Rodeo has long held an allure of bright lights, fierce competition, rugged cowboys and celebrated traditions of yesteryear. Past the dust and cacophony of bawling steers and crowd noise, you’ll find no shortage of competitors primed and waiting for their adrenaline-charged few seconds in the spotlight. As with most professional athletes, there are two distinct levels in the sport of rodeo, clearly separating the good from the great and the names that simply appear on an entry sheet from the names that will be remembered. Dakota Eldridge will be remembered.
At least outwardly, Eldridge is by all accounts your stereotypical young cowboy. Blonde and handsome, fit and personable, he’s the physical embodiment of the sport. It’s upon second glance that it becomes clear this cowboy is a cut above.
Born and raised in Elko, Nevada, Dakota grew up entrenched in the outdoors of the high desert. Never at home in four walls, he craved nature, adventure and the rush of the wild. Eldridge paired his love for ranching, horses and rodeo with skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and backcountry hunting. “Anything outdoors is what I love,” he says, speaking by phone from a stop-over in Montana on a rare few days off from the road.
It was a diverse array of sports and an affinity for hard work learned from his mother, father, uncles and grandfather that shaped Eldridge into the competitor — and man — that he is. “For us, rodeo is a team sport, and my whole family is behind me. There’s no quantifying the amount of confidence that builds. My sister, Natacia, is right there, my mom handles things while I’m on the road, and there’s no measuring what my dad has done for me. He makes all of my horses, he’s up before dawn feeding, then he’s riding at night. Every victory is a win for us all.”
It’s that support system that built Eldridge to his core and sent him down the road with drive, humility and a keen understanding that pure brawn may throw steers, but mental agility and attitude will build a legacy. He’s taken those lessons and paired them with an exceptional roster of horses to leave a mark on the world of rodeo in just five short years.
Eldridge credits his upbringing in rural Nevada for much of who he is and the lifestyle it has afforded him. “Some people take it for granted, but to be able to grow up that way was invaluable to me,” he says. More than that, it’s those roots that molded the Eldridge family’s philosophy on bringing up horses and creating champions. “My grandpa raised horses when I was growing up and sold us my good horse, Rusty, as a two-year-old,” says Eldridge. “It’s one of so many reasons Rusty is special to me.”
For anyone in the world of rodeo, 18-year-old Rusty is a household name. It’s surprising to no one but Dakota that fellow competitors and thousands of fans know the talent and heart of the horse his grandpa bred and his dad trained. “Rusty has taken me from the high school finals, to the college finals, through my Rookie of the Year win and on to four National Finals Rodeos and a WNFR Average Championship. He’s amazing, and my dad made him, which makes it all mean even more.”
Dakota is quick to give credit to his father, Mark, for the horses that have contributed to his success. “Since I was little he always told me ‘I don’t mind doing it. If you want to do this, then we’ll have you mounted no matter what.’ My dad was all in. He spent so much time and effort making horses for us that it was pretty serious when we practiced. He never pushed, but he had as much at stake as anybody,” remembers Eldridge. And it remains that way to this day, with Mark slowly bringing along the next generation of equine athletes that will carry Dakota through his career.
One such star is Cruiser, the sleek bay gelding that steps in for Rusty whenever need-be. “To have Cruiser as a backup eases my mind,” says Eldridge. “I don’t just have a backup, I have an A-team backup.” Oftentimes, you’ll find haze horse, Gypsy, alongside Rusty and Cruiser in the trailer. The 8-year-old black mare consistently does her job for the all-important hazers that help make every steer wrestling run. “When we need her, she’s phenomenal,” says Dakota, “and she got her start as my dad’s head horse before she became a big part of what we do out here on the road.” Finally, there’s Griz, the only horse Dakota has ever purchased finished. “Griz is my 15-year-old calf horse, and he’s made it fun for me to rope again,” Eldridge says with excitement in his voice. America knows Dakota as a champion steer wrestler, but he regularly wins as a tie-down roper as well, setting the stage as a possible future All-Around contender.
This 26-year-old cowboy may be an old soul, but life on the road is a rush that Eldridge craves. “I’m so grateful to be doing this and be out here,” he says earnestly. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he climbs into a rig with friends and traveling partners Tyler Waguespack, Clayton Hass and Ty Erickson, three of steer wrestling’s biggest names and the young guns of rodeo. These men bring a heightened level of competition and a new mindset to the sport. Country music on the radio has been replaced with audio books on sports psychology, and nutrition and conditioning have taken center stage. Furthermore, beyond the myriad of strategies they use to improve their own game, their horses are treated, fed and ridden with purpose.
“We get energy from each other,” says Eldridge. “If you’re not winning, someone in the rig is winning. There’s no one getting down, we don’t let each other. We expect to win when we show up. We’re not competing against each other, we’re competing against ourselves, the steer we’ve drawn and the mental game we’re coming in with.” These cowboys are taking rodeo to the next level, looking to elevate themselves with a similar approach to mainstream athletes, and in turn, bringing the sport of rodeo along with them. They’re cool under pressure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally feel the weight of what’s at stake. “There have been a few times this year I’ve gotten nervous backing in the box,” admits Eldridge. “The short round at Reno this year had that effect. That rodeo is the closest I come to Elko in terms of competition all year, so I had a big audience pulling for me. I never want to let anyone down and I came out with the win, that meant a lot,” he remembers, referring to the Reno Rodeo’s coveted silver spurs that have now joined his rapidly expanding collection of winnings.
“Every steer we run is to make it to the National Finals Rodeo,” he says. “That mindset centers you, it makes you understand that there are no mulligans and every time I leave the box, I leave with a bigger goal I’m chasing.” The National Finals is a cowboy’s Big Game, and to qualify cements your position amongst the world’s best in the sport of rodeo. It’s quite literally the bright light at the end of a long and grueling season. Las Vegas welcomes the top 15 competitors in each event to the Thomas & Mack Center, each with the dream of a gold buckle and a world title. It’s tough, harder than any competitor could imagine, but the prize money and accolades can change their life and the trajectory of their careers.
There are no foregone conclusions in rodeo. Entering doesn’t equate to victory, and even the best can struggle when a piece of their competitive playbook falls short. To Eldridge, this is where the legends start to pull away from the pack in large part due to a finely tuned mental strategy and attention to the finite details of their game. “At this level we can all bulldog well; we all have the physical capacity to win. If we draw good and use the right technique, then we should all be winning. That’s where the sports psychology makes the most significant difference.” It’s a formula he’s worked on with vigor this season. “I told myself, ‘I want to win more than I ever have and have a better attitude than I’ve ever had, and I don’t want to take anything for granted. They say that rodeo, like a lot of things, is 90% mental. If it’s 90% mental, how much time are we really spending on our mental game in comparison to everything else we do? That’s what made me change my approach. I’ve set bigger goals and better priorities. I’m out here to win a gold buckle, win the world. You only live once, and I’d like a gold buckle in the end.” It’s a goal that was just beyond arm’s reach in the 2015 season when he rode out of the Thomas & Mack as the WNFR Average Champion and finished the season ranked second in the world. That closeness acts as a motivator, giving him every confidence that a gold buckle is well within reach.
Elevating his mental game has helped transform Eldridge into a better version of himself as an athlete and a person, but he’s quick to say that the fundamentals are of equally great importance. “I remind myself constantly that it’s not just me backing into that box. It’s Rusty and I together or Cruiser and I together,” he says. “I work hard to make sure I’m physically and mentally prepared, but they are just as important, if not more so.”
Perhaps even more meaningful than being known as an exceptional bulldogger, is Eldridge’s reputation as a horseman and a competitor who truly values his equine partners. “Our horses are how we make our living, they come first, period,” he says emphatically. “They eat first, they’re watered first, and my first priority is that they are feeling well, performing at their best and that I don’t ever take them for granted. Horses, to me, aren’t disposable. I know how hard my dad worked to make every one of them. I do everything I can to give them the best feed, the best supplementation, the best veterinary care and to make sure they’ll be healthy, sound and with me for as long as possible.”
He has a keen respect for veterinarians, and relies on several as he travels around the country. “I have gotten to know some of the most capable veterinarians in the rodeo world, and they’re dedicated individuals,” he says with gratitude. “I can call any one of them depending on where I’m at, and they’ll pick up the phone ready to help. They’re a special breed.” Hauling horses down the road, through varying climates and exposing them to thousands of other horses along the way taught Eldridge the importance of making the right decisions for their care. “We’ve always been concerned with how we feed our horses and keep them healthy,” he says, “and that’s compounded by the lifestyle my horses lead now.” It’s how he came to find Platinum Performance, and why he’s now more attentive to nutrition than ever. “I always looked to Trevor Brazile’s horses and thought ‘my goodness, all of them were slick, shiny and looked and performed phenomenal.’ ” It was in a conversation with Brazile and fellow steer wrestler Luke Branquinho that Eldridge was pointed toward Platinum Performance for his horse’s nutrition. “It’s been three or four years now, and I’ll never use anything else, I’ve never seen them look better, feel better or do their jobs better.” Eldridge has each of his four horses on a custom Platinum PAK, personalized to their varying needs. “Rusty struggles with gastric ulcers and receives the appropriate Platinum formulas, while Cruiser needed a prebiotic/probiotic for his hindgut. Gypsy and Griz have their own specialized PAKs and have never been healthier. All four of them get Platinum Performance CJ for their joints, and it makes a big difference. On top of that, Platinum affords much-needed consistency in their diet because their hay changes all the time as we go across the country.”
Advanced nutrition isn’t an aspect of the game for Eldridge’s horses alone. He pays equal attention to his own nutrition and physical preparedness. “I don’t necessarily think that if you’re working out you’re going to be a better bulldogger or rodeo athlete. But it’s going to make you stay in better shape and have a longer career,” he says. “I also try to pay attention to my diet. It’s easy not to eat well when you’re on the road, but I try to make the best choices I can and use Platinum formulas to fill the gaps and also to help my recovery. I can’t live without them. I order two months ahead, so I don’t run out or get sore and tired.”
It’s clear that Eldridge is out to not only leave a permanent mark on the world of rodeo but to help shape the sport for future generations. His deep roots and tight-knit inner circle have built a solid foundation and created the drive and quiet strength of a true competitor. He’s in it for the right reasons, most concerned with the relationships he’s forged, the horses he’s been privileged to ride and the memories he’s making each time he rides into the arena. “To know the people I know and to make the friends I’ve made, it’s like a big family,” he says. “I’m here to make the most of it while I’m competing, and I hope I’m remembered as a good guy and a good hand who rode good horses. I want this to be more than a story I tell one day, I want to leave a legacy.”
Eldridge sees a bright future for the sport of rodeo, and he’s eager to make his own contributions. He’s a firm believer that focused mental strategies, excellent conditioning, advanced nutrition and high-level horse care will elevate the sport into the realm of more mainstream professional athletics. “The potential is there for rodeo to grow. We have the best fans of any sport, and if our leadership and the competitors can keep raising our game to new levels, this sport will continue to earn an even greater following and bigger success.”
Eldridge sets an example of humility in sports. He’s walking proof that the good guys do, in fact, finish first, and that preparation and hard work deliver big results from big goals.
“Our horses are how we make our living, they come first, period.”
Dakota Eldridge, Nevada Steer Wrestler has qualified for the 2017 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo
“We expect to win when we show up. We’re not competing against each other, we’re competing against ourselves, the steer we’ve drawn and the mental game we’re coming in with.”
Dakota Eldridge, Top-Ranked Professional Steer Wrestler
by Jessie Bengoa,