Photo by Covy Moore
INGLIS, Manitoba – Admittedly, Orin Larsen is his own biggest critic. That’s a good thing.
He finished the 2021 regular season with $97,844 and is ninth in the world standings. He has earned his seventh consecutive qualification to the National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s grand championship set for Dec. 2-11 in Las Vegas. He’s still not satisfied.
“I think the key to my season is just the grind of it all,” said Larsen, 30, of Inglis, now living near Gering, Nebraska. “I don’t feel like I had the best year, but I’m pretty self-critical. There are a lot of ups and downs throughout this year. When I was down, I had a lot of great support around me.
“I took that as an advantage to learn and grow and get better as a competitor.”
That support comes in many shapes and sizes, from his traveling partners, Kody Lamb and Seth Hardwick, to his wife, Alexa, to his family in Manitoba. It also includes his sponsors, Durango Boots, Advantage Chiropractic & Acupuncture, Rock & Roll Denim, Rieta Creek Scoreboards and Tim Cooper Custom Hats.
“When you don’t give yourself a good gut check and earn from that, then you fall into a thing called mediocrity, and you’ll be stuck there,” he said. “It’s always been fun for me to learn and adapt from whatever failures I’ve had. I hate losing more than anybody else. When I do, I want to know why.
“I still send every video to Cody DeMers. He’s been a coach for me since I went to school for him.”
That was at the College of Southern Idaho, where Larsen won the 2013 intercollegiate bareback riding national championship. He also won the same title the next year while competing at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, which was coached by Craig Latham, a nine-time NFR qualifier in saddle bronc riding. Latham died Oct. 8 after a 10-year battle with cancer.
“I’m going to miss him a lot,” said Larsen, whose older brother, Tyrel, is married to Latham’s daughter, Chaney. “He touched my life and my family’s lives and so much more. It’s just been a huge honor to know Craig and have him help me as much as he did.
“He was a hell of a coach for a lot of people, but he was also a friend.”
In 2015, the same year Tyrel Larsen qualified in saddle bronc riding, Orin Larsen earned his first opportunity to compete at the NFR. He hasn’t looked back since.
“It seems like I just qualified two years ago,” he said. “I was fighting to get one qualification, and I thought that was going to be making it really. Now, seven years later, it’s something I expect out of myself.”
There are many emotions that come with competing in rodeo for a living, especially for a man who rides bucking horses. At 6-foot tall, he’s bigger than most of the men who ply the trade, but it oftentimes works to his advantage. Scores are based on a 100-point scale, with half the score awarded to the animal. The other side is how well the cowboy spurs from the horse’s neck back to his rigging while in rhythm with the animal.
Larsen’s long legs are showcased in that classic spur stroke and makes rides look flashy. He’s also proven to be one of the elite bareback riders in ProRodeo, having finished among the top 10 in five of his previous six trips to the sport’s most prestigious event. This season, he won eight event titles, but he cashed big checks by placing at many more events along the way.
“When things were good, they were great,” Larsen said. “When things were bad, they weren’t very fun. I didn’t feel like I had the year I had prepared for. Whether you can blame it on elbow surgery or something else, it is what it is.
“It was my doing, and I learned from it. I’ve had great support. Lex has been a huge support for me in keeping my head up when I got pretty low.”
After the 2020 NFR in Arlington, Texas, surgeons performed an arthroscopic procedure on Larsen’s riding elbow, where they found pieces of bone and other scar tissue that come with years of riding bareback horses.
It’s the most physically demanding event in rodeo. Cowboys cinch their riggings tightly to the horse, then wedge their bind-laden gloves into the rigging in order to make their rides. The bronc busters are virtually attached to the bucking beasts they try to ride, and it takes a toll on hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders and just about every other part of the body imaginable.
The itch to compete is real, especially for men who only get paid by finishing better than most of the field. If he wasn’t winning, he wasn’t collecting money, and sitting on the sidelines doesn’t help put food on the table, even if he’s on the injured list.
“When you come back a little to early, you know it,” he said. “I only took four weeks off after surgery, and I needed to take more time off than that. I kept going until after The American (the first of March), then I realized I had to take more time off. It was a complete roller coaster.”
He returned to injured reserve and took the time necessary. That seems to have paid off more than he thought.
“I’m ready,” Larsen said. “I think every competitor is going to feel like they can always be better, have something to give them a little bit of that edge. I’m very excited about when I get to Vegas. I don’t have any doubt or concerns about how well I’m going to be riding.
“I feel like winning and trying to win every round. I look at it that I can put on the best possible spur ride that I can for myself on every animal I’m about to get on. You have to have the confidence that you can be the best bareback rider out there.”