Clay Elliott’s voice drifted across the phone line, his western drawl muffled by a cross border connection.
“If I were to die and come back in this world, I’d love to be a bucking horse.”
The 23-year-old saddle bronc rider was on the road between rodeos, driving from Helotes, Texas to Guymon, Oklahoma.
“I love being around horses, and the bucking horses that I get on are big, strong horses,” said Elliott.
“They love to do what they do as well.”
Elliott got his start in saddle bronc riding — a highly technical rodeo event that involves the rider staying on a bucking horse for at least eight seconds — in Vernon where he grew up on the cowboy lifestyle, roping and steer wrestling in rodeos.
“When you’re young, it’s young calves and then bigger steers, and then bigger steers,” he said. “But instead of being a bull rider like some of my friends did, I wanted to be a bronc rider.”
After Elliott graduated and his family moved to Nanton, Alta., the fledgling rodeo rider went south to study at Panhandle State University in Oklahoma. There, Elliott spent his time studying animal science and rodeoing for his college, the same way a football player would play for their college team.
Managing his degree in animal science, professional rodeo career and college rodeos was “tricky,” said Elliott. He didn’t even make it to his own graduation because he was busy competing in rodeos.
“Everyone else that’s travelling with you and rodeoing with you, they’re usually older. So I’d get done at a rodeo and I’d have to haul ass back … to Goodwell so I could go to class the next day,” he said.
“I did miss a lot of school … (but) I was able to keep caught up on most my stuff.”
Panhandle State is a bronc riding school, well known for turning out top quality saddle bronc riders.
Elliott is definitely one of those.
The Canadian cowboy has shot to the top of rodeo stardom, reaching 11th in the world in the first year of his career, earning $139,760. He went to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas that year, where he earned nearly $60,000 in 10 nights, and took first place in the Canadian Finals Rodeo.
“Things clicked for me,” he said.
It was a combination of the right people helping him navigate the difficult task of entering the right rodeos at the right time to make the most money, and the right people teaching him the mechanics of bronc riding.
Elliott’s breakthrough rodeo, he said, was the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 2016, a rodeo similar to the Calgary Stampede.
“That’s the belt buckle that I wear,” he said.
Elliott rode through five pools in the Houston rodeo, landing in the finals on top of Canadian-owned horse Dancing Girl.
Dancing Girl is a small horse, but she’s powerful and strong, with a 55 per cent buck-off rate in 2016. She bucked Elliott off during the College National Finals Rodeo later in 2016, but he managed to stay on her for the Houston rodeo, bringing in 85 points.
“I don’t want to say a dream came true — that kind of sounds corny,” he said. “But that’s the moment that I knew I could have a prosperous career riding buckin’ horses.”
This year is off to a similar start, with Elliott currently in the top 10 in the world. However, it’s still early in the season — normally Elliott will compete in around 100 rodeos that count towards his standings and 10 invitationals.
His busy rodeo schedule keeps him in the U.S. on a sports visa. This year, Elliott has only been home to Canada twice, for a grand total of a week. But on the May long weekend, Elliott will be heading back up to for a few more days to compete in the Cloverdale Rodeo.
“I love the crowd there,” Elliott said about the Cloverdale Rodeo. “The fans are what makes rodeo, and Cloverdale has some of the best.”
But Elliott won’t be there the whole time. He’s making the four-hour drive up to Falkland during his day off to attend the Falkland Stampede, his hometown rodeo.
“I’ve been around the Falkland rodeo since I could remember,” Elliott said. His family was friends with committee members and set up a booth every year with the Western store they owned.
“That’s one of the rodeos that I’ll be going to for the rest of my life.”
The Falkland Stampede is part of the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association, meaning that any earnings he gets from the Stampede go towards his Canadian and world standings. The Cloverdale rodeo is an invitational rodeo, so his earnings won’t count towards his standing. However, he added, “it all counts in the bank.”
“You can love what you do riding bucking horses,” he said, “but the fact that you can make a living at it makes it all the better.”