GUYMON, Okla. – Long before he even considered competing in college rodeo, Jake Finlay knew there was something special going on at Oklahoma Panhandle State University.

When then-coach Craig Latham offered him an opportunity to attend the college in nearby Goodwell, it didn’t take long for Finlay to make his decision. Within short order, he arrived in the Oklahoma Panhandle with a suitcase in one hand and his bronc saddle in another. He had a thick Australian accent and a dream of being one of the next great cowboys from Bronc Rider U.

“I couldn’t ride a gate on a windy day when I got to Panhandle,” said Finlay, 25, of Goodniwindi, Queensland. “They pretty much repeated the same things: Lift on your rein and get a two-jump spur out. They just drummed it into me, but they’ve got a lot of good bronc riders because of it.”

In all, six cowboys with ties to the Oklahoma Panhandle account for 12 bronc riding world championships: Billy Etbauer (5), Robert Etbauer (2), Taos Muncy (2), Tom Reeves, Jeffery Willert and Spencer Wright. All told, they have 68 National Finals Rodeo qualifications from bronc riders who made No Man’s Land their homes at some point.

Finlay hopes to be mentioned among the elite, and he already carries some pretty nice hardware with him: He was part of two Panhandle State men’s team national championships in 2017-2018, the latter of which also saw him win the bronc riding national crown at the 2018 College National Finals Rodeo.

“That’s one of the best things I’ve ever gotten to do,” he said. “It’s nice to see the saddle bronc riding title go back there. What’s better is that we won the team title twice, and that was just as cool, if not cooler, to do.”

The pride that he exudes about his alma mater shines as brightly as his red hair, and he carries that with him wherever he goes. He’s already eager to be back in the region for this year’s Guymon Pioneer Days Rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 30; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 1; and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 2, at Henry C. Hitch Pioneer Arena.

He understands the proud tradition the region has, especially for bronc riding, and he’d love to stake claim to that elusive Pioneer Days Rodeo title when he can.

“When you look at it, there are a lot of gold buckles that are held on by a Guymon Pioneer Days belt,” Finlay said of the unique, wearable trophy issued to Guymon champions each year. “It’s a hell of a committee, and they’re always thinking about us cowboys. They bring the best stock, and they’re always wanting to have a good rodeo, especially for the contestants.”

When Finlay thinks of ProRodeo’s elite, he didn’t have to venture too far from Goodwell in order to see it. Just outside of town is the home of Robert Etbauer, now the rodeo coach at Panhandle State. Not far from him are the homes of Latham and Robert’s youngest brother, Dan, a 10-time NFR qualifier who finished as the reserve world champion in 1995.

Dan Etbauer may have never earned gold himself, but he was part of the team that accounts for seven of the most prestigious buckles in the game. He was there when Pioneer Days Rodeo made the transition from a small, hometown rodeo to what it is today – a major stop for hundreds of contestants; it also was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2015.

While at Panhandle State, he qualified for the CNFR, then embarked on an incredible ProRodeo career. He was part of a unique traveling posse that included his older brothers and Latham. The foursome obtained a group sponsorship from Oklahoma-based Express Ranches, and the team pooled its money in order to cover the expenses that come with traveling the rodeo circuit.

“My greatest memory was rodeoing with my brothers,” Dan Etbauer said. “I had just always dreamed of it. When I was a freshman in high school, we were assigned to write a paper on ‘What’s Your Dream in Life,’ and my dream was that I got to rodeo with my brothers and go to the NFR with them.

“It was a dream, and we never thought it would come true, but we got lucky and it did.”

It was more than luck. Being some of the best to have ever played the game – all four have been inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame – means being better than most. The Etbauers and Latham definitely were that during their heyday

As an avid spectator now, Dan Etbauer has seen the positive changes in rodeo. Contestants are able to compete for more money, and the stock has improved. There have always been spectacular animal athletes, but there are just more of them in today’s rodeo than there were three decades ago.

“The bucking horses are phenomenal now, and the born-to-buck program they came up with is really working,” he said. “I wish I was riding broncs today to get on some of those horses. If you watched the NFR back when we were going, there were three to four horses in each pen you had a chance to win on. Now there are three or four in each pen where you don’t have a chance. It would be fun to get on that caliber of horses.”

That’s one thing Finlay has over the older generation. Though he has yet to earn an NFR bid – he finished 17th in 2019 and 20th last year – he has been among the best. He sits 16th in the world standings as of mid-February with most of the season left. But he’d love to have his name mentioned with so many others who have ties to the Oklahoma Panhandle.

“Not everybody can say they are part of that bronc riding legacy, so it’s something special,” Finlay said. “To be thought of beside names like that is pretty special, and I feel like I’ve got something so I can add to it. I just have to keep working at it.”

People who have lived in this rugged terrain understand what it means to work hard; it’s a labor of love.

“What kept me going was the fact that I wanted to rodeo, and I loved getting on great bucking horses,” Dan Etbauer said. “My favorite deal was getting on a bucking son of a gun for a big opportunity and big money. When you get there, you know this is what you’ve been looking for.”

That’s why Guymon Pioneer Days Rodeo is still a big stop for the top players in the game.

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