Cowboys are the epitome of the pioneering, “if you want it, work for it” spirit of America.
Current television broadcasts of rodeo and bull riding demonstrates what the modern day cowboy looks like. But if you are searching for cowboy authenticity while attending or watching the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) on television, its best to get to know the #14 ranked bull rider-cowboy, Eli Vastbinder.
“I am a cowboy, my life is centered in the cowboy way, I love everything western - old country music, new country, George Strait, Cody Johnson, riding horses bareback, I really eat sleep and dream it. I don’t watch football and if I’m not watching rodeo on TV, I’m thinking or doing something cowboy, or I’m hunting,” chuckled Vastbinder on his way back from an elk hunting trip in Colorado.
He describes his riding style as an “all in anything kind of bull rider,” Eli has lived up to his form this season. Admitting he is best under pressure, when money and titles are on the line, 27-year-old Vastbinder has traveled over 100,000 miles to get to 93 rodeos and has qualified for his first NFR with PRCA earnings of $95,114.26 in 2018.
Citing Gary and Judd Leffew as the people who taught him how to ride bulls, Vastbinder says they developed him as a competitor and keep tuning him up when he needs it. Eli was eager to talk about this particular part of the journey where he believes - you become who you are around.
“In some way I feel like I owe a little of everything I’ve accomplished to them, from how to ride to my style and confidence - My style is not perfect and I keep going back to them and refuse to give up. and I keep trying to better myself and they help me do that, being around champions helps a lot.”
IN THE BEGINNING
Eli got his start riding rough stock, sheep, at age 3. His mom’s side of the family rodeoed and introduced him to the sport. His older brother, Coy, competed in team roping and steer wrestling and cousins rode bulls. Eli’s first official bull riding title came when he won the Ohio Little Britches Junior Bull Riding Championship.
By 2009, Eli was an All-Around cowboy proficient in roping categories as well as bull riding and clinched the Ohio High School Rodeo Association Bull Riding Championship and the Reserve All-Around Cowboy titles at that year’s finals.
At 18, Eli began competing in the bull riding only world with PBR and then CBR and a few rodeos on his MapQuest routes. In 2014, after several years and a lot of miles traveling to and from his North Carolina home, he hit his stride with CBR and began collecting event wins.
It is no surprise that Vastbinder lists 4 Time World Champion bull rider and Prorodeo Hall of Famer Tuff Hedeman as a mentor on his Prorodeo.com bio. Eli has won three events (Las Vegas, Bossier, Laughlin) with Tuff Hedeman standing and applauding him in front of the bucking chutes.
In 2017, Eli’s confidence and consistency merged, and he came extremely close to dethroning Sage Kimzey as the 3-Time CBR World Champion. Vastbinder missed that gold buckle in Cheyenne by 6 points.
Deciding to turn lemons into lemonade, the Ohio native, who recently moved from North Carolina to Texas, began the 2017-18 season focused on qualifying for the super bowl of bull riding, the NFR.
Eli, who officially joined the PRCA in 2015, won 6 rodeo bull riding championship titles this season. According to Vastbinder, his best ride was at Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo where he was 89 points on 34 Soup in a Group. He also rode a rarely ridden bull that Kimzey won round 5 on at the 2017 NFR, 322 Shootin Stars (Beutler). Eli was 88.5 on 322 in Greely.
But before those two great rides, Vastbinder had a little help from some friends.
“I had rodeoed for 5 years so I knew which rodeos were good for me, Sage (Kimzey) helped me and Koby (Radley), out a lot. Sage sat down and helped us get thru it all year and figure it out and get entered where we should.”
Vastbinder said he and his traveling partner, fellow NFR qualifier Koby Raldey, entered everything they could and went everywhere they could get to.
“If we had a day off and there was a little rodeo in California, by God we were headed to Cali,” continued Vastbinder.
Through the years, consistency over title wins has always served Vastbinder well and if history repeats, that steadiness will turn into money for him at the 10 round super bowl of rodeo.
In 2015, he rode 44.59 percent of the bulls he attempted. In 2016 he posted a career year-end high with 60.94 percent. Also in 2016, his year was forced into a hiatus when he lacerated his spleen, broke three ribs and damaged a kidney, at the PRCA’s Extreme Bull Riding event in San Antonio in late February. That injury would keep him out until April 30 where he returned for Del Rio, Texas.
In 2017 he rode over 70% of the bulls on the CBR’s Road to Cheyenne. In his four years with CBR he was in the top ten twice, top 15 once and six points to finish second to Kimzey in 2017.
But what’s impressive is his performances when the lights are brightest. In all three world finals appearances, Vastbinder rode four of five bulls.
Add a Great Lakes Circuit Championship to the resume and second last year at the All-American and you are starting to see the pattern.
Statistically in 2018 he is riding over 50% and has posted seventeen 90 point plus career ride scores.
AND THEM SOME…
Vastbinder who is active on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, never misses an opportunity to thank his fans, family and solidify his faith. He will arrive in Las Vegas as a newlywed as he plans to marry on November 10. His fiancé, Paige Futrell, has stood by his side for over five years as he pursued his dreams and he is excited for this new chapter in his life.
Eli plans to keep in shape by riding horses and working out a little before December.
“I am going to keep it simple, not build it up too much in my mind - and continue to hunt before Vegas,” added Vastbinder.
In modern times, fans often forget about the authentic, real cowboy roots that developed the events of rodeo. But this year in the bull rider locker room there will be one more NFR contestant who hails from deep-seated rodeo roots and intends to continue planting that tradition.