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Saddle Bronc riding is a family business

Having multiple members of the same family competing in the same event at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is by no means unprecedented, and particularly in saddle broncs. The Brothers Etbauer — Billy, Robert and Dan — made plenty of hay over the years at the Thomas & Mack Center. And speaking of hay, how about Canadian greats Rod and Denny Hay?

But this year’s saddle bronc field is bordering the unprecedented. Of the 15 qualifiers, 10 are related to at least one other contestant. And not surprisingly, rodeo’s version of the Wright Brothers — and sons, and brother-in-law — has the most family ties this year, with six. Then you’ve got Cody and Heith DeMoss, and Jacobs and Sterling Crawley.

In this family affair, you have to start with Cody Wright, the two-time world champion competing in his 13th Wrangler NFR. At 39, he’s the oldest of the bunch, joined this year by brothers Jake and Jesse, sons Rusty and first-timer Ryder, and brother-in-law CoBurn Bradshaw, who is married to Cody’s sister Rebecca.

Yes, during the 10 days of the Wrangler NFR, the population of Milford, Utah, definitely drops a bit. For the Wrights, it’s on the brink of becoming “Seven Rides for Seven Brothers,” which could definitely happen — Spencer, another of Cody’s brothers, made it to the NFR each of the last two years, winning the world championship in 2014.

“I think it’s pretty interesting,” said Cody, who entered the 10-day event 11th in the world standings. “I’m not surprised, just for the simple fact that one rider kind of gets you started, it’s the way you’ve all been raised, and then the next one in line starts to be successful. It definitely shows them it’s possible. They start thinking, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”

Cody first reached the NFR in 2003, launching a stretch of 12 consecutive years qualifying to ride in Vegas. He snared his first world championship in 2008, then added another gold buckle in 2010. Jesse brought another world title to the family in 2012, Spencer snared the aforementioned crown in 2014, and every year, one Wright or another seems to be in contention. While Cody got it all going, the eldest sibling/father stakes no claim to anyone else’s success.

“I’m not ever gonna take credit,” he said. “I’m not gonna stand here and tell you I’m the reason for all of this. They all worked hard and got there. But it’s definitely fun to be part of it, and to have something in common with them. We eat it, breathe it, sleep it, drink it. They’re all good at what they do. I don’t think a day goes by that they’re not doing something to work toward it.”

Cody gets another burst of fatherly pride this year. Rusty qualified for the NFR for the first time last year and finished the season a very respectable third in the world standings. Now, Ryder has made it to his first NFR.

“It’s gonna be neat,” Cody said. “I think there are big things in store for him if he just does what he does all year. It’ll be a good time in Vegas. He’ll love it.”

THE RISING SON

Ryder indeed had good things in store for him, busting out of the chute and winning the first four go-rounds of his first Wrangler NFR. Yet he’s not even old enough to have a celebratory drink, unless it’s a Coke. The 18-year-old is only six months removed from his graduation out of Milford High School. He sneaked into the top 15 to make it to the Thomas & Mack, finishing 14th in the regular-season standings.

“It got pretty tight there at the end, but I was able to pull through,” said Ryder, who has vaulted to second in the world on the strength of his first four NFR rides. “I really wanted to make it here my rookie year. It’s awesome. I’ve been working toward this all year.”

Just four years ago, it looked as if Ryder wouldn’t be taking a job in what’s become the family business — though he would be in rodeo. He didn’t start riding broncs until ninth grade.

“I rode bulls before that, since I was in sixth grade,” said Ryder, who showed a willingness to get tossed about on an untamed beast at a time when most kids were trying to figure out how to survive math class. “I thought riding bulls was what I always wanted to do. I was really scared of the first horse I got on. But after I got on, I haven’t looked back since.”

And as much as his dad is proud of him, Ryder is ecstatic to be competing with his father — not against, mind you, as all the Wrights believe the competition is against the horse — on the huge stage of the NFR.

“Not very many people can say they rode bucking horses with their dad,” Ryder said, while noting he’s got a crowd of qualified helpers. “I have the best coaches in the world, with my uncles, my brother and my dad. You couldn’t ask for any better.”

Ryder has watched the Wrangler NFR from the stands ever since dad made his first trip here in 2003. Now he’s down on the dirt himself.

“I always wanted to be down there, and it’s become a reality. I’m pretty excited. I can barely explain it.”

WEDDED BLISS

CoBurn Bradshaw was already on his way to becoming a great saddle bronc rider back in 2011, when he took second to Shade Etbauer (there’s another Etbauer!) in the National High School Finals Rodeo. He took second again in 2012 to good buddy Rusty Wright, then finished third in 2013, with Rusty winning the title again.

Success on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tour seemed assured. But he understands how some may have thought he was hitching a ride on the Wright success wagon when, in August 2013, he married Rebecca Wright, sister of Cody, Jesse, Jake and Spencer.

“I didn’t want people to think that was the reason I married her,” Bradshaw said with a laugh. “I didn’t want it to look like that, but that’s kind of how it looked.”

The truth is a longer story that includes Rusty trying to find Rebecca what he deemed a suitable prom date back in high school. The rest, as they say, is history. Bradshaw married Rebecca for all the right reasons – not the Wright reasons — and now has two kids, including Lafe Norman Bradshaw, just a month and a half old.

But he freely admits there are a lot of perks to hanging out with a family full of successful bronc riders.

“People ask, ‘Don’t you guys ever get tired of each other?’ But it’s pretty cool how much support you’ve got,” Bradshaw. “There’s never a shortage of hands. They’re a great family to be part of, and if I need help, I’ve got many people to turn to.”

One might think he has a lot to live up to, as well, with all those gold buckles his brothers-in-law have racked up. Bradshaw insists that’s not the case.

“I never saw it that way,” Bradshaw said. “I think it’s just awesome to be part of it. I know they’ve helped my career — I ride better, and they’ve helped sponsorship-wise and with exposure. I think I’m luckier than anybody in rodeo. I’m traveling with my family and my best friends, and a lot of people don’t get to do that.”

Last year, in his first WNFR, Bradshaw racked up more than $163,000 over the 10 days to finish the season with winnings of nearly $230,000, good for fourth in the world standings. He entered the 2016 WNFR second in the world, and he likes his chances this week — and the chances of all his relatives.

“If I’m a betting man, the more people you have in there, six out of 15 odds, that’s pretty good,” he said. “I hope one of us wins it, and I think one of us will. The odds are with us. I’d love to have one gold buckle, but I think it’s awesome if any of us win it. It doesn’t matter which one.”

BIG BROTHER

Jacobs Crawley is on a six-year streak of qualifying for the WNFR. Last year was definitely the high-water mark, as the 28-year-old cowboy from Ennis, Texas, left Las Vegas with his first world championship, earning $167,382 over the 10-day event to finish the season with $276,247. He won the NFR average title — a feat he also accomplished in 2013 — which was key to him snaring the gold buckle.

Younger brother Sterling Crawley reached the WNFR in 2012 and 2013, and after missing out in 2014 and ’15, he’s back in the saddle with his brother at the big show of rodeo.

Jacobs said while it may be unique to have so many riders in this year’s field related to at least one other competitor, he understands how it can happen.

“A lot about bronc riding is technique, setting up saddles, things like that,” said Jacobs, who led the world standings entering this year’s NFR and was still in first heading into Sunday night. “It seems like once one relative figures something out, he tells everybody else. My brother has done that with me, and I’m sure that’s been the case with the DeMoss brothers and the Wrights. You kind of have a live-in coach.

“It’s that old saying, ‘You are who your friends are.’ If you’re running around with winners, you just pick up on that personality.”

That would appear to be the case with Sterling, 25, who finished the regular season 12th in the world standings, making for a very proud big brother.

“Me being the older brother, the tendency is to want to mentor the younger brother,” Jacobs said. “Our styles are different, but the work ethic, discipline and drive to win are there. If you see those traits, it gets to be contagious.”

And it’s surely been a two-way street, with younger brother providing key advice, as well.

“Sterling has seen me ride saddle bronc more than anyone,” Jacobs said. “He’s the little voice in the back of my head, the coach who knows your style as good as you do. If I’m questioning anything, or even if I get kind of down on myself — saying ‘Son of a gun, I’m getting tired,’ or whatever — he just has a reassuring word.

“He’ll say, ‘This is what happened, this is what you did, and this is what you need to do next time. He’ll point things out, but be supportive.”

It’s that kind of brotherly support that made Jacobs eager to help Sterling return to Las Vegas.

“It’s been my biggest goal all year – do everything I can to help Sterling and get him back to the NFR,” he said. “We’ve been here twice before together, and missing the last couple was rough for him. It’s gonna be really fun having him in the locker room again.”

CAJUN COWBOYS

Speaking of fun, who’s happier than Heith DeMoss? Reached on his cellphone as he was just embarking on the trip from his home of Heflin, La., to Las Vegas for the Wrangler NFR, he sure didn’t sound like most of us would if we were staring down a 1,400-mile road trip.

Rather, he was excited about the drive, and even more so to again be competing with his brother as part of the WNFR saddle bronc field — and with all those Wright boys and Bradshaw and the Crawleys.

“I think it’s pretty dad-gum phenomenal,” said Heith, here for his eighth WNFR overall and seventh alongside older brother Cody DeMoss. “For me personally, to be in it is a dream come true to be there with my brother. It’s kind of along the lines of the Etbauer brothers. Three of them made it, and that was unheard of back then — the Etbauer dynasty. They were super famous, and they’re my heroes.

“It’s super crazy that there’s that many people related to other people in the saddle bronc field. It’s definitely wild.”

Heith’s top finish in the world standings was fourth in 2014, bolstered by an NFR in which he won the eighth go-round and cashed in five other go-rounds. Cody, meanwhile, is a 12-time NFR qualifier who has been a whisker away from the gold buckle many times. He finished second in the world five times — including less than $800 behind Jesse Wright in 2012 — while carving out one of the most successful and consistent saddle bronc careers in PRCA history.

So Heith relishes in not only his own success, but that of brother Cody, nicknamed “Hot Sauce” in a hat tip to his Louisiana roots and affinity for pouring hot sauce on everything he ate back in college.

“I’ve been in this game a long time, and still, whenever you sit back and see what’s happened, it doesn’t seem real,” said Heith, who qualified in sixth this year, with Cody right behind in seventh. “Just to get there is a major feat. I’ve been there eight times, and I’m blessed to do that. To be there with my brother is just icing on the cake.”

And Heith doesn’t even mind joining all those other family ties who fill up two-thirds of the 2016 field.

“For real, we’re all friends,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting a picture with all of us brothers there” — and sons, and brothers-in-law, etc. — “and then hanging it on the wall. That’ll be a memory. We’re all good buds.”

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