Tom Neuens has always loved going to the National Finals Rodeo, but this year will be special, he said Friday.
His wife and daughter are going with him, and Neuens has made some colorful leather chaps that rodeo cowboys purchase to wear around their legs for protection. They are some of the best he’s ever created, he said, and he expects brisk sales at the annual Cowboy Christmas Gift Show held during the NFR.
But the main reason he’s thrilled is the fact that Neuens will be the riding events chute boss for the 2013 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which opens in Las Vegas Thursday.
“It’s going to be great this year,” he said. “My wife is going. My kid will be there. It’s going to be a great time.”
The NFR is the main event in rodeo, the “Super Bowl” of the sport, Neuens said. It’s sponsored by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and it draws thousands of people to see the world’s best cowboys in action.
The top 15 contestants in bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding will compete during the NFR’s 10-day run. They will compete with and against the best 100 animals in the events.
Neuens, who said he has done every job on the rodeo crew over the years, will be right in the middle of it. According to www.101wildwestrodeo.com, he will play a crucial role in his new job.
“The chute boss is basically the quarterback of the rodeo production, keeping everything moving and on schedule,” the website states. “His main job is to make sure the rodeo animals are in the chutes in the proper order. He also watches to make sure the contestants are properly prepared for competition.
“The chute boss is just that, the boss,” according to the website. “If he says ‘jump,’ someone usually does. Stock contractors often work as the chute boss. It’s an important job that requires experience, rodeo knowledge and dedication.”
Neuens will be in charge of the bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding competitions. He will be in the arena, keeping an eye on everything, especially the clock.
He said the four-legged creatures are the biggest challenge. The cowboys are there to compete, have fun and pocket some serious cash.
“The animals are always unpredictable,” Neuens said.
But he said the animals are well aware that they are somewhere special. The size of the crowds, the noise and the sense of high-level competition is clear to them as well.
Neuens has only suffered one minor injury over the years. The small finger on his left hand was tangled in a neck rope last year, and the skin was ripped open.
But he didn’t miss a second, having it taped on the spot, and then stopping at the trainer’s office at the end of the night, where it was stitched up without any painkiller — not even a shot of whiskey.
“I know!” he said with a laugh. “They didn’t have anything.”
But cowboys have to be as tough as the leather that they make their chaps and boots out of, and Neuens is no different.
A Bismarck, N.D., native, he has been around rodeo as long as he can remember. His grandfather and uncle competed in it, and his grandparents owned a Western store.
Neuens said that is where he started designing chaps. He still makes chaps, which sell for several hundred dollars a pair, as well as other rodeo equipment such as bronc halters and stirrup leathers.
Longtime rodeo announcer Jim Thompson of Spearfish, S.D., has known the Neuens family for decades. Thompson said Neuens is known in the rodeo world both for his work in the arena and as a “pretty accomplished” leather worker.
Sparky Dreesen of Circle, Mont., competed in rodeo at the same time Neuens did. Dreesen said he’s not surprised to see his old friend move ahead.
“He’s been working down there for a long time,” he said. “I figured when they got around to making a change he’d be the next one in line. Tom’s been around rodeo his whole life.”
Dreesen is taking his 11 best horses to the NFR to provide stock for the roders, and said he’s glad Neuens will be in charge.
“It’s good to know they have someone who knows what’s going on when you have your best horses down there,” he said.
In addition to working long hours at the NFR, for which he will be paid around $10,000, Neuens will set up a stand at the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show and sell his wares. It will make for some long days, with Neuens working at the stand before he heads to the Thomas and Mack Center for a 4 p.m. Pacific Time meeting.
His wife Hallie, a Cody native, will help at the stand. She also is a computer whiz, which Neuens said he appreciates.
He will rely on a load order program designed by Casey Dearcorn, the Northwest College computer services director.
The NFR, which will be televised on Great American Country (GAC), starts at 6:45 p.m. each night. By the time the first cowboy enters the ring and the crowd starts cheering, Neuens has to have the animals and the cowboys ready to go.
The judges will examine the contestants’ earnings, both before the NFR and on a daily basis during the event, and decide the order they will compete in.
“I need to take that and follow it as close as I can,” Neuens said.
He has to have the horses ready to go, and prepare for re-rides if one doesn’t perform for a contestant. That means Neuens is always keeping a lot of balls in the air.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” he said. “Bet I haven’t seen 20 rides in 10 years.”
Neuens, 50, competed as a saddle bronc rider until he was 32, and also did a little team roping. Rodeo is a family tradition and one he embraced, much to his relatives’ delight. His father Don was the president of the Badlands Rodeo Circuit.
“My grandparents and parents were my biggest supporters in rodeo,” he said.
Neuens is passing that along, as his daughter Sloane, 8, is his “No. 1 helper,” he said. She watches her dad closely, and uses rodeo terms like an experienced hand.
Neuens said his Grandpa Walt was involved in the sport until he died at 77, and he also plans to remain close to it for as long as he can.
“I love it,” he said. “I love rodeo and everything about it.”