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Rodeo Without Regrets

Saddle bronc rider returns from adversity, wins Franklin Rodeo

Joey Sonnier, New Iberia, La., is the 2017 saddle bronc riding champion at the Franklin (Tenn.) Rodeo. After a ten year hiatus and being clean from drugs for nearly four years, he’s back to rodeo. He poses with a bronc saddle that he has made. Photo by Ruth Nicolaus.

Franklin, Tenn. – Joey Sonnier is making a comeback.

After taking a ten year break from rodeo, he’s returned, and he’s winning.

The New Iberia, La. cowboy won the Franklin (Tenn.) Rodeo saddle bronc riding with a score of 81.5 points aboard J Bar J Rodeo’s horse Moon Hawk, who was selected to buck at the 2010 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

When he saw the horse he’d drawn, he was excited. His ride felt good, he said. “The horse felt good, I felt good. I always hold myself accountable for the mistakes I make, and it’s never perfect. There’s a few things I wish I had done just a touch different, but I’m glad it worked out.”

But Sonnier is no stranger to correcting his mistakes.

The 37 year old cowboy began pro rodeo competition when he was eighteen years old, riding saddle broncs till 2004, when he called it quits.

Three years ago, he decided to start back up, spending a year in the amateur ranks, then renewing his PRCA card in 2014.

There was a lot of water under the bridge for Sonnier in those ten years.

He became addicted to drugs, off and on, starting his rookie year with pills to help stay awake while driving. It was casual use, with a few here and there, and then months without drugs. But life spiraled downward, and the addiction got worse.

In 2013, he decided to make a change.

On July 11 of that year, Sonnier checked himself into treatment and spent 28 days getting clean. Then, he spent another two months in sober living, before coming home to his wife, Michelle, and kids, and deciding to get back into riding saddle broncs.

By this time, he’d packed on fifty pounds, and wanted to lose it before he began competing. “I made a decision,” Sonnier said. “If I was going to do it, I was going to put in the work.” He lost the weight, and was back to rodeo.

When Sonnier returned to rodeo, he found the bronc saddle didn’t feel the same. In his first year of riding, he tried three different bronc saddles and none of them were a good fit, so he decided to build his own.

Sonnier had learned a bit about saddles from a friend, and had done some leather work.

Then he had a dream. In the dream, he was walking up to the bucking chutes, with a horse saddled in the chute, and a bronc saddle he’d never seen before. He woke up, and decided to build his own.

It took a year and a half to work out the bugs, and now he’s started his own company, Vision Bronc Saddles. He’s sold six bronc saddles and has fourteen more on order.

Life without drugs has been good. He’s qualified for the Southeastern Circuit Finals Rodeo in 2015 and 2016, winning two rounds the first year and one the second. Last year, Sonnier finished in the top 35 in the world.

He’s glad he’s back to rodeo. “God had been doing good things in my life, and I figured if I wanted to (rodeo), I needed to do it before I got too old. I didn’t want to have any regrets.”

This July, he’ll be four years clean, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s back to rodeo, riding as good as he did before, and “maybe better, mentally,” he said. “I quit for ten years, and when I came back, I was just going to go to some local rodeos. Never did I dream I would come back like this.”

Other winners from the 68th annual Franklin Rodeo are bareback rider Tanner Phipps, Dalton, Ga. (85 points), steer wrestlers Lane Bateman, Sorrento, Fla. and Cody Miller, Morristown, Tenn. (4.0 seconds each), team ropers Chad Masters, Cedar Hill, Tenn./Justin Fox, Huntsville, Ala. and Bart Brunson, Terry, Miss./Trace Porter, Leesville, La. (4.4 seconds each), tie-down roper Steve Kuntz, North Branch, Minn. (8.2 seconds), barrel racer Ericka Nelson, Century, Fla. (17.42 seconds), and bull rider Nic Lica, Garden City, Mich. (81.5 points).

In addition to rodeo competition, the Franklin Noon Rotary Club, who produces the event, designated three charities to be beneficiaries of each night’s performance. Five thousand dollars was donated to each charity: Tucker’s House on Thursday night, Bridges Domestic Violence Center in Williamson Co. on Friday night, and the Williamson Medical Center’s Breast Health Center on Saturday night.

Since the rodeo began in 1949, it has donated well over $2 million for local charities.

Next year’s rodeo will be held May 17-18-19, 2018. The rodeo is the annual fundraiser for the Franklin Noon Rotary Club.

Results, Franklin Rodeo, May 18-20, 2017

Bareback riding
1. Tanner Phipps, Dalton, Ga. 85 points on J Bar J’s Jailhouse Rock; 2. Steven Dent, Mullen, Neb. 84; 3.Tim O’Connell, Zwingle, Iowa 83.5; 4. Zachariah Phillips, Gillette, Wyo. 82.5; 5. (tie) Tyler Waltz, Martin, Tenn. and Ty Breuer, Mandan, N.D. 79.5 each.

Steer wrestling
1. (tie) Lane Bateman, Sorrento, Fla. and Cody Miller, Morristown, Tenn.4.0 seconds each; 3. Matt Mousseau, Canada 4.3; 4. Lane Chipley, Lucedale, Miss. 4.4; 5. (tie) Fenton Nelson, Iowa Falls, Iowa and Tooter Silver, Quitman, Ark. 4.5 each; 7. Payton Caudill, Richmond Hill, Ga. 4.7; 8. Sam White, West Point, Miss. 4.8.

Team roping
1. (tie) Chad Masters, Cedar Hill, Tenn./Justin Fox, Huntsville, Ark. and Bart Brunson, Terry, Miss./Trace Porter, Leesville, La. 4.4 seconds each; 3. Adam Rose, Willard, Mo./J.W. Beck, Moville, Iowa 4.6; 4. (tie) John Alley, Adams, Tenn./Clark Adcock, Smithville, Tenn. and Nelson Wyatt, Clanton, Ala./Brad Culpepper, Sylvester, Ga. 4.8 each; 6. (tie) Cale Markham, Vinita, Okla./Nick Simmons, Colcord, Okla. and Ryan Von Ahn, Palmyra, Mo./Derrick Peterson, Louisburg, Kan. 4.9 each; 8. Cory Kidd V, Statesville, N.C./Cole Davison, Stephenville, Texas 5.0.

Saddle bronc riding
1. Joey Sonnier III, New Iberia, La. 81.5 points on J Bar J Rodeo’s Moon Hawk; 2. Bradley Harter, Loranger, La. 81; 3. Austin Joseph, Benton, Kent. 80.5; 4. Doug Aldridge, Carthage, Mo. 80; 5. Blaise Freeman, Snyder, Texas 79; 6. Tate Thybo, Belle Fourche, S.D. 77.5.

Tie-down roping
1. Steve Kuntz, North Branch, Minn. 8.2 seconds; 2. Lee Ellsworth, Warrensburg, N.Y. 8.3; 3. J. R. Myers, Felton, Penn. 8.5; 4. Randall Carlisle, Athens, Ga. 8.7; 5. Jody Green, Shakopee, Minn. 8.8; 6. Jared Kempker, Eugene, Mo. 8.9; 7. Bart Brunson, Terry, Miss. 9.0; 8. (tie) Austin Davis, Albertville, Ala. and Trent Creager, Stillwater, Okla. 9.1 each.

Barrel racing
1. Ericka Nelson, Century, Fl. 17.42 seconds; 2. Jennifer Arnold, Murfreesboro, Tenn. 17.60; 3. Laura Kennedy, Quitman, Ar. 17.61; 4. Jane Melby, Burneyville, Okla. 17.71; 5. (tie) Kaley Bass, Kissimmee, Fl. and Suzanna Hill, McDavid, Fla. 17.72 each; 7. Sarah Rose McDonald, Brunswick, Ga. 17.75; 8. Jessi Fish, Franklin, Tenn. 17.79; 9. Sable Miller, Malvern, Ark. 17.85; 10. (tie) Lacinda Rose, Willard, Mo., Sabra O’Quinn, Ocala, Fla. and Cheyenne Schnelle, Golden City, Mo. 17.87 each.

Bull riding
1. Nic Lica, Garden City, Mich. 81.5 points on J Bar J Rodeo’s Head Strong; 2. Cole Fischer, Jefferson City, Mo. 80.5; 3. Will Crain, St. Peter, Ill. 80; no other qualified rides.