Riley Webb discovered his passion for calf-roping a long time ago when he was just a toddler. Today, at the ripe old age of 14, he's about to face the ultimate challenge in his sport: the Junior National Finals Rodeo.
But you wouldn't know that the young Denton cowboy is the least bit nervous or anxious about the upcoming championships, which are being held in Las Vegas. Already a veteran of three previous trips to the Junior NFR, Webb's youthful enthusiasm somehow manages to make his game plan for this year's competition sound easy.
"There are big ropings all over the country and when it comes down to it, you just have to do what you do every day," said Webb. "Just go rope and tie them down."
Webb will be riding in the Tie-Down (13 and Under Boys) division, which holds its first round on Tuesday. A second round will be conducted on Thursday, Dec. 14, with the two qualifiers with the fastest times from each round advancing to the finals on Saturday, Dec. 16. A fifth finals qualifier will be added to the field based on his overall cumulative time from the two qualifying rounds.
Each roper gets two runs at calves in the two preliminary days of qualifying for the finals.
Since he's been to three previous Junior NFR events, including winning a national division title as a 12-year-old in 2015, Webb is entering this year's competition with a soft-spoken confidence that comes from his many years polishing his calf-roping skills.
"It's been a blessing watching him be so determined and work so hard and sacrifice for wanting to do his best," said his mother, Jennifer Webb. "He's just been passionate about it. He pushes us, we don't have to push him."
Riley will join a field of 29 competitors who earned spots in the finals through invitations from Roy Cooper, a legendary calf-roping specialist who earned the nickname "Super Looper" in the rodeo community and was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1979. Cooper evaluates the times of the top performers in Webb's age division throughout the year and then invites the top qualifiers to the finals.
Webb received his invitation following a qualifying event in July in Decatur when he was still 13, which allows him to compete in the 13-and-under division.
"This year I practiced a lot more than I did the previous years," he said. "This year we've been roping practically every day. I feel like I needed it."
Webb made his first trip to the Junior NFR in 2014 as an 11-year-old who found himself competing against older boys in his division. While the experience of participating for the first time was memorable, his results were not.
"It was awesome," Webb said. "I was 11 and I was getting to rope in the 13 and under division. I was roping good, but not that strong. My game plan was just to go as fast as I could -- throw caution to the wind and go out as fast as I could.
"I was kind of nervous," he added. "I was young and wasn't better than the 13-year-olds. I worked hard and tried to do it."
He didn't advance to the final day that year, but returned in 2015 to win the division to earn perhaps the most cherished of the nearly 300 championship belt buckles -- a trophy in the rodeo world -- that he owns. Webb has also collected 25 saddles as rewards for winning calf-roping events.
Webb can easily recite his exact times from the 2015 championships that earned him his national division title: 8.6 and 8.7 seconds in the two first-round runs and 9.6 and 9.9 seconds in the second round. His times were the best in the two qualifying rounds, as was his overall combined time, which earned Webb two belt buckles commemorating his wins.
Last year Webb struggled at the competition in part because he was riding a new horse that he wasn't fully comfortable competing on.
"Last year in August I had a horse pass away," he explained. "I had roped all year off that horse and we were winning. Then all of a sudden I didn't have him anymore.
"It's hard," he added. "After you have one that you're winning and roping off him almost every day, it's hard to find another one that as good as him."
This year Webb has trained with and ridden two horses in competition. He switches horses depending on the speed and tendencies of the calves in the competition. His goals for the Junior NFR is to keep each of his qualifying times under 9 seconds.
Webb's passion for the sport has evolved into a career in which he now has 11 corporate sponsors, ranging from Resistol hats and clothing to saddles from Pilot Point's Paul Taylor Saddle Co. Also contributing to his success has been his team of supporters that include his parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents.
Webb's ascension to one of the best young calf-ropers in the country began after he got his first pony when he was 4 years old. He parents used to help organize calf-roping events, and at the age of 5, Webb roped his first calf when he got his chance following the conclusion of an event in Decatur.
"We had a competition and the big guys had been roping all day," said Jennifer Webb. "They were done and one of the older men said they had [a calf] ready for him. It was one of the slower calves, but he got him. Everyone went crazy. He was grinning ear to ear."
"I had no stirrups and the saddle was too big for me," added Riley. "I was too little to get off the horse [to tie him up]. But it felt good because those guys were there and cheering."
At age 6, Webb won his first belt buckle. Today it rests in a special place in what has become a crowded display of buckles he's won over the years.
But next week Webb returns to Las Vegas to compete in his Junior NFR age division for a final time. And he no doubt would gladly make room for another Junior NFR buckle or two in his trophy case.
FEATURED PHOTO: Riley Webb stands with his two horses, Noah and Heisman, on Wednesday at Windy Hill Farm in Denton. Webb is a 14-year-old calf-roper from Denton who has qualified for next week's Junior National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Jeff Woo/DRC