Zeke Thurston was raised in Big Valley, Alberta, and has been competing in rodeos since childhood.
Thurston is the three-time Calgary Stampede saddle bronc riding champion and the 2016 National Finals Rodeo (NFR) champion who grew up breathing the cowboy lifestyle.
But, with the challenges of competing and going to almost a 100 rodeos a year, he would like to see better recognition for the competitors as professional athletes.
“Oh shoot, I can’t even remember my first rodeo,” says Thurston. “I was probably three years old and sheep riding or something.”
The young cowboy had always planned to participate in rodeos, much like his dad and grandfathers before him.
“My mom's dad, my grandpa Walt who was here today, he competed in one of the very first Calgary Stampedes,” says Thurston on May 29 when the family gathered to brand calves. The walls of his father’s home are adorned with rodeo memorabilia, and pictures of the three generations of Thurstons at the competitions.
“My other grandad, he competed in high school rodeos, and [rode] broncs and roped. I guess you could say rodeos [have] been in our family since pretty much the beginning.”
The big moment for Thurston came after placing second in his first steer riding competition, where he competed with loaned equipment since he had none of his own.
“They paid me, and I was tickled pink,” says Thurston. “From then on I was going to be a rodeo cowboy.”
“I got on my first bronc when I was 13 or so… [I’ve] been eating, sleeping and breathing bronc riding ever since.”
Thurston originally wanted to compete in bull riding, but he found a bigger drive towards saddle bronc competition, much like his father who qualified six times for the NFR. He’s been dreaming about competing at the NFR since he was five.
“It was a lot of sacrifices made that, you know, your everyday kids don’t make. You put a lot of effort into it, it’s just like playing minor hockey or anything, a lot of time and effort goes into it, and practice... It’s a brick-by-brick process.”
The mental game is the biggest part of the sport for Thurston since the physical challenges come down to muscle memory in the eight-second long ride.
“Sport psychology is a huge deal. Just talking to yourself or having the right mindset and being able to talk yourself into doing something you can or even just believing in yourself enough to do things that most people think you can’t do.”
His pre-ride ritual completely focuses on setting himself and his equipment up, loosening the muscles up to be ready to ride.
“You’re going to war, that’s what it’s like when you nod your head, but you’re trying to ride a bucking horse that outweighs you by 2,000 pounds and you got to have the right mindset to go into it."
Thurston is no stranger to injuries. He has broken his femur, ankle, ribs and jaw, lost some teeth and had a few concussions along the way.
But the injuries don’t faze him.
“It might set you back for a little while, or might be a little gun shy for a day or two, but you get back at it.”
Competition season lasts almost the entire year, with a bit of time off in October and November before the Canadian Finals and the NFR.
“All your time and dedication goes into it, like your professional athletes. I think a lot of people kind of don’t realize that, they think you’re a sideshow or you're just doing it on the weekend and that’s not the case for me anyway. This is what I do and how I provide for my family.”
Family comes first for Thurston. Alongside competing for his income, he runs a ranch with his wife that hosts a 100 head of cattle, while also helping out with his father’s ranch, which has around 200.
The balance isn’t easy since competing is the main focus and reaching the Finals takes precedence.
“It can be kinda hard on families that way, but [you] try to do things special for them whenever you can to make it work.”
His family is often out cheering at every rodeo, where his siblings are competitors as well. His wife won’t be at too many because they are expecting their first child shortly.
“I’m gonna have a baby here in a couple six to eight weeks or so, and I bet that’ll make leaving home little harder.”
Still, the tight-knit rodeo community is like another big family. Comradery is a large part of the culture and makes rodeo one of the best sports in Thurston’s eyes.
“You meet people that you’ll have for the rest of your life, and friends that you’ll have in your life forever,” Thurston laughs. “[You’ll] compete against one of your best friends, but at the same time you’re cheering for him and just as happy for him to win it as you, yourself did.”
However, there still is a large controversy surrounding the humane treatment of animals at rodeos.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions that come with rodeo, the way they treat their animals — and, they are rock stars, you know — they’re animal athletes. They go back generations and generations, no different than the jumping horse or barrel horse industry.”
The saddle broncos Thurston competes on have a small flank strap made out of soft sheepskin placed around their waist, which is a ticklish spot for the horse. The horse thinks that it’s a spot where they can kick it off, so in response, they buck.
“But I’ve seen the flank fall off of the horse, in the bucking shoot before she’s left and she’ll buck just as hard or harder without the flank, and there’ll be 90 points on her. That just goes to show right there that it is nothing, and they don’t put the flank straps on if they’re wet, if the sheepskin [is a ] little bit wet, because they treat those animals so well.”
Thurston wishes more people could see how well ranchers raise the rodeo animals.
“They take a lot of pride in it, and they bred them to be superstars and they are. I have a lot of respect for those animals, to see them up close, and see how hard they buck, and how high they can jump and how athletic they are is really amazing.”
Thurston plans on competing for as long as he can, but only if he’s still a strong contender.
“I know I’ve chosen a life that you’re not going to be able to do forever, there’s obviously the end of the road ... but while I’m out here, I’m here to win. I’m going to do everything I can to try and win.”
- By Casey Richardson