LAS VEGAS – When Will Lowe won his first of three bareback riding world championships, Jess Pope was just 5 years old. The last time Lowe won ProRodeo’s gold was 2006.
Why is that so important?
It was the last time a Kansas-born bareback rider was crowned king of the mountaintop until Pope did it in 2022. That 16-year hiatus ended in resounding fashion, as Pope continued his dominance at the National Finals Rodeo to clinch his first Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
“The first school I ever went to, Will Lowe was the instructor – it would have been 2007,” said Pope, 24, of Waverly, Kansas. “When I first walked in there, I thought he was a kid that was getting on. He stepped up and started the school. He had his gold buckle on, and I seen that and thought, ‘I want that,’ and now I’ve got it.”
World championships are the most coveted titles in rodeo. The second most cherished crown is the NFR average title, and Pope has earned that for three straight years. What he hasn’t won is still part of the family. His younger brother, Ty, won both national titles available to bareback riders: the intercollegiate championship at the College National Finals Rodeo and the circuit-system medalist at the NFR Open, the newest rendition of the national circuit finals rodeo.
“That’s a pretty special deal for our family,” Jess Pope said. “I’m pretty proud of what he’s done this year.”
Ty Pope won the first title while competing at Missouri Valley College, Jess Pope’s alma mater. Ty Pope won the second national honor while his brother was on injured reserve through the month of July. He had suffered a right-foot injury to kickstart the month and stayed out of competition for several weeks.
“I tore the plantar facia tendon in my right foot,” Pope said. “I had a horse roll over on me in the middle of the arena. It was hard. I didn’t know how long it would take to heal. I did everything I could, and I was fortunate to come back at Dodge City (Kansas) a month and a week later, five weeks.
“It hurt for another three weeks every time I’d’ get on. I’d get off and hobble across the arena. I did it, and it paid off.”
Yes, it did. He went on a winning streak that saw him battle for the top spot on the bareback riding money list with Cole Reiner of Buffalo, Wyoming. They traded shots through the end of the regular season, and Pope entered his third straight NFR as the No. 2 man. His target was set, and he went right to work.
He placed eight nights, including two round wins. He earned $231,361 in 10 days of work in the Nevada desert, with $74,150 coming from his third straight aggregate title. He rode 10 horses for a cumulative score of 860 points, eight points better than the runner-up, Texan Cole Franks, who is also one of Pope’s traveling partners.
Franks finished third in the world standings. The other member of the traveling posse, three-time world champion Tim O’Connell, finished sixth in the aggregate and sixth on the final money list.
The one to talk about, though, was Pope. He finished his powerful campaign with $390,620 and beat the runner-up, six-time titlist Kaycee Feild, by more than $74,000.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little kid,” Pope said. “It is a lot of work getting here. We sit off October and November, and it’s the fastest two months ever to get ready for this. It doesn’t feel like a long enough time, but it is what we get.
“It was worth all the work coming into this.”
While the rodeo world has known about Pope for a few years, he announced his presence to everyone else with his resounding victory in Las Vegas. He takes a businessman’s approach to the game he plays, and that came in quite handy on the final day.
The gold buckle was his to lose when he arrived at the Thomas & Mack Center. If competing inside that storied building isn’t stressful enough, consider a day spent contemplating what could be and what’s about to happen.
“It was hard knowing that all I had to do was come knock out this one more, and I got what I wanted,” he said. “I get a goal I’ve wanted my whole life. It was God’s plan. I showed up, and He allowed it to happen. He took all the negative thoughts away. It was perfect. It was the way it was supposed to be.”