For Bareback Rider Jesse Pope, Facing World Champs Is 'Just Another Rodeo'

© Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Pope is learning to do his laundry, and he is also saying things like this: "I'm gonna be world champion."

At 18 years old, the bareback rider from Kansas is a sage and a kid who's just growing up.

Pope is brimming with rodeo aphorisms. He refers to the Tri-State CINCH Shoot-Out -- a competition two weeks ago in which he faced Tim O'Connell, the reigning world champion -- as "just another rodeo." When asked about the pressure he may or may not feel about going head-to-head against some of the world's top cowboys, Pope verbally shrugs: "He puts his jeans on the same way I do."

He's also in his first year at Missouri Valley College -- living away from home for the first time, figuring out how to shirk peer pressure. He says "yes, sir" and "no, sir." He's living in a dorm with the other rodeo athletes. His schedule is full of feeding horses, going to classes, and training to win rodeos with his MVC team; Pope is on scholarship for his bareback prowess.

All of the chaos, though, holds together. His disarming combination of youthfulness and wisdom is joined by a singular vision of being the best bareback rider in the world.

There's certainly reason to believe that Pope isn't overly bullish about his chances. After all, at the previously mentioned CINCH Shoot-Out in Fort Madison, Iowa, Pope took third place -- ahead of third-ranked Tanner Aus and a slew of other top riders. In July, Pope swept all three rounds at the International Youth Finals Rodeo. In 2016, he was the bareback champion in Wyoming at the National High School Rodeo.

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It seems strange to say that an 18-year-old has a decorated past, but that's the case with Pope -- and in all probability, it will continue to be.

When he recounts his many victories -- and few losses -- he does so with palpable maturity. It's almost cliche, the way in which his age belies his knowledge of the sport. When he talks about riding bareback, Pope mentions the "mental" game and the need for "hard work," preparation, and communication.

He recalls a story from his junior year of high school when he was bucked off a horse. Rather than breaking down because of the bitter disappointment of the loss, Pope put it into perspective.

"I like to have a five-minute rule," he says. "You can be mad about [a mistake] five minutes after you ride, but you gotta let it go, because if you sit there and dwell on it the odds are you're gonna do it again and again and again and it's just gonna get worse instead of trying to get better."

But beyond his level-headedness, there's something else: a smoldering trace of disdain for defeat that creeps into his smooth talk from time to time. It's what the Italians would call grinta, an aggressive determination.

"I hate losing more than I like winning," he says, pausing before adding, "I guess you could say."

Later in the conversation, he says he likes the "fight," likes to get "mean."

In some ways, it's tough to tell which comes first for Pope -- the desire to win a world championship or the desire to not lose another rodeo, ever, which would mean a world championship as a consequence.

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His mom, Jennifer, shares a story from the summer that shows Pope's grinta.

She was giving her son advice on how to handle himself, his newfound glory, and his checkbook, warning that he might not be winning as many rodeos since the competition is getting stiffer and stiffer. After all, he's no longer a boy; he's facing PRCA riders, grown men making money for their families.

Jesse's reaction?

"He was mad at me," she says, laughing. "He's proved me wrong."

It may not matter, though, which came first -- the desire to win or the aversion to defeat -- because his almost-robotic approach to training, especially mental training, seems to quell any threat of pressure or expectation. It's one thing for Pope himself to say "there's always another rodeo," but he's not the only person who believes he's got that approach.

"He treats [every rodeo] like just another rodeo," his mom says. "Whether it's a rodeo at a really small town or being at the CINCH Shoot-Out, just another rodeo... everybody has to put their pants on the morning. Everybody's there to do one thing."

When asked about the horses he rides in competition, Jesse shows his cards and how he's able to shoulder the burden of expectation.

"It's hard telling what [the horses] are gonna do," he says. "You just have to look at every horse the same. ... You're competing against yourself and the animal, not somebody else. You can't control what they're gonna do; you can only control what you're gonna do, and you can't even really control what the horse is gonna do. You have to have that mental game and go out there and before to the best of your ability and hope everything else goes right."

Pope knows he can't control anything or anybody -- the horse, other riders -- but himself.

Before each rodeo, he puts his right boot on first. Then his left. That's what he can control.

Jesse Pope may be the next big thing in bareback riding, but he may not. Either way, though, he'll be just fine.


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