Bareback riders endure more abuse, suffer more injuries and carry away more long-term damage than all other rodeo cowboys.”
That’s how the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association describes bareback—the showdown between a cowboy strapped to a feisty, kicking bronc with just some leather and cowhide wound around one hand.
It’s not something Kelly Wardell’s mother wanted him to do. She’d seen how rodeo life battered his father. But at age 15, Wardell issued an ultimatum; let him compete or he’d leave home and do it anyway. So, she signed the release allowing him to join the high school rodeo team in his “blink and you’ll miss it” hometown of Big Piney, Wyo.
After a storied career as a professional cowboy, Wardell now resides on an acreage outside of Shoshone, where he tends a few critters, welds, rides and stays fit. He’s also the assistant rodeo coach for the College of Southern Idaho. You can bet he has the rapt attention of students, given his history. Wardell is a PRCA Gold Card member who competed at the highest level for 30 years. He could practically pave an arena with the prize buckles earned in pro-rodeo wins and circuit finals championships. He even has a bronze Olympic medal.
On a sunny Saturday in May, he is driving—without a trailer in tow—to a former student’s wedding. “I’m actually going to perform the ceremony. I’ve done it for about six guys I’ve coached.” In those few words, you grasp how deeply Wardell connects with the young men who share his passion for bareback riding. He speaks with the steady cadence of someone with plenty of windshield time for contemplation. But his pace increases when describing a good eight-second ride. “It’s an adrenaline high like no other. If you could bottle the feeling when you get off that horse and see 90 points, you’d get a million dollars ten times over. It’s the greatest drug in the world!”
Wardell quips that he’s spent the second half of his life paying for the first half. Bareback riders usually age out of competition in their late 20s, but by age 38, he was still strapped on and ranked number one in the world. He’d overcome ten broken bones and seven major surgeries yet was still competing against guys half his age.
When he finally retired, Wardell says he could barely move. He turned to mixed martial arts to regain flexibility, but within three months had worked his way to peak physical performance and ended up opening a gym. That occupied much of the next eight years. Then, at age 51, the cowboy turned MMA fighter did something unheard of; he returned to bareback riding, “I was in the best shape of my life, I still had that desire to compete.”
Compete he did, qualifying for the NFR for another two years, the oldest bareback rider in history to do so.
Wardell started coaching other cowboys back in 1998 while still a competitor himself. He recalls being surrounded by four of his students who were about to compete against him. “They said, ‘Mr. Wardell, it’s just an honor to ride with you today,’ it about made me cry.”
His drive to compete is now poured into helping his students be successful. Wardell knows when a cowboy has what it takes. “It’s the most physically demanding sport. If they put in time every day, I can put them on a shorter route than the one I took. We fine-tune their mechanics. And 95 percent is what’s between their ears. I never had anyone help me and could get off-track. I had ups and downs and everything in between. The mental game is key.” He counts at least eight of his students who’ve made it to the ‘big dance,’ the NFR.
Mental toughness was carved the hard way for Wardell. He lost his biggest supporter, his brother, to suicide and suffered through some dark times. Eventually, the loss created an uncommon intensity that allowed him to compete beyond the age when most bareback riders call it quits. He also credits his life partner, Barb, with steady support.
Wardell has been coaching at CSI for six years and has many high school and college rodeo champions among his proteges. He travels for teaching clinics and stays busy with endorsements and the PRCA.
He’d also like to patent and produce a unique bucking machine that replicates the movement of a bronco. “A friend made it 40 or 50 years ago. I keep welding it back together to keep it runnin’. I don’t think there’s another one like it in the world. You either have money or time, just not both together.”
He’s been approached about having his story told on the big screen and likes showcasing the unique aspects of rodeo and the Western way of life. But for now, Kelly Wardell is content just living that life in beautiful Idaho after so many live-or-die encounters on the bare back of a bucking bronc.