ARTICLE BY JOHN BRANCH | PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSH HANER | PRODUCED BY MEGHAN LOUTTIT AND RUMSEY TAYLOR – Mar 11, 2015
NO FAMILY DOMINATES a rodeo event the way the Wrights do saddle bronc. But rodeo is a young man’s game, which is why the family patriarch works to grow his cattle herd. Rodeo and ranching may be vestiges of the Old West, yet the combination is one family’s hope for future generations.
In the 21st century, building the family business depends on the twisting vagaries of drought, public-land policy and beef prices — and whether the Wright boys can continue winning world championships on bucking horses.
As the boys circle the West in search of eight-second rides and small-dollar payouts, their father works alone, overseeing hundreds of cows over thousands of acres.
The Wrights have been working parts of this canyon country since their Mormon ancestors arrived more than 150 years ago. Supporting future generations, however, may mean moving on.
The 1,000-foot cliffs of Zion National Park that border the open range of Smith Mesa glowed orange and red, like hot coals. The sun slinked low on the opposite side of a wide sky. Bill Wright, 60, stopped his pickup on the dirt road, dusty from drought. He walked west, weaving through green junipers, scraggly shrub live oak, flowering barrel cactus and dried cow pies last spring. His pointed boots left a string of meandering arrows in the red sand.
The boys were off riding saddle broncs on the professional rodeo circuit’s Texas swing — somewhere between Austin, Nacogdoches and Lubbock, Bill could never keep up. Bill’s wife, Evelyn, was at home, two hours north in Milford, Utah, teaching at the elementary school. Bill was alone, living in a camper, eating from a skillet, surrounded by silence and 20,000 acres of rugged rangeland hiding a few hundred of his cattle.
The sand gave way to stair-stepped rocks, like risers on which enormous choirs might perform, until the last one dropped off several hundred feet. The canyon below was a deep and jagged cut in the forever landscape of southern Utah, as if carved by impatient gods with a dull knife. The Wrights have been running cattle in the area for more than 150 years, since great-great grandparents arrived beginning in 1849 during the Mormon migration.
“My boys will be the sixth generation,” Bill said. His mouth never opened very far when he spoke. “And Cody’s boys will be the seventh.”
Cody Wright is the oldest of seven boys among Bill and Evelyn’s 13 children. The boys, ages 18 to 37 and similarly built — like a litter of puppies, Bill said — are a posse of the world’s best saddle bronc riders. Taut-muscled and not too tall, they are able to muster the guts, strength and balance to ride a bucking horse like few others, as if genetically gifted to do so. A Wright boy has won the saddle-bronc world title every even-numbered year since 2008.
Cody won twice, in 2008 and 2010. Jesse, now 25, won in 2012. Jesse’s twin, Jake, was second in 2013. In 2014, those three and a fourth Wright boy, Spencer, 24, qualified for the sport’s most prestigious event, December’s National Finals Rodeo — a record for one family.
But rodeo careers can end without warning, as quick as the next try at an eight-second ride. So the boys, most with families to support, increasingly plug their rodeo earnings into Bill’s modest ranching business. While they crisscross tens of thousands of miles to more than 100 events a year across the West, Bill shepherds the growing herd back home in Utah.
From a distance, at a time of urbanization and connectivity, rodeo and ranching may seem anachronistic notions — quaint and sepia-toned from an America that no longer exists. To the Wrights, rodeo and ranching do not represent the past, but the present and the future. The hope is that the combination can sustain the expanding Wrights for several more generations.
“Rodeo’s not something that everybody’s going to be able to do,” Bill said. “Where ranching possibly is.”
He stared into the canyon. His eyes, squinty pinches beneath the low brim of a tan cowboy hat smudged with grit, were trained over a lifetime of spotting specks of black and brown moving amid red soil and green brush.
That such a gorge was created by moving water felt like a myth. Beyond an occasional trickle through a cluster of green ferns deep in the shadows, there was little moisture now. Not in this drought.
That was a main reason that Bill wanted to gather his cattle earlier than usual, even before most of his children and 30-some grandchildren arrived for the family’s annual roundup on Memorial Day weekend. He needed to move the herd 100 miles to the north, to the high-elevation summer range in the Tushar Mountains near Beaver, Utah, where there were plants to eat and water to drink.
In May, Bill sold 102 yearlings, born the previous spring and still growing. “I normally would have kept them until September,” Bill said. “But prices were so damn high, and things looked so bleak, we decided to do it now. I got more out of them cattle selling them this year at 600 pounds than I did last year at 850 pounds.”
Beef prices were at record highs. Demand was rising. The number of cattle in the United States was at its lowest number since 1951.
“I sold a steer for $2.53 a pound,” Bill said. It was a price he had never seen. “When I was a boy, my dad bought cattle for 22 cents a pound. I remember we bought it once for 33 cents, then had to sell it at 22 cents. We lost $20,000 on 100 head of yearlings.”
Today’s high prices did not quash the anxiety of pinning the livelihoods of the family’s future generations on a few hundred cattle. The number of cattle operations in the United States shrinks as the average size grows. The Wrights’ operation is bigger than about 90 percent of those around the country, government statistics show, but a herd of 200 calf-bearing cows is barely enough to earn a living for Bill and Evelyn. (“Behind every successful rancher,” Evelyn said, “is a wife who works in town.”) The business will have to expand exponentially to provide for their children and grandchildren.
Land is the biggest impediment. Like most ranchers in the West, the Wrights lease most of their grazing pastures through a patchwork of permits from the Bureau of Land Management or the United States Forest Service. Each permit dictates how many cattle can graze on a particular parcel, and for how many months of the year.
Bill’s deceased father had one of the first permits sold in the aftermath of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, meant to prevent overgrazing on tens of millions of acres of public range in the West. These days, permits can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bill has eight permits, some bought with hefty bank loans.
More and more, though, he pays cash, with help from the boys.
Last year, Jesse bought a permit for summer. A few years before, Cody earned a $100,000 payday at the Calgary Stampede and splurged with the winnings — on cows, practically doubling Bill’s herd.
“One of these days I’m going to nail him down and figure out what I’ve got,” Cody said. “I know I have at least 78 cows. If I don’t, he’s been selling ’em off.”
Farther down the Virgin River, near Mesquite, Nev., is a rancher named Cliven Bundy — “A good, hard-working ranchman,” Bill said.
Last spring, Bundy was at the center of a standoff with the land management bureau. The conflict went back two decades, over permits the government wanted to rescind to protect the threatened desert tortoise. Bundy refused to give up his permits.
The debate simmered for years. When the government came last spring to confiscate the cattle, hundreds of armed, anti-government demonstrators showed up. The showdown became a national proxy over the power of the federal government and the rights to public lands. Authorities left after a couple of tense weeks, the matter unresolved.
“My personal feeling is, it was the government trying to bully people around,” Bill said.
It is why Bill wants to someday buy enough private land to ranch on his own. He has little hope that it will happen on the land that Bill’s ancestors homesteaded. Bill and some siblings still own about 1,200 acres on Smith Mesa, while the rest of the rangeland is leased. When Bill was a boy in nearby Hurricane, Utah, he helped clear some of the land of its trees, making room for crops and livestock. Family members are buried in a dusty cemetery in Virgin, a few miles away.
Now Bill ponders a big move — selling the land and all his permits, and finding a huge parcel somewhere cheaper than next to a national park.
“My dad and I talked about it a lot,” Bill said. “We always said if we could better ourselves, we wouldn’t be sentimental. Things have changed so much. This ground seems to be worth more as scenic land than agricultural land.”
It was late May when the boys took a break from the rodeo circuit. Each morning, they climbed onto horses and descended into the canyon, looking for flashes of movement and listening for grunts and murmurs of cattle hidden in the prickly thicket among the cliffs and boulders. For hours, they nudged small herds north into a box canyon with no obvious exit.
The boys, alone or in pairs, emerged from the abyss at dusk, trailing cows and calves that trekked single file up a steep trail, as sure-footed as mountain goats, diagonally toward the canyon rim. One evening, a riderless horse lost its balance and tipped backward. It tumbled downhill in sliding and bouncing somersaults, 50 feet deeper into the canyon. It crashed into a stand of trees, shaking them furiously. Everything went still, except for a dust cloud that rose gently, like campfire smoke.
Back at camp, Dutch ovens pulled from the fire were filled with chicken, others with peach cobbler. There were bowls of salad and corn. Surrounded by children and grandchildren, eyes closed, Bill offered a prayer. He asked the Heavenly Father to bless the family, the animals, the land and “this great nation.” A one-room cabin that his parents built in the 1940s stood nearby.
He was told about the horse, which, miraculously, appeared to be uninjured.
“It ain’t the first time that’s happened,” Bill said between bites. Just a year before, Spencer was atop a horse that tumbled; he was thrown against a tree and was knocked out. “When I was a boy, we lost a cow over the edge. And I did it again a few years ago, lower in the wash.”
The boys were scattered across the starlit desert, coaxing their day’s find into a vast pasture where hundreds of cattle were collected over several days. By the time they got back to camp, the Dutch ovens were cold, and the coals in the fire burned a dusty orange. Most everyone was in bed.
Memorial Day was Branding Day, a family holiday. The campsite percolated to life. The cool morning air hinted at hot. The forecast called for 95 degrees.
Men, horses and dogs nudged the herd in clumps toward the corral, the guttural bovine dissents carrying half a mile. Cody recruited young boys to gather wood to feed two fires, then buried irons deep in their coals. He drove three stakes deep into hard dirt nearby. Each held one end of a long, black inner tube. At the other end was a metal harness that looked like a medieval contraption.
Boys loitered nearby on horseback, coiled ropes in their hands. Bill gave a nod. Calves were lassoed by their back feet and dragged toward one of the three stations. The head was wrestled into the harness and the calves, moaning and wild-eyed, were stretched long onto their sides.
Like a pit crew to a racecar, a team converged on the animal. Someone with an ear punch tagged an ear with an identifying colored marker. Two with needled syringes injected vaccines. Someone called out “steer!” if the calf was male.
Castration was quick. Bill tugged on the scrotum, sliced away the testicles and dug his fingers inside the steer. He pulled out bands of tissue and sliced again. Young boys sprayed the area with an antiseptic. Some years, they collect the testicles to fry and eat later. This year, though, the pen of the corral was left littered with dirt-covered testicles. They looked like pearl onions.
Someone else with a knife carved a gash into the tip of each calf’s ear, an identifying marker, usually causing a spritz of red blood. A white-hot branding iron was pressed hard against the animal’s hip. Flesh and hair sizzled, smoked and sometimes flamed. A putrid scent filled the dusty, cacophonous air.
“It smells like money,” someone said.
Each calf took little more than a minute, never more than two. Released, they clamored to their feet and scampered in search of their mothers.
A few hours later, the corral empty and silent, the nearby pasture serenely dotted with cattle grazing on thinning grass, Bill kneeled in the dirt and scribbled numbers on a box with a pencil. His hands were stained in blood.
Bill stared at hash-mark tallies of cows, heifers, steers and bulls, plus the 108 calves branded, tagged and inoculated. “How can I be 60 short?” he asked himself.
He remembered that he already moved 36 cows north to the mountains, to get a jump-start on summer amid the drought here in the desert. But he was still short 24. They were sprinkled somewhere among the tens of thousands of acres of canyons and pastures around him.
The rest of the family would pack up and leave later in the day. The boys would head into the heart of the summer rodeo circuit. Bill would be left alone, again.
“Next few days,” he said, “I’m going to be back and forth, looking for these cows.”
FOR MOST OF THE YEAR, two loads of Wrights crisscross the lonely highways of the West from rodeo to rodeo. One ride a thousand miles away might earn $1,000. Or nothing at all.
The only guarantee is a chance to ride a bucking horse that wants nothing more than to throw its rider. Done right, it is poetry. Done wrong, it can be agony.
Saddle bronc is the quintessential rodeo sport — not the chaos of bull riding or the thrashing of bareback riding. It might be harder than both.
The Wright boys, part of a family of 13 children, do it better than anyone. Three of them have won world titles since 2010. A fourth has finished second. And the next generation is coming.
The black road unspooled beneath the headlights like a treadmill. Painted dashes on the pavement rolled past in a silent parade of blurs. There was no horizon; through the cracked windshield of the Dodge truck, sky and desert were painted the same charcoal hue. Las Vegas was six hours of darkness away.
“Rusty?” Cody called through the back window to his 18-year-old son in the camper. “You guys check in for your flight in the morning?”
The day started at dawn, back home in Milford, Utah, where most of the Wrights live. Cody, his brother Spencer, his son Rusty and another saddle-bronc rider from Utah named Brady Nicholes drove three hours to Las Vegas, then another six hours through the Mojave Desert, over the Tehachapi Mountains and into the vast San Joaquin Central Valley to Clovis, Calif., near Fresno.
Now and again, they spotted a familiar pickup with an oversize camper riding piggyback. Inside were the twins Jake and Jesse, brothers of Cody and Spencer.
Cody was the oldest, by a long way, in both age and experience. He had a scar under his right eye and a gap between his front teeth. Like all the Wrights, despite being born and raised in Utah, he had a hint of a drawl — not Southern so much as rural. His rodeo results are louder than his personality.
“He’s the kinda guy, when he goes to 31 flavors,” his mother said, “he comes out with vanilla.”
The two loads of Wrights arrived 45 minutes before the rodeo began, as the leaden sky poured a cold rain. In front of a scattered crowd, Spencer scored an 84, good enough for second and a $4,281 check. Jesse’s 78 earned him $744. Cody’s 77 earned $93. Rusty’s 74 was out of the money, and Jake bucked off.
The boys were gone by the time the rodeo ended. The pickups escaped the muddy parking lot and split in different directions, toward different rodeos. Cody’s truck arrived in Las Vegas about 3 in the morning. The four men slept for a few hours in the airport parking lot, flew to Houston, drove three hours to a rodeo in Corpus Christi, Tex. (only Spencer, $2,940 for second, earned money), drove back to Houston, slept in the rental car, flew to Las Vegas at dawn to retrieve Cody’s truck, drove five hours to Lakeside, Calif., for another rodeo (Rusty got $1,518 for second, Spencer got $231 for seventh), then drove eight hours back to Milford.
It was 35 hours of driving, two flights, three time zones and three rodeos in three days. Cody, a two-time world champion, winner of more than $2 million in career prize money, earned $93.
“I’ve made a pretty good living rodeoing,” he said. “But I’ve done it hard.”
Bill Wright, Cody’s father, was 12 when he rode a bull and won $40 at a county fair in Hurricane, Utah. He did all the rodeo events as a teenager.
Riding a bull is like being in an eight-second car accident. Bareback riding — broncs without a saddle — is filled with neck-snapping, back-bending whips and jerks.
But saddle bronc riding was Bill’s favorite. More poetry than chaos, it is the classic rodeo event, depicted in the cowboy silhouette on the Wyoming license plate. It is balance and technique, rhythm and guts.
“I just think it’s a little more fulfilling,” Bill said. “Don’t know if it’s harder to learn, but I think it’s more of a skill. You have to work harder at it.”
Cody was in grade school when he found Bill’s old chaps and spurs in the rafters. Bill was soon putting 20,000 miles on his truck every year driving Cody and his younger brothers to 40 rodeos a year. They rode bareback and bulls. Slowly, surely, the Wright boys each settled into bronc riding, leaving the other events behind.
“I mighta had something to do with that,” Bill said. “Once you got it learned, it’s not near as hard on your body. Besides, my dad said cowboys ride horses — saddle horses. It used to bug him, bareback riding. He’d say, ‘Cowboys don’t ride bareback.’ ”
Cody was in high school when Bill and Evelyn moved the family from Hurricane three hours north to Milford (population 1,400), in search of a smaller town and better schools. The backyard has a wide-angle view of the Mineral Mountains and a rodeo arena, where the boys — mostly the grandchildren now — practice on a ragged collection of bucking horses that Bill keeps.
It was fall now. The sunlight was flat, not warm enough to offset the chill of a persistent wind that blew across the valley. Milford, founded as a mining town and train stop, has dozens of wind turbines dotting the horizon. Metal signs at the edge of town along Highways 21 and 257 declare Milford the home of Cody Wright, world champion. Jesse’s name was added after 2012.
Cody was outside his house, south of town amid the hayfields, not far from where Jesse and Jake have homes, too. There were goats in a nearby pen and a half-dozen horses in the field. His Dodge pickup was gone, replaced by a newer version. Cody sold it with 560,000 miles on it.
“But the engine was pretty new,” he said. “It only had 300-some on it.”
Cody’s 5-year-old daughter, Lily, was on a horse, spurring it to a full sprint. One of his sons, 11-year-old Statler, was atop a mechanical bucking machine.
Cody turned on the power, low. The thing hummed and heaved, and Statler bobbed up and down comfortably in the saddle. One hand clenched a thick rein, the other waved over his head.
“The only thing that needs to move is from your knees down, plus your hand as the horse bobs its head,” Cody said. “But you have to keep the rein tight.”
A bucking saddle is different than a riding saddle. There is no horn between the legs, and the stirrup leathers come out of the front, not straight down the side. The saddle attaches to the bucking horse in two places. A flat strap is tied to rings on a wide, multiroped cinch under the horse’s chest, just behind its front legs. Another strap, snugged with buckles, wraps around the horse’s belly in front of its hind legs.
The thin end of a six-foot rein ties to a halter on the horse’s head. The other end is a thick, loose weave, almost frayed, to give the rider something meaty and soft to hold with a clenched fist.
The key calculation for every ride is how much rein to have — too tight, and a drop of the horse’s head might pull the rider over; too loose, and the rider exits off the back.
The career of a bucking horse can last a decade or more, and it builds a reputation for how it bucks, skips, spins, hesitates and tosses its head. The Wrights record all their rides in a worn ledger to tell future riders how much rein to give a particular bronc. One fist past the front edge of the saddle is a little. Three fists are a lot.
When the gate swings open, the horse bounds out sideways. For a markout, the first requirement in a ride, a rider’s feet must be above the horse’s shoulders when the horse lands on its front feet the first time. The other main rule: No touching the horse with the off hand. As in bull riding and bareback riding, the cowboy must hold on for eight seconds to receive a score. No points, no money.
Rider and animal each get half the score, on a scale that adds to 100. The bronc is judged for how high and hard it bucks. The cowboy is judged by how well he stays in control above the chaos. The rein should be tight, the seat in the saddle, the legs churning together in time with the ups and downs of the horse below.
“When the front feet hit the ground, and the back feet are kicked up, your feet should be forward, so it’s like you’re standing,” Cody said.
Clinging for dear life excites the crowd but dulls the judges. Keeping the toes pointed out, the spurs against the animal, is point-adding showmanship. A score above 90 is rare. Anything above 80 is usually in the money.
In 2014, Cody, by the count of the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, earned $111,093 in 98 rodeos, good for second among saddle-bronc riders. The goal every year is finishing in the top 15 to qualify for December’s National Finals Rodeo, a 10-night, big-stakes event where a rider can double or triple his season’s winnings.
The cutoff for the top 15 in 2014 was about $60,000 in season earnings. More than 200 golfers made more than that on the PGA Tour.
Expenses eat the winnings quickly. Cody spent $11,040 on rodeo entry fees and about $20,000 on gas. He put 90,000 miles on the truck and replaced tires twice. When he brought his family along in the summer, he brought his worn motor home — more repairs, more mouths to feed, fewer people to share the costs of gas or do the driving.
“If you don’t make $65,000 or $70,000, I don’t think you can break even,” Cody said. “Depends on how many guys you travel with.”
Cody remained a perennial threat to win a world title despite being the oldest of the top riders by several years. For now, the financial certainty is better in rodeo than in the ranching business that Bill is building.
“I can’t figure out for sure if I could stop rodeoing and just do ranching,” Cody said. “I don’t know if I could quit doing it and not take away from Dad. He enjoys it, and I like seeing him enjoy it.”
His father is one reason to keep at it. His sons are another.
“I never gave it a thought that I’d still be riding when Rusty was riding,” Cody said.
They spent the year together, Cody showing his son how the vagabond world of rodeo works. Rusty ranked 30th with $30,124 in official earnings and was named 2014 rookie of the year.
And now Ryder is only a year or two away, and he looks to be as good as Rusty. And behind him is Stetson, a junior high champion, then Statler, practicing atop the mechanical bucking horse.
As Cody moves toward ranching, his own sons move into rodeo. The road unspools toward an unseen horizon.
THE GOAL OF ANY rodeo cowboy is to win belt buckles and paychecks. For most, it is a lifestyle. For a few, including several Wrights, it is a living.
A year’s work is aimed at qualifying for one of 15 spots at the season-ending National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s premier event in Las Vegas.
Last year, four of the 15 saddle-bronc riders in the finals were Wright boys. No family, in any of the seven rodeo events, had ever been so well represented.
For 10 successive nights in front of a sellout crowd of 17,000, rodeo’s best compete for $10 million in prize money. World standings shift daily. Fortunes can change with one buck.
Like wind through a desert canyon, the cheers and groans of 17,000 fans rushed through the hard bends of the arena hallway and into the locker room. They swirled and faded, leaving behind only the faintest of echoes.
Cody Wright sat alone.
Minutes before, the other 14 saddle-bronc riders vying for the world championship grabbed their saddles and reins and shuffled out, wordlessly. They wore cowboy hats on their heads, dirty boots on their feet, worn leather chaps on their hips and silver belt buckles the size of salad plates on their flat bellies. Their footsteps were deadened by carpet, but their spurs jangled.
One would win the $19,002.40 first prize rewarded for each of 10 go-rounds over 10 nights of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. A night later, one would be declared world champion.
It might have been Cody. But two nights before, trying to dismount after the eight-second buzzer and before either of the pickup men arrived on horseback to assist, Cody slid off the back of a lurching bronc named Camp Fire. The knob at the top of the humerus bone of his left arm snapped out of the socket of his shoulder.
He winced. Only his wife, mother and oldest son, sitting in Section 112 of the Thomas & Mack Center, understood that a wince on Cody’s face meant something serious. Cody held his left arm snug to his body and walked directly to the medical room. He sat on a table, his shirt off, his dislocated left shoulder hanging with a dull ache. An IV pumped painkiller into his veins. Doctors yanked. Cody reflexively tensed. Another dose, another yank. An ambulance was called.
“He’s all right,” Jesse said. “But I’ll bet he’s a sore sucker tomorrow.”
Cody, his left arm taped to his body in a sling, his jeans and belt buckle undone at the waist, was helped to a gurney. Propped up, with a drunken look on his face, he was taken up an elevator and out an arena door. Fans stopped and stared and pointed as he was loaded into an ambulance.
At about the time that Cody was drugged fully unconscious at the hospital, his humerus yanked back into the socket with an audible pop, Spencer Wright, more than 13 years younger, stood backstage at the South Pointe Casino, tugging on a longneck Coors Light.
The South Pointe is a 25-story hiccup amid the low sprawl on the southern end of Las Vegas, several miles from the neon clash of the Strip. The winner of each night’s seven events — bareback riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, saddle-bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing (the only women’s event) and bull riding — is called onstage at the South Pointe and, in front of hundreds of fans, awarded an enormous belt buckle and a bottle of whiskey.
Spencer had won for the second time in the first seven go-rounds. The M.C.s called Spencer out of the darkness, and he shuffled into the spotlight. Bill, Evelyn, Jake and CoBurn Bradshaw, a promising saddle-bronc rider married to the youngest Wright daughter, trailed in support.
As usual, Spencer’s expression hinted at bewilderment. Eyebrows slightly raised, the outside edges of his eyes slightly curled beneath his strawberry-blond shag, he wore the sad countenance of a caged puppy.
“Poor Spencer,” one of the two M.C.s said. “He just hates this.”
The night before, when Jake won, Jake bit off the cap of the whiskey bottle, tossed it into the crowd and took a swig. Spencer’s whispered replies to questions could barely be heard. The soundman turned up the volume of the microphone.
“He’s 23,” an M.C. said. “We just told him he’s won 68 grand this week, and he does this.”
He shrugged, comically. The crowd laughed. Spencer smiled a perfect smile. Three of his teeth were fake and new, replacing three knocked out when Spencer was run over by the pickup man’s horse in Walla Walla, Wash., a few months back.
Days before, Cody was the Wright expected to contend for the world title. He was positioned third with three go-rounds left, but his chances were as tattered as his shoulder. He would finish in ninth, with season winnings of $130,393.86.
Jesse, the 2012 champion, had arrived to Las Vegas with $77,495, but he was cursed with ordinary horses and scores. He would finish the season in eighth place, with $134,502.22.
In 2013, Jake held the lead through eight rounds, but a missed mark in Round 9 cost him the world title and left him second. He barely got to Las Vegas in 2014, needing the season’s final rodeo to qualify for one of 15 slots in 14th place, with $59,795 in season earnings. Then he won Round 6 and finished in the money — top six — every remaining night to end up fifth in the world, with yearlong winnings of $155,420.44.
Spencer arrived in Las Vegas last December as the afterthought. He was the 2012 rookie of the year, 29th in the standings, but his 2013 season was washed out by injuries. He spent 2014 traveling in the father-and-son shadow of Cody and Rusty. His $60,265 in winnings was enough to qualify him for the National Finals Rodeo in 13th place.
But once he reached Las Vegas, as if immune to pressure, he strung together solid, moneymaking rides. He won the fourth go-round with 84 points on Mata Fact. Through six rounds, Spencer, Cody and Cort Scheer were the only riders to score every night — no buckoffs or blown markouts — putting them in position to claim the rank-altering bonuses that go to those with the highest average score over 10 rides.
“No one’s even paying attention to Spencer,” Bill said before Round 7. “He’s sneaking up there and no one’s noticing.”
And then on the night that Cody got hurt, Spencer won again, an 85-point ride on Pretty Boy, after being introduced by the public-address announcer as the “redheaded Wright brother.”
“Look at the leaderboard!” the announcer shouted minutes later, when Jake scooted between Spencer’s 85 and Jesse’s 78 in the night’s standings. “Spencer Wright! Jake Wright! Jesse Wright! Utah, you’re second to none!”
Cody returned to the empty arena at 10 the next morning. His shoulder might require surgery and, either way, would surely knock him off the rodeo circuit for a month or two. Cody wanted to know if it could withstand three rides in three days first.
Cody went to the locker room and sat in his saddle on the floor. He clenched the reins with his left hand and jerked upward as hard as he could, trying to simulate a ride. Something popped deep inside.
The next night, he was alone in the locker room again, watching the ninth go-round unfold on television without him.
“I woulda come out to the chutes,” he said, “but I didn’t want anybody huggin’ me.”
He sat in a folding chair, his left hand tucked into a jacket pocket that he used like a sling, and stared at a television bolted high in the corner. Between rides, he stood and checked the night’s matchups of rider and horse, taped to the wall. He knew the horses better than any other rider. He knew which ones were likely to drop their heads or spin to the left or hop out of the chute with a stutter step.
The sound of the crowd snaked down the corridor and foreshadowed the result on television, delayed by a few seconds. A rider would disappear from the television screen and reappear, in person, in the locker room. Most were expressionless. A few were angry. Cody chatted them up. He is a bit of a big brother to everyone.
“That horse come in flat, Bradley?” he said to start one conversation.
On television, Spencer clung to Pony Man, 1,200 pounds of jerks and kicks that bucked off Jake in Round 4. It was raining outside, where the livestock was kept, and Spencer’s saddle slid back and forth on Pony Man’s back — “Look at that saddle!” Cody said to no one — but Spencer managed to keep his feet moving in time and his free hand aimed at the rafters, like a waiter holding an invisible tray. He scored an 81.5 and took the night’s lead.
Moments later, he entered the room dragging his saddle and reins.
“He was soaking wet,” Spencer said. “I thought I had it on. I pulled it tight. Kept hitting my back cinch.”
Jake beat Spencer with an 82 on a horse called Let Er Rip. But he was flipped off at the buzzer and landed on his head with the bounce of a pogo stick. He shuffled away to cheers, headed straight to the medical room.
Slowly, the locker room refilled with cowboys and chatter, the adrenaline evaporating back into ease. Beers were cracked. Cigarettes were lit. One more solid ride, and Spencer would win the unlikeliest of Wright championships.
“I’m going to go check on Jake,” Cody said. He found his brother facedown and shirtless on an examination table, a large bag of ice on the back of his neck.
“Been 15 minutes yet?” Jake mumbled.
“About two,” he said. “You got frostbite yet?”
X-rays the next morning found a compression fracture in Jake’s vertebrae, between the shoulder blades. Doctors told him he would miss the next two months, at least, of the rodeo circuit.
“I don’t get paid for watchin’,” Jake said.
He would ride the final night, a bolt of pain darting through his back with each buck, and earn a $3,064.90 paycheck for a 78 score.
Around Christmas, Jake overturned an all-terrain vehicle while pulling youngsters through the snow. He already had plans for surgery on a bone spur in one hand, but broke the other, and had the operations at the same time.
“If he’d a got throwed out of that and got that thing on top of him, he’s looking at paralyzation,” Bill said in January, somewhat annoyed. “But he’s like a cat in a cage — put him in a room, he paces around. He just can’t set.”
Cody rode the final night, too. He wore a straitjacket of a brace that tied his left arm to his body. It was a strong ride, but he was so worried about his shoulder that he missed his markout and got no score.
“Nothing hurt but my pride,” he said outside his camper in the arena parking lot. He smiled. Within a week, he had shoulder surgery, and was told he would miss the first three months of 2015. In Chute 1, Spencer leaned back in the saddle, clenched the fat rein with his left hand and held his right over his head. He gritted his teeth and nodded. The gate swung open.
Lunatic From Hell skipped out, and Spencer held the heels of his boots hard against the horse’s neck. The animal surged across the dirt in heaving bursts. Spencer pumped his legs in time, twice clenching the horse’s wide middle to hang on. The buzzer sounded. The score came: 79.
Only Cort Scheer, a 28-year-old from Nebraska, could beat him for the world title. But Scheer never found rhythm aboard Big Fork, scored a 71 and finished second in the world standings.
Jake ambushed Spencer in the hallway. The other riders, including Scheer, congratulated him in the locker room by spraying him with cheap beer.
The world champions of the seven rodeo events were introduced during a ceremony of stirring music and pyrotechnics. No family had ever had three world champions in rodeo. Bill’s hat was tugged low, shading the tears in his eyes. Two rows of Wrights in Section 112 stood and cheered.
“I’m speechless,” Spencer stammered softly into the microphone, and the crowd laughed. “I’m glad to have my brothers. I love them. And I love my parents.”
He was off to another rodeo the next week, not sure what to do with his 10-day winnings of $145,123. He considered a house in Milford, but instead bought 10 older cows from Bill’s herd, and then another 48 head.
By then, Bill was on horseback in the Tushar Mountains near Beaver, Utah, where he kept the herd through the summer and fall. About a month earlier, he found a calf alone, shivering in the cold. He loaded it in his truck and brought it home to Milford. It was placed near the fireplace, and children and grandchildren took turns petting it and nursing it with formula. It died after a couple of days.
Bill figured he still had about a dozen cattle missing in the mountains. He needed to get them down to the relative warmth of Smith Mesa before the snow got too deep, and spent most of a month doing it.
“I’m still short a couple of head,” he said in late January. “They could be dead, or they could be pocketed up somewhere. You just don’t know.”
He was down at Smith Mesa, alone, fixing a tractor tire. He wanted to plant a few hundred acres of grain, most of it rye, on the family land, to supplement the herd’s diet across the sandy, rugged terrain.
Some late-summer storms had filled the ponds, but Bill wasn’t so sure that the drought was over.
“They said we’re not that far from normal — 86 percent of normal, I think they figured,” he said. “But it seems like we’re dry. We don’t have any snowpack. There isn’t a stitch of snow.”
He said he hadn’t talked to Jake in a while, and was meaning to call Cody, and had hoped to get a little help from Spencer with the tractor tire. But Spencer was with Jesse, Bill thought, and probably with CoBurn, too, traveling to some rodeos.
They had been to Odessa, but Bill wasn’t exactly sure where they were now. Maybe Denver.
Correction: March 11, 2015 – An earlier version of this article misstated the age of Evelyn Wright. She is 58, not 63.