BILLINGS -- Bridger Chambers was walking his horse back to his trailer when he was joined by Blake Knowles doing the same.
It was early August and the two steer wrestlers had just finished competing at a rodeo in Strathmore, Alberta, Canada.
Accompanied by the rhythmic clip-clop walking of their horses, Knowles turned to Chambers and offered, “Congratulations on your first National Finals Rodeo.”
What was a dream suddenly became a reality.
“Right then, it was like, ‘Wow,’ " said Chambers of the career-defining moment. “For him to say that, I had to start thinking, ‘I really did it.’ ”
Yes, he did.
Chambers, a father of four from Butte, will be competing on professional rodeo’s biggest stage when the NFR begins Dec. 6 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.
“It’s a childhood dream,” he said. “This year has gone better than I ever imagined.”
The former basketball standout for Stevensville and Montana Western – he is the only competitor to have competed at both the NAIA National basketball tournament and College National Finals Rodeo in the same year – will enter the NFR eighth in the world standings.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Chambers, “I’m a little above my basketball weight, I don’t do as much running, he joked,” has earned $81,178 for 2018. He entered the year with $21,087 in PRCA earnings since turning pro in 2013.
He is one of two Montana cowboys qualified in steer wrestling. Chambers is joined by Helena’s Ty Erickson, fourth in the world standings.
The 29-year-old Chambers trails standings leader Curtis Cassidy by just $24,831, less than a go-round win. Only $31,303 separates the top 15.
“I have a number in mind that would make it successful for me,” said Chambers of the 10-performance rodeo. “I’m going to try and win all 10 rounds. If you do well enough, you can pay off some debts.
“People say it’s another rodeo. It’s not. It’s life changing.”
Chambers' pursuit of his first NFR began last winter when he made the 90-minute drive between Butte and Dillon three to four times a week. He would practice with Jabe Anderson, Jordan Holland and Josh Boka at Kenny and Mandy Holland’s place in Dillon. Boka is a former national circuit champion. Sometimes the practice sessions moved to Anderson’s place.
“Qualifying for the NFR … that was always in the back of my mind,” Chambers said. “Before, I had no interest of trying to make it or going that hard.”
During one of the nightly drives, Chambers' competitive fire flared and chasing an elusive berth in the NFR became more prevalent in his thoughts.
He began setting goals in the practice arena. Chambers decided he would catch every steer, no matter the situation, if it was fast or long in the arena. Then he picked up the pace with each catch in preparing for the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals in Great Falls.
“We spent a lot of time in the practice pen,” Chambers said. “I couldn’t have done it without those guys. They have been very supportive.”
Chambers knew his only chance of getting on the road to Las Vegas was to compete at the National Circuits Finals Rodeo in Kissimmee, Florida. He got pointed in the right direction by winning the steer wrestling average at the MPRC Finals.
Chambers also picked up big check at San Antonio before competing in Florida and another the week after at Logandale, Nevada.
His season changed in Kissimmee where he finished second with $17,052.
“I had to win to move on,” he said. “The money (won in Florida) gave me something to rodeo on.”
The national circuit finals gave him more than just cash. It gave him much-needed confidence.
“There were times before where I didn’t feel I was at their level,” said Chambers of competing against NFR-caliber steer wrestlers. “Florida proved I could.”
Now he faced his most difficult decision. To jump all in or go back home. To make a run at the NFR required help from the rest of his family. He and his father Keith run a drug dog business, while his wife Kristen would be home for weeks at a time by herself with the four children.
They were whole-heartedly on board.
“You have to go when presented the opportunity,” said Chambers. “This was tougher on the family than on me. Their support has been awesome. They were glad to help out.
“You have no idea what their support has meant to me.”
Chambers traveled with Canadians Tanner Milan, Scott Guenthner and Harley Cole. Guenthner is the reigning MPRC steer wrestling champion. Chambers won four rodeos in Canada and also qualified for the Canadian Finals Rodeo in November in Red Deer, Alberta.
“The Canadian Finals, that was something never planned,” Chambers said of his journey. “They’re just an awesome group of guys. Always helping and always having fun.”
Chambers will ride Rooster, his 12-year-old horse in the tight confines of the Thomas and Mack Center. He’s also been working the phone, picking up the nuances necessary to compete under the bright lights 10 nights in a row.
“The common answer is you’ve got to start fast or you’re not going to place,” said Chambers.
And no matter what happens, he plans to relish every moment.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” Chambers said of his 2018. “The big thing is not knowing if this will happen again.”