Caleb Bennett entered his first rodeo at five years old. By 12 he was riding ponies. And at the junior rodeos he was riding steers and junior bulls. It wasn’t until his freshman year of high school, though, that he’d “learned how to ride ’em right,” recalls Bennett, who recently turned 28. “At 13 I was still getting the crap beat outta me. But by sophomore year I’d decided I wanted to ride bareback. And it took off.”

After a stellar career at Bear River High School, capped off with his victory in the National High School Finals Rodeo bareback riding championship in 2007, Bennett continued to excel during his time in college (as a scholarship student at Weber State University in nearby Ogden, where he qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo as a freshman).

Even so, once he turned professional in 2007, he still had some kinks to iron out. Both technically and psychologically. “When I first started professionally,” he says, “it was a roller-coaster ride. I was successful in my own circle, but I was struggling with the mental side of it. And physically, too.”

The shift came in 2011. Bennett had just returned to his home in Morgan, Utah, from what is now the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo in Waco, Texas (though known back then as the Heartland Finals). It was winter. And Bennett was out of shape. “So I buckled down and got on a meal plan,” he says. “I took the physical side for real. And that was the turning point.”

Indeed. Since that awakening, Bennett has been on a bareback tear—placing seventh in the world standings in 2012, then fifth the next year. And he’s been a staple in the Top 20 ever since. “Caleb is at his best when the most is on the line,” says longtime National Finals Rodeo announcer Boyd Polhamus (the PRCA’s four-time announcer of the year). “If you look at the number of short rounds or final rounds that he wins—it’s astounding. I’ve seldom if ever seen him in a slump. He places pretty consistently, whereas others have highs and lows.”

Much of that even-keeled demeanor can be credited to his family: his father, the late John R. Bennett, who rode bareback and barrel raced; his stepfather, Bob Caldwell, a roper himself who’ll often rope with Caleb just to pass the time; his team-roping older brother Dustin; and in particular his mother, Claudine Caldwell, who ran barrels growing up and whose work ethic (working two to three jobs while Caleb was younger) rubbed off on her son, who needles her now that he’s turned his passion into a successful career.

“My mom claims she’s my number one fan now,” says Bennett, the second-oldest of six (his 16-year-old little brother’s riding bareback now as well; and he has three younger sisters, one married and two in college). “But she used to tell me, Go get a real job. Quit the B.S. For me, when someone tells me not to do something, I’ll always go and do the opposite.”

Whether it was his mom’s clever tactic of reverse psychology or not, Bennett doubled down. “If you’re passionate enough to win, you won’t get real jobs,” he explains of those early years as a pro rider. “You call up and work for a granite company or for your buddy’s bakery for a month. I’ve done that—getting up at 2 a.m. to make bread and muffins. And I’ve mowed lawns. I even used to make leather chaps. Selling whatever just to keep going.”

What’s also kept him going is his dedication to things that’d almost qualify as sacrilegious to old-time rodeo folks: exercise, a healthy diet, sleep, stretching.

More of a yearlong sport than ever, Bennett runs close to 100 rodeos a year (and still driving the same old truck he’s had for years). When he’s not on the road, he’s working out two or three times a day in the gym he built for himself in his garage; and even when he is on the road, he’s doing yoga, crossfit, cardio, Tabata, jump roping, box jumps, anything he can to stay lean and limber. “It’s turning a new leaf in rodeo conditioning—for most of us out there,” says Bennett. “There’s not as much staying out all night and drinking as there was in the past. You eat a good meal, you go to bed, you wake up and go for a run. A guy could retire earlier if you don’t go after all these extravagances.”

Like we might’ve said: this ain’t your daddy’s rodeo.

And where Bennett wants to retire to is the nine-acre chunk a property he bought a few years back not far from his family. “I have some milk barns and concrete and garbage and all kinds of things to do out there,” he says. “Corrals to fix.”

And as of a couple months ago, two new miniature horses to care for. “I couldn’t pass ’em up,” says Bennett with a grin. “Big John and Jim Dandy. I got a good deal on ’em. I’m gonna breed ’em and start my own herd.”

He pauses, muses over the idea of getting a sleigh and hiring them out for sleigh rides over the holidays. Then he shrugs with a smile. “That’s what happens when you’re a bachelor living on your own. You’re trying to think of things to do.”

This is also part of Bennett’s appeal: his easygoing, self-deprecating nature. “He has a good sense of humor and loves a good joke and really can help add levity to a situation,” observes Denny Phipps, bareback riding director of the Canadian Pro Rodeo Association. “He is such a positive guy to be around that he brings out the best in most and really drives the level of competition up in those around him.”

Fellow bareback competitor Tanner Aus, who’ll also be there at the NFR in Las Vegas next month, and who occasionally trains with Bennett throughout the rodeo season, agrees. “Caleb has gotten to be a great friend of mine,” says Aus. “He has a great work ethic and is very self-motivated. He understands the physical nature of rodeo well and he uses it to his advantage. Another thing is, he’s a realist. He doesn’t sugarcoat things but he’s never late to congratulate a pal on a good ride.”

“Knowing there are guys out there who are gonna bring it,” says Bennett. “That’s great motivation. That’s what I love.”

The horse, though, is the ultimate competition. “I like the unpredictability of horses,” says Bennett, who, despite confessing to liking to keep things neat and tidy and to taking a more intellectual approach to life (“I gotta be up by 7 and doing something and getting my day started,” he says, “I gotta be doing something to make my life better. I don’t wanna take it for granted sleeping till noon and playing video games.”), also likes to keep life open. “One might buck you right off. You can’t second guess ’em. I like it in other parts of my life, too. Who the hell knows what’s gonna happen? Besides rodeo and where I’m gonna be next, I don’t plan a whole lot.”

Perhaps that openended approach to life outside the rodeo is what keeps him so dialed in inside the arena. “As a rider, he's pretty wired to the animal,” says Polhamus.

“Caleb is a very aggressive rider,” says Phipps. “He has very fast feet and keeps his upper body in place. He’s not a big guy but because he’s in such great shape he can still make very explosive rides on strong horses.”

He likes being fit almost as much as he likes being on a horse. “My other passion is reading up on the physical fitness aspects of what I do,” says Bennett, who plans on training future rodeo riders in exercise and nutrition—when he retires. Which probably won’t be anytime too soon. “I’ll do it for maybe 10 more years,” he adds. “I still feel strong and healthy.