Charley Gardner grew up on a secluded ranch tucked away in the north end of Ruby Valley where riding broncs was more a way of life than a sport.
He attended a two-room schoolhouse until the eighth grade, then he and his three brothers and sisters were schooled at home -- and much of that education revolved around breaking colts and working the ranch.
In 1991 he entered the saddle bronc competition as an amateur in Elko's pro rodeo, the Silver State Stampede.
"I think I scored a 69, but I loved it," he said. "I thought this is what I want to do. It was probably one of the funnest things I'd done up to that point."
In 1994, at the age of 22, he joined the professional rodeo circuit.
"I didn't really know any better to be scared. I just got on 'em," he said. "Growing up I always wanted to ride buckin' horses, I just never really got the opportunity 'till I was older."
He entered the arena competing against cowboys who had been riding rodeos since they were small and had competed at the high school level. But Gardner credits much of his success to his late start.
"I learned to ride buckin' horses on the rodeo circuit," he said. "The rides I saw were from the best guys. A lot of the great bronc riders of the time took me under their wing and helped me out."
Five years later, he was at the granddaddy of them all, the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, where he won with the highest average score for his rides.
"It was awesome," he said. "That's something you dream of since you're a little kid -- it's every rodeo cowboy's dream."
And he has his sights set on making it again this year. The top 15 cowboys in each event compete in the finals, and Gardner is holding the 15th spot.
He had hoped to secure his spot more tightly this week at the Reno Rodeo, but he was bucked off Tuesday night and left Wednesday for another rodeo in Canada.
Despite his bad luck this year, Gardner said he always enjoys the Reno Rodeo, where he has competed nine times.
"I really like to ride in Reno," he said. "It's one of those rodeos that just seems to have good karma. I like to come here and ride."
Although he was disappointed in Reno, he is optimistic he will be able to recover the loss.
"I feel like I've got a really good shot at the NFR," he said. "I've just got to draw some good horses at some good rodeos and make some really good rides."
Rank is determined by the amount of money each participant wins throughout the season. Cowboys ranking among the top 15, Gardner said, make between $100,000 and $150,000 that year.
He's hit about 40 rodeos so far with hopes to make 54 by the Fourth of July and around 125 by the time the season ends in November.
"This is my life now," he said. "You show up at a rodeo and all your best friends in the world are there. It's a challenge every day. You compete against yourself to see what you can do."
At 31, it can be a hard life at times. But Gardner said new regulations are allowing cowboys to make more money at fewer rodeos, allowing older competitors to stay in the game longer.
And he has his Plan B. He's built up a herd of 60 horses to market as rodeo broncos.
"It's just like raising good quarter horses," he explained. "You go out and get the best blood lines and breed the best mare to the best stud and hopefully it works out right.
"You want to breed horses that can't be broke."
Still, he's not yet ready to hang up his spurs.
"I grew up being a cowboy. I like riding horses that buck."
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