Steamboat Springs Disappointment is a part of the game, Travis Darling explained.
He recounted a story about one day last summer.
Things hadn’t been going well for the cowboy, formerly of Steamboat Springs. He had won the Pat Mantle saddle-bronc riding competition in Steamboat Springs the year before, a victory that catapulted him into another successfully season riding for Casper College, but things weren’t looking so hot.
“I was going to quite a few rodeos,” he said. “I went from Canada, shoot, all the way down to Florida, even California. I was just struggling with some injuries, struggling to draw good and struggling to ride consistently.”
Midway through the summer, he seemed to have caught a break, however. Saddle-bronc riders enter rodeos and then their names get randomly drawn to pair them up with horses in those rodeos, and Darling’s summer had the chance to get better in a hurry when he drew the best-scoring horse in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, a nasty beast known as Ms. Congeniality.
Saddle-bronc scores are the combination of a score for the horse and score for the rider, so the better the horse, the better a rider’s chances of coming away with money.
“That’s the time to shine,” Darling said. “If you get bucked off, no one remembers you, but you can put an 89-point ride on him if you rise to the occasion.”
He spent much of that summer traveling with other riders, cowboys Darling said had a big and positive influence on his approach to the sport. That day, though, he was alone, and he drove 12 hours from his Wyoming home to the Montana rodeo, and he rode Ms. Congeniality, ticking off his eight seconds.
He rose to the occasion. Ms. Congeniality didn’t.
“The horse was beat that day. It was hot, and he’d been traveling all summer,” Darling said. “I didn’t have a very good trip.”
So it goes in rodeo, or at least so it’s gone.
The path to a rodeo career for Darling hasn’t had a detour or a sudden stop, though it’s been less than direct. Still, now only 22 years old and riding as well as he says he ever has, the former Steamboat saddle-bronc rider is in the midst of what he hopes is a different kind of summer.
“I’m pretty positive right now,” he said Friday. “I’ve been in the gym every day this year, and I’m in good shape. I’m staying healthy, and right now I feel like I’m riding better than I ever have.”
Taking big steps
Darling looked like he was at the top of his game in his first of two stops in Steamboat so far this season.
He drew well, climbing atop one of the J-Bar-J stock contractor’s best horses, Gringo Honeymoon.
“He’s been to the (National Finals Rodeo) a few times, so he’s not just another day off. He’s a handful,” Darling said. “If a guy can get through that, he can score a lot of points.”
Darling mastered him, dominating in what was an 84-point ride. The win lifted him to the top of the weekend rodeo in Steamboat and sent him away with $684.
Darling is no stranger to success in Steamboat. He won the season-long saddle-bronc-riding championship two years ago and rode his way to a dramatic victory in the Pat Mantle saddle bronc competition, which gives the season’s top six riders a chance to battle for a commemorative rifle and $2,000.
“That paid for some tuition,” he said.
Two summers later he hasn’t won a lot more money, but he said he’s a much better cowboy.
Part of the reason is simply experience, a lot of which he picked up in last year’s rough summer.
“Mostly it’s been getting older and wiser and figuring out how each horse is different,” Darling said. “You have to know the horses and know who to ask about the horses. You give different rein to each horse based on the way they buck, and it’s getting to the point now where I recognize horses.
“I’m starting to memorize them, to stay focused and be able to show up, physically fit, at a rodeo and know I have a chance to win it.”
Darling couldn’t commit to riding in Steamboat enough to capture another season title. He was set to ride Saturday night, but he plans to go where his summer and his riding take him.
He’s still convinced that could be anywhere, even the highest levels of the sport he loves.
“My dream right now, I’d like to be in good enough riding condition and mentally focused enough to make rodeoing a career, not just a weekend,” he said. “I’m 22 years old right now, and I don’t have anything holding me back from being able to rodeo full time and make a name for myself.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com