The stage is set for the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo in Abilene, with 416 competitors headed to the Sunflower State this week for rodeo.
Among those competitors is a cowboy who lives 30 miles southeast of Abilene, but who will be coming home for the first time in several weeks.
Tanner Brunner, a steer wrestler from Ramona, grew up in a rodeo family, the son of Tracy and Yvonne.
Tracy steer wrestled and Yvonne ran barrels, and Tanner competed in junior high and high school rodeos, finishing his senior year of high school in 2011 as the Kansas State High School steer wrestling champion.
At Kansas State University, he competed collegiately, and after graduating from K-State in 2016 with an animal science degree, he chose to rodeo full time.
The first few years weren’t anything to write home about. He struggled with horses, and in an event where horsepower is crucial, a horse that isn’t a good fit is a disadvantage.
“I couldn’t seem to get over the hump where I needed to be,” he said.
So he called another steer wrestler, Sean Mulligan, from Coleman, Okla., and asked for help. Mulligan and his wife Bryel raise and train steer wrestling horses, and agreed to let Brunner ride one of them.
That was the turning point for the 25-year-old. In 2018, he finished the rodeo season in the top fifteen among steer wrestlers in the world, qualifying him to compete at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR), where world champions are determined. Brunner finished tenth in the world after the WNFR.
Rodeo looks like an exciting life, traveling the nation and competing. But there’s more than meets the eye. After Brunner (and most cowboys and cowgirls) compete, there’s usually no down time; it’s time to head to the next show. The days are “mostly driving and taking care of horses,” Brunner said. “We try to have a little fun now and then, to break up the monotony of driving, or to step away from rodeo a little bit.” The guys find arenas to practice at while on the road. “You never turn down a chance to practice, to stay sharp, and to school on your horse, to keep them working at their top level, like they should be.”
July and August are the busiest times of the rodeo season, and Brunner has learned to pace himself. “You have to remember, (the rodeo season) is a whole year. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll have highs and lows, you just have to stick through it all.”
Right now, Brunner is ranked 11th in the world standings, headed for his second Wrangler National Finals.
“I’ve had some pretty good success so far,” he said. “I’m sitting pretty good (in the standings), I keep plucking away at them and hopefully end up in the top fifteen (in the world) again,” he said.
Brunner has competed in Abilene the past six years, and will be in Abilene Saturday night, August 3.
It’s not the closest pro rodeo to his home; Herington is closer, but because of scheduling, he’s never been able to compete there.
“I’m pretty partial to Abilene,” he said. “It’s my hometown rodeo.”
He hopes he can slip home for a day while he’s in the area.
“I hopefully can get home a day that week,” he said. After the Abilene rodeo, “I won’t see home again till September.”
As in past years, the top bull riders in the nation are well represented in Abilene.
Twenty-three states are represented among this year’s rodeo contestants.
The Abilene rodeo runs July 31-August 3, beginning at 7:30 pm each night. Tickets are $11 in advance and $14 at the gate. Children’s tickets, ages four to 10, are $8. They are available online at www.CKFF.net, at West’s Country Mart, and at the gate.
For more information, contact the fair office at (785) 263-4570 or visit the rodeo’s website at www.WildBillHickokRodeo.com.