It wasn't Joe Gunderson's idea to enter the SandHills Stock Show and Rodeo in Odessa, Texas. After his two rides, however, he had exactly 7,246 reasons to thank traveling partners Don and Dan Miller and James Thompson, all North Dakotans, for their legwork.
Gunderson, 19, started his second season in ProRodeo with a bang, winning the bareback riding aggregate title in Odessa. The windfall already put more money in his pockets than all of last year, when the native of Montgomery, Minn., — about an hour southwest of the Twin Cities — earned $6,510 while attending his freshman year at South Dakota State University.
"They were going, and they asked me if I wanted to go," Gunderson said. "I told them wherever you enter, enter me up, too."
Gunderson started his season by winning the first round with an 86-point ride on Harry Vold's perennial Wrangler National Finals Rodeo horse Smokeless Big Valley. He followed that up with a second-place showing in the short round, scoring 84 points on a Vold colt named Dusty Valley. The 170 points on two head was seven points better than Wes Stevenson (Lubbock, Texas) and Heath Ford (Greeley, Colo.).
"I had seen Big Valley before, so I had an idea of what to expect," Gunderson said. "With Dusty Valley, I had no idea. Somebody said it was a colt, and that was good enough for me. I guess it doesn't make a difference. I just go in with the same game plan — try to win."
Although Gunderson didn't compete in rodeo until high school, his rodeo roots run long. His father, Gregg, known as "Gundy" in rodeo circles, is a retired agriculture teacher in the Minneapolis area who has spent more than 20 years working for longtime stock contractor Jim Sutton as a laborer.
Joe Gunderson, who won the NIRA Great Plains Region bareback riding title in 2004 and finished ninth overall at the College National Finals Rodeo, also has gotten his hands dirty, breaking horses at the Sutton ranch in Onida, S.D.
"He's a little more ambitious than most cowboys," Sutton said. "He's on the Dean's list at his school. He's a pretty sharp kid who can pretty much do about anything."
Gunderson, who said he enjoys life in South Dakota, well away from the big-city atmosphere of Minneapolis, isn't looking too far ahead. Although he's off to a fast start, rodeo is a marathon, not a 100-yard dash.
"I don't want to get too confident about anything," Gunderson said. "It's only one rodeo, but I hope it continues to go well. Hopefully, I can be in the top 20 this year."
Following the National Western Rodeo in Denver, Gunderson heads to Rapid City for the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo, where he'll put in his time for Sutton and also do his best on his bucking horses.
Gunderson knows a thing or two about Sutton's horses; he practiced on a few before his success in Odessa.
"He'll work and be a contestant," Sutton said. "He's not afraid to work. He'll probably pack more panels around here than anyone and be here the day after Denver."
As long as the Miller brothers and Thompson enter the right rodeos, Gunderson said he'll try to do his part.
"They show me the ropes," Gunderson said. "We'll see what happens from here."
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