It wasn’t really a sigh of relief for Tim O’Connell, but the reigning three-time world champion bareback rider felt some comfort after his third-round ride at the National Finals Rodeo over the weekend.
“It’s nice to get through the first “E pen” healthy and unscathed,” O’Connell said, referring to the “Eliminator Pen” of horses, known for being the most difficult to ride at the NFR. “But I’m looking to get in that top five. There have been five guys in front of me, and come (next) Saturday night, I don’t want one guy in front of me.”
The relief is gone, and the focus has returned. After missing most of the 2019 regular season because of an injury, he entered the NFR sixth in the world standings. On Saturday night, he rode Powder River Rodeo’s Black Leg for 87 points to finish fourth in the third round, worth $11,000.
That pushed his NFR earnings to $48,500 and moved him to fifth in the world standings with $161,668.
“I had a great horse in a pen of hard horses,” said O’Connell, a Zwingle native now living in Marshall, Missouri, with his wife, Sami, and their son, Hazen. “I feel like I had a strong start and that I was very patient waiting for her to break, not trying to do too much. There was an 89 posted before me; normally when that happens, I start thinking about going after the round win, but I knew what that horse could probably do under me.
“She doesn’t really have a set pattern, but I knew she was going to go left. She can make a really tight circle, so I stayed patient until she broke and made a smart ride. I didn’t do anything that was going to put me in jeopardy.”
Being in control on a powerful bucking horse, especially an “Eliminator,” is only for the elite in the game. In order to register high scores, bareback riders will spur from above the shoulders back to their riggings, then push their feet back to the neck of the horse before the animal’s front hooves hit the ground.
“She gave me the stuff to make a great bareback ride,” he said. “I was up, I was down, and I beat her to the ground. I was in control of my upper body. I was pretty happy with a fourth-place check in the ‘E pen’ and an 87.
“Right now, I’m happy with how things are going. I feel great; I feel aggressive. Out of the six times I’ve been here, I don’t have any pressure on me this year. I feel confident. I feel deadly on everything under me.”
That confidence shows in glowing ways. He has his equipment dialed in, as is his body, which can take a beating on the backs of the best bucking animals in the world. His pre-NFR workout regimen has him conditioned well to handle the stresses of Las Vegas in December.
“I’m enjoying this time out here with my wife, my family and my little boy,” O’Connell said. “I’m excited. I really think this is the best start to my Wrangler NFR career.”
The National Finals Rodeo continues through Dec. 14 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
This article was written after O’Connell’s third-round ride. He finished out of the top 10 with a score of 85 in round 4 Sunday night and 84 in round 5 Monday night.