Tumut cowboys Cody Ballard and Cooper Thatcher are ready to put their riding skills on show as they prepare for the College National Finals of Rodeo at Casper, Wyoming from June 9-15.
The Oklahoma Panhandle State University students will be representing the ‘Aggies’ in individual and team events and will be hoping to add to the university’s eight previous national titles.
“We are representing the best school for cowboys in America,” Thatcher said.
“There is a lot to live up to.”
Thatcher will be competing at his first national finals.
“It’s crazy just how far we have come -it’s what I have always wanted to do,” he said.
The Tumut-born bronc rider will be competing in the saddle bronc section and is hoping to put on a good show.
“You have just got to strap up and hang on just like any other ride,” he said
The 21-year-old agriculture business student is enjoying his second year of study and loves life in Oklahoma.
“I get to go to school, ride broncs all day and compete in rodeos,” he said.
“This is what it’s all about”.
Thatcher was originally a Yanco Agriculture High School student before graduating Year 12 and working with Coolac grazier, Michael Crowe.
“I worked with Mick (Crowe) for a while before I went and competed on the Canadian rodeo circuit for a summer,” he said.
Strong appearances on the Canadian professional rodeo circuit helped the student gain a scholarship to OSPU and now the cowboy is into his second year of study.
The young rider isn’t just excelling in the saddle either.
“I was on the Dean’s list this year for my academic performances,” he laughed.
It has been a vastly different journey for Ballard though, who is now into his fifth and final year of college.
Ballard had his fourth year as a senior red-shirted, meaning he would not be able to compete that season and would be able to compete in his fifth year of college, an uncommon practice for American College athletes.
“I couldn’t compete in 2017/18 because I had my labrum reconstructed so I was offered the chance to complete my fourth year of competition this year.”
The 23-year-old has come in to a nice run of form recently after dealing with a niggling groin issue.
“I tore my groin in August last year and needed two and a half months off, so essentially I have only ridden in six of the ten college rodeos,” he said.
“It was a little disappointing but I had to get it right and it is paying off right now with some good form.”
The OPSU Aggie is no stranger to success on the national stage, having finished third at the national titles in bull riding in 2017 and was a member of their 2017 national championships winning team.
“To be a part of the 2017 national championships side was terrific and I hope I can help the school to another title in 2019,” he said.
“The Aggies won it last year so we are shooting for three in a row.”
Unfortunately, Ballard won’t compete on the bulls at this year’s finals.
“After the groin issues I decided to just compete in the saddle bronc for the mean time, I will get back on the bulls after the national college finals,” he said.
This will be the last college event for the cowboy, who recently graduated with a degree in Industrial technology.
Now that Ballard has finished his studies, he is eyeing his rookie year on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit.
“The new rookie year will start in October and I will be ready and rearing to make my name in that arena,” he said.
This rookie year is important for cowboys on the PRCA circuit and featuring well in the standings will set Ballard up nicely for a strong professional career.
“Ideally I want to win it but finishing top three would almost guarantee I would progress to the pros,” he said.
Ballard and Thatcher have been under the tutelage of OSPU teacher and legend of the rodeo circuit, Robert Etbauer.
Etbauer is a member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and won back-to-back world saddle bronc championships in 1990/91 after winning the 1985 rookie of the year on the PRCA circuit.
“The boys have come over here to ride broncs and get an education and they are both doing as well as anyone,” he said.
“We are as proud as punch and enjoyed the heck out of them.”
When quizzed on the Tumut pair’s form leading into the college national championships, Etbauer was quietly confident.
“They have done everything that they have been asked to in preparation for the event,” he said.
“We are still hard at it and hopefully when the smoke clears after the finals, we have something to sing about.”
Etbauer is hoping both Tumut riders can follow in the footsteps of other talented Australian cowboys who studied in the United States.
Goondiwindi’s Jake Finlay was a product of the OSPU system, graduating under Etbauer in 2017 after winning the national titles with Ballard.
Finlay has since been through his rookie year on the PRCA circuit, finishing fifth overall and is now ranked 22 in America for saddle bronc riding.
Etbauer has a message for future cowboys considering an education in the United States.
“Send us some more of those kids over here,” he said.
“There is nothing like those Australian cowboys you have.”