Jess Pope: Rodeo Rider

Photography by Shawn Brackbill.

Jess Pope answers his own phone. This is unusual. Pope is a star athlete. He is one of the best rodeo cowboys on earth.

At just twenty-four years old, Pope won his first world championship for bareback riding along with his third consecutive National Finals Rodeo average title, meaning he finished with the highest combined score. His combined earnings are a shade over a million dollars. So, yeah. He’s good. 

It’s weird, then, that he answers his own phone. Baseball players don’t do that. Neither do football players or soccer stars or pretty much any other athlete you can think of. Getting an interview with those guys usually means navigating a vast, prickly phalanx of agents and public relations flacks.

Not Pope. I called. He answered. We meet down at Hale Arena a few days before the American Royal. We stand under the sun, out back in a dusty parking lot, leaning on the bed of his truck. 

He is lanky, a smidge under six feet, but seems taller in his well-worn brown leather boots. He wears Rock and Roll Denim jeans and a Panhandle Western Wear shirt, both corporate sponsors. His de rigueur white straw hat adds height, too. At his waist is the gold-plated, diamond-studded NFR belt buckle he won in 2022—rodeo’s equivalent of a Super Bowl ring.

There is another difference between Pope and other pro athletes besides the refreshing accessibility: Not nearly as many people understand what he does. Sure, you might know the basics of bareback riding—namely, try to stay on the horse. But that’s like describing golf as “hitting balls in a hole.” It sounds simple, but greatness demands an incredible amount of talent, work and intellect. 

We start, as most interviews do, with the basics. Pope tells me he grew up in Waverly, Kansas, which is only about ninety miles from KC but a culturally different world. 

He tells me he got started in rodeo by mutton-busting as a kid, then moving through the ranks. He talks about his love of space and solitude, how his closest neighbor is more than a mile away and how he likes to spend mornings in silence, listening only to the sounds of nature. 

Photography by Shawn Brackbill.

He is, no question, a cowboy. Laconic and unfailingly polite, he walks and speaks with quiet confidence. Paula Cole would be thrilled. It’s impossible for me, a city kid, not to feel hopelessly effete beside him. 

He speaks glowingly of the American Royal. “To me it’s very special,” he says. He first came to the event in sixth grade as a steer rider. In high school, he was a saddle bronc and a bareback rider. Now he’s competing with the big boys. “It’s really, really fun to be able to compete this close to home,” he says. “That means so much to me.”

He tells me rodeo has changed from a sport for old school, beer-drinking cowboys to a serious athletic pursuit. Guys today are focused, Pope says. They care about nutrition. They have personal trainers and detailed workout programs.

The conversation explodes into something different, though, when I get Pope to talk about his favorite event. Most sports fans, I say, understand what makes a football or basketball player good. Not so much with rodeo. For the next half hour or so, Pope explains in glorious detail precisely what his discipline requires.

He starts with scouting. Yes, like any other athlete, Pope scouts his opponents. They just happen to weigh fifteen hundred pounds. He tells me how horses are left- or right-handed, just like people, a fact that strikes me as marvelous despite being fairly obvious in retrospect. He says the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has stock stats, meaning he can look up whatever horse he’s drawn in the competition and see everybody that’s ever ridden the beast. Then he can go to social media, find video of those other rides and break them down, beat-by-beat.

Then, right there in the parking lot, he does just that. He gets out his phone, shows me a video of one of his own bronc rides and analyzes his process for me, almost frame-by-frame. He explains how he grips the rigging, how his free arm provides balance, how he uses his hips and feet, keeps his chin tucked and how he intuitively feels with his backside what the animal wants to do. 

It’s glorious. Imagine listening to Steph Curry dissert on the jump shot or getting George Brett to talk about hitting. 

Then, my universe bigger, mind appropriately blown, my appreciation for his sport multiplied by orders of magnitude, Pope says thanks, shakes my hand and walks away. No publicist required.  

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