Photography: Mallory Beinborn
Photography: Mallory Beinborn

Riding high-flying bucking horses is a family tradition.

This isn’t Zeke Thurston’s first rodeo. It’s not even his first national finals since he won the steer riding at the Canadian Finals Rodeo at 14 years old. This is his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo since officially joining the PRCA earlier this year.

The bronc riding rookie from Big Valley, Alberta (population 364), got used to high adrenalin and the thunder of the rodeo crowd when he was part of the brother act, the Thurston Gang. Zeke’s older brother, Wyatt, and baby brother, Sam, flaunted their roping skills, horseback acrobatics, and death-defying stunts at a different rodeo every weekend for four years. When Zeke was 14, the boys retired.

“It was fun, but after 250 performances, the show was getting a little old for me,” Thurston says. “The bucking chutes were calling and I wanted to answer them.”

Bronc riding is in the tall, leggy young man’s DNA. His father, Skeeter Thurston, came to the NFR six times and qualified for the Canadian Finals Rodeo five times in his career. The Thurston family hosts and teaches bronc riding schools for young men and women who want to learn the ropes or hone the tools of their trade.

After winning the steer riding at Canada’s premier rodeo finals event, Thurston successfully rode broncs for the Sheridan College in Wyoming. In 2014, he was touring the big prize money bronc matches that are strong in the Northern tier of the United States and the Southern Tier of Canada. He wasn’t setting the world on fire, but it was easy to see the young twister had something special. In 2015, he proved that by qualifying in 11th position to come to Las Vegas.

One of the big wins of last season was the World’s Oldest Rodeo, the prestigious PRCA sanctioned event in Prescott, Arizona. The ghosts of old bronc riders haunt the grounds at Prescott, occasionally being picked up in photographs as long, lanky shadows staring out from under hats pulled down tight from the back of the bucking chutes while the horses they’ll no longer ride explode into the night.

The 21-year-old also won RodeoHouston and his country’s crown jewel of regular season rodeos, the Calgary Stampede, though neither counted toward his current year-end winnings of well over $100,000.

Tonight, Thurston has one more opportunity at the ridiculously huge purse money offered by the NFR. The highlight of his week was the 85-point mark and second-place finish that came in Round 4.

“That felt good,” Thurston says, “but joining my friends, the Cervi brothers on stage at the South Point Showroom while they picked up their buckle for bucking horse of the round was real good, too. Binion Cervi used to be a trick rider, like me. Now he hauls his family’s rodeo company’s string of champion buckers. If I don’t know his horse I’ve drawn at one of their shows, I’ll go find him to ask. Binion is always busy and tells me unhelpful things like ‘He’s red and takes a lot of rein.’ ”

At that buckle presentation at South Point, the Cervi brothers were trying find a spokesperson for the ceremony’s traditional interview.

“Let ME talk about him,” Thurston piped. “I’ll tell them ‘he’s red and takes a lot of rein.”