While the weather threatened to dominate the storylines at the Montana Circuit Finals Rodeo with temperatures at near-record thirty-plus degrees below zero, Ben Ayre and Haven Meged ensured folks would have something else to talk about thanks to their championship performances in Great Falls on January 11-13, 2024.
Meged, the 25 year old phenom, claimed his third year-end championship in just six years as a professional while Ayre banked the first circuit finals average title of his long career after tying three up in 33.8 seconds in a finals that saw ten of the twelve competitors pull at least one check.
Ben Ayre breaks his maiden
Ayre is the epitome of just who the ProRodeo circuit system is designed to showcase, an upper-level competitor who works a “regular” job during the week and rodeos closer to his Eastern Montana home in Glendive.
“I do chiropractic work on horses and I build saddle trees for my dad, Bill, who is a saddle maker,” Ayre, 34, said.
Like so many others, Ayre grew up in the sport with rodeoing parents. He has roped, and steer wrestled, his way through junior and college rodeo, and he now focuses on the busy summer rodeo season in Montana at both PRCA and Northern Rodeo Association (NRA) rodeos.
Though he’s earned year end titles in the latter, his average win in Great Falls represented his first Montana PRCA Rodeo championship and netted him a first time berth to the NFR Open, the circuit system’s national championship event to be held in July in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Only the year end and circuit finals rodeo average winners from each circuit qualify to compete in the lucrative event.
“That’s my first,” he said of the opportunity. “That’ll be exciting.”
Despite being a Montanan, Ayre said the winter storm caught everyone by surprise.
“I don’t know, it’s been a pretty mild winter so we’re not acclimated to it yet,” he said. “You’re prep time just about doubled. I got my horse in there two hours before to acclimate to the warmth and the cool down took longer too.”
“But other than being really cold, it was good.”
Managing the challenges of the weather, Ayre orchestrated his win with a solid game plan and execution.
“I did a lot of dummy work and just kept my horse in shape,” he said. “She can’t take a lot of practice runs so that’s what I did.”
“My game plan was just to be aggressive on the start and go have fun, mainly,” Ayre admitted, conceding the tiny Four Seasons Arena makes scoring well a necessity. “This was my second circuit finals so this time I was just enjoying it.”
“I didn’t take it too seriously,” he added.
Ayre went 9.6 in the opening round, good enough for fourth, after catching his calf initially around the eyes.
“I had to pitch it and give it back to him and luckily it worked out.”
He followed with another smooth run of 10.2 seconds to take the lead into the final round.
“That last calf, I don’t know if I missed the barrier a bit but I had to reach,” he said, noting it got him off balance when he dismounted. “Then I got caught, where I almost went down but not where you fall and can get up quickly but stuck in the middle.”
Despite the mistakes, Ayre had plenty of time to spare and his 14-seconds flat left him nearly a full second ahead of Landon Williams for the win in the three-head average. All told, he won $5,256 to jump from ninth to fourth in the final year end circuit standings.
Despite the long drive from home—Glendive is about five and half hours away from Great Falls—Ayre’s folks, Bill and Joyce were there to watch his first career title at the circuit finals.
“My dad still heels for me, when he has a horse,” Ayre noted. Ayre has also been afoot in the team roping, leaving entering out, but added about $1,500 in ProRodeo earnings in 2023 from steer wrestling to finish inside the top 10 of the circuit’s All Around race.
Horsepower in the calf roping comes in the form of seventeen year old mare, the Dragon Lady.
“The name fits her personality,” Ayre laughed. The Dragon Lady came from former Montana Circuit champ Chad Johnson. “She’s quirky, she’s quirky in the box but she will work. She’s nice.”
“She’s done a good job for me over the years.”
With winter in Montana in full swing, Ayre is off until the North Dakota winter rodeos later in March and plans to keep doing what he’s been doing.
“In Montana, our rodeo season starts in mid-June so I’ll probably enter like normal and then maybe enter a few around the [NFR] Open,” he said.
“To be honest, I haven’t looked that far ahead yet.”
Meged’s the Champion Again
For Meged, the Montana Circuit helped launch his rockstar career in the calf roping.
In 2019 when rodeo announcers were still trying to figure out the correct pronunciation of his name, the rookie made his debut at the then-Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, taking the victory and the huge paycheck which launched him to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) and his first World title.
“Without the Montana Circuit Finals my rookie year, I wouldn’t have gotten into any of the big rodeos,” Meged said.
Five NFR’s later, Meged has won two NFR average titles and $1.3 million roping calves in ProRodeo. He capped another brilliant season in 2023 with a record setting average win in Vegas en route to the Reserve World Championship. He also blasted a new arena record, tying a calf in 6.4 seconds during Round 7 of the NFR.
But despite the full rodeo schedule, Meged continues to prioritize getting to Great Falls each year.
“The Montana Circuit Finals pays really good,” he said.
“It’s a good one to go back to . . . it sucks to get there. I think it was record cold,” Meged joked. “But you can get a good jump start on the year.”
“I had better plans than what happened,” Meged continued. “But that’s rodeo and that’s what happens when you’re seasoning a young horse.”
Now seven year old Lil Punch got the call. The gelding, registered For Goodness Shakes, was brilliant for Meged in Vegas but was not quite as good in Great Falls.
“I rode the one I rode at the NFR,” he admitted, noting some problems in the opening rounds. “He was better the last round.”
Meged struggled on the first two nights, failing to draw a check, but rebounded on Saturday night. Rolling through one in 8-seconds flat, he won the final go round with the fastest time of the rodeo.
“Rodeo is a very humbling sport,” Meged said. “You come off a huge win [like the Finals] and you never get time, you start over again in two weeks and everyone is back to zero.”
Despite the challenges at the finals, Meged carried a large lead from the regular season and easily cruised to the year end title after winning $23,394 in the Big Sky country in 2023.
Meged won rodeos in Helena, Missoula, Billings and a round in Great Falls in the summer to win add to titles won previously in 2018 and 2020.
Making the win sweeter was sharing the champions’ stage with his wife, and 2023 WPRA World Champion Breakaway Roper, Shelby Boisjoli-Meged. Boisjoli-Meged claimed the average and year end titles in her signature event.
“Shelby roped really good up there,” he said. “It did not go as planned for me but we got to the end goal which was to win the year end and get to the chance to win the big money.”
The big money, of course, is the NFR Open where Meged was the high money winner for the tie down ropers a year ago, winning nearly $19,000. And he’ll get to compete alongside his wife during a busy time of year.
“Yeah, we might get to actually see each other for a day or so,” he joked. “But yeah, it’s exciting.”