When Hayes Smith was a wee buckaroo learning to rope in Central Point, he presumed that soon after he turned pro he’d become a rodeo champion.

Now 24 years old and beginning his second full season with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Smith realizes his boyhood fantasy was a bit naive, yet he’s still blazing the trail to make his dream come true — albeit a rougher ride than he first realized.

Competing in team roping (as a header), Smith placed 18th in last year’s PRCA world standings by earning $61,949.22, finishing three spots out of qualifying for the finals while showing massive improvement from his 2016 campaign, in which he placed 70th overall with $17,422.

At the beginning of last season, Smith hoped to crack the top 40 in his event. His expectations were tempered by his early pro experiences, which didn’t include riding off into the sunset with a first-place payoff in hand.

“The first couple years, it kinda hit me,” he said. “I’m happy with where I’m at (now).”

“You just don’t realize how tough it is,” he added. “I mean, it’s a professional sport.”

And considering the many hurdles he overcame last season to achieve beyond his goal, Smith has raised the bar for himself this season; he fully expects to qualify for the finals.

He’s competed in one event this season, the Columbia River Circuit Finals in Yakima, Washington, earlier this month. His competition is next month in Las Vegas

One major boost Smith expects to have is a set partner, Justin Davis of Cottonwood, California, with whom he roped during a particularly successful stretch of events toward the end of last season.

Throughout the course of last season’s qualifying, Smith teamed up with seven different partners. It was an almost certain kiss of death for any cowboy attempting to finish in the top 15.

The season ended in December with the Wrangler National Finals in Las Vegas.

“I’m very happy for the season I had and what I had to go through really,” Smith said. “It makes me real happy and very confident in the year that we could have.”

Smith also was forced to switch to a different horse midway through the season, taking out on loan from friends an unconventional equine: a relatively smallish, young (5 years old), semi-outlaw mare, Smooch, who consistently proved herself and immediately paid dividends, winning $6,000 in their first event.

“If I had to get on her and it didn’t end up working, my season would’ve gone down the drain,” he said.

“We fight all the time,” he added. “She’s like my little Sour Patch Kid: She can be sour, she can be sweet.”

With his increased earnings, Smith was able to purchase the mare, in addition to a new truck and trailer that will greatly bolster his travel setup for this season and beyond.

In the CRCF event in Yakima Nov. 3-5, Smith earned $1,985.33 and is in 48th place. He and Davis showed a glimpse of their winning ways from last season, taking first place in the third round of their event with a time of 4.2 seconds, earning $1,588 apiece.

Consistency, especially during the height of the season in summertime, is Smith’s main goal, an area in which he feels he made great strides last season.

“It’s a real up-and-down game,” he said. “You’ve gotta keep as steady as you can.”

And although Smith looks forward to improving his consistency by having a regular teammate this season, having a revolving door of partners last season did lead to an all-time personal highlight: Smith joined one of his boyhood heroes, seven-time world champion heeler Clay O’Brien Cooper of Gardnerville, Nevada — also an actor who played in the movie “The Cowboys” with John Wayne — to win the Central Point Wild Rogue Pro Rodeo at Jackson County Expo, the second straight year Smith took first place at his hometown event.

Another cowboy who inspires Smith — a 2011 graduate of Crater High who resides in White City — is his father, longtime Rogue Valley farrier Don Elms, who calls his son every day when he’s on the road to see how it’s going and is excited by his success.

“He’s huge,” Smith said. “He was the only person growing up in my family that roped. I’d say he’s the main influence in my roping.”

— Reach reporter Mike Oxendine at 541-776-4499 or moxendine@mailtribune.com