals Rodeo
Where: Thomas & Mack Center
When: Dec. 1-10, 6:45 p.m.
Tickets: Mad Dash (general admission, seat not guaranteed) tickets available by calling Thomas & Mack box office at (702) 739-3267 or www.UNLVtickets.com