The small town of Big Valley was big news in Houston, Texas this weekend. That’s because a young rodeo competitor from the cowboy community went from being a last minute fill-in all the way to the championship of the rich RodeoHouston event.
Zeke Thurston laid claim to $53,650, a saddle, and a buckle for winning the saddle bronc riding in Houston, the same title his father Skeeter had also won.
“His saddle is sitting in our living room at the house,” said Thurston, who’s just 20 years old. “And I’ve been spending the winter down here in Texas with a good friend of ours, John Rothwell. He’s been helping me with my roping, and being competitive, and being positive. He won it (roping) back in 1976, Dad won it ’86 and then I won it. That’s pretty cool to have won a saddle both those guys have.”
It was a pretty impressive debut for the 2013 Canadian Novice Saddle Bronc Champion, at one of the biggest stages in the rodeo game. The 20-performance $1.69 million event is held at the NRG Park, where the Houston Texans play in the NFL. The biggest names in music are part of the nightly shows, which can attract crowds of 75,000. Structured in a similar format as the Calgary Stampede, contestants are invited to participate, so the money earned doesn’t count towards world standings. Rookies like Thurston aren’t typically on the roster.
But when a couple of bronc riders didn’t show up for their first scheduled ride in the second pool of competitors, the organizers went looking for replacements who would be available and close by. Thurston answered the call.
“I didn’t get to get on the first one in my set,” he explained. “But I got the call, and thought I’d go and see what it’s all about, and get a foot in the door for next year, to experience it. I ended up winning enough money I could move on to the semi-finals.”
At the semi-finals, Thurston turned in a solid 82 point ride to make his next stop in the journey the championship round.
There, he was able to handle a horse known to have ‘chute-exit’ issues with enough maturity to impress the stock contractor, and earn 89 points from the judges to nail down a seat in the final four round, with three NFR regulars. Then he was matched up with a horse called Lunatic from Hell. Like Thurston, he’s a young superstar.
“I was on him last summer at Red Lodge, and we kind of had a battle out there. I didn’t ride him as good as I wish I could’ve, but I ended up placing on him.”
This time, the stakes were much higher, and both horse and rider were more mature. But there was still a lot to take in. So while Thurston was busy calming the young horse before the ride, he was trying to keep his own adrenaline in check.
“You always get nervous a little bit, but I was maybe a little more nervous than usual. But I had to tell myself, hey, no matter how this plays out, you’re just blessed to get the opportunity to even come and get a chance to ride at Houston. You weren’t even on the list. I was just grateful to be there, and even be in that situation. I told myself just let it all hang out, and it’ll happen.”
Thurston positioned himself with a little less bronc rein, and weathered a stormy jump in the chute before they got into the arena.
“He fired out of there, and got it on, and he was really good.”
“It was all happening pretty fast. But I was pretty excited,” admitted Thurston.
As the last of the four to ride, as soon as the score of 89 was announced, Thurston knew he’d won the show, by a single point over a two-time World Champion, Taos Muncy.
Then it was a flurry of presentations and interviews and pictures, and no real chance to let the thought of $50,000 sink in.
“That’s a pretty big chunk of money for me to think of right now,” chuckled Thurston.
It’s hard to imagine how excited his folks Skeeter and Lynda were too, but they had to watch it on their phones, while they were cheering on Zeke’s sister Tess and her Stettler all-girl hockey team at provincials (in a boy’s league). But judging by the way his phone’s been blowing up with messages, news of Thurston’s victory has made the rounds in Big Valley and beyond.
Thurston was happy to have fellow bronc rider Dustin Flundra helping him out in the championship round at Houston, a cowboy his father had helped back when he was starting out. Flundra won $5800 at RodeoHouston himself, but then as the Calgary Stampede winner, was part of the Sunday Super Shootout featuring champions from eight big rodeos. Flundra wound up finishing second overall, which paid $10,000. Scott Schiffner and Curtis Cassidy were also part of the Super Shootout, but just got $1500 apiece for their efforts, when they didn’t make the top four.
Other big winners at RodeoHouston included bareback rider Clint Laye of Cadogan.
He finished second in the Championship round, worth $15,000, for a haul of $24,250 from the rodeo. Donalda’s Curtis Cassidy made it to the Championship round, picking up $7450 along the way, while bareback rider Jake Vold got to that round with $6350.
Rodeo Austin is underway now, and a strong contingent of Canadians is heading to the semi-finals later this week, with that Texas rodeo wrapping up Saturday.
• The Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame has announced its newest set of inductees. That includes Ponoka barrel racing legend Dee Butterfield, and four-time Canadian Steer Wrestling Champion Greg Cassidy. Bull riding champion, judge and college coach Jim Freeman of Olds goes into the Hall, along with Ranchman’s owner Harris Dvorkin and Pearl Mandeville as Builders of the sport. The animal honored is the tie-down roping horse known as Junior, owned by Jim ‘Bearman’ Campbell of the Sundre area. The official induction ceremony takes place in October.