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Ranchers, Vaqueros, Cowboys…
Kari Corbin Features June 5, 2015
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If your baby grows up to be a cowboy, there are some fun places to let them ride.

You can smell a rodeo before you see it: horses, leather, hay, chemistry. Prancing ponies and cocky cowboys, fancy hats, fancier chaps. Rodeos are part of the Wild West’s final frontier – there’s no buffer, no softening or rewriting what is essentially a wild and crazy, rough and tumble homage to a time when life was lived outside by bold characters and their fierce creatures. Ranchers. Vaqueros. Cowboys.

Early Days

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Before ski resorts changed its identity, Colorado was known for endless miles of mountainous ranchland. Cattle and sheep were the stock of choice, while potatoes and lettuce were popular crops. In the early 1900s, McCoy and Minturn hosted their own rodeos; an opportunity for the townspeople to show off a little, egg each other on and celebrate. Vintage photos collected and compiled by the Eagle County Historical Society give a glimpse of those old-time rodeos, so dramatic and genteel in black and white. Cowboys – clean and starched, if a little worn around the edges – handle their horses in wide-open grassy meadows, long before development changed the landscape. The archives show snapshots from a slew of small Colorado towns in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, though there was a hiatus for each World War. There is even a photo shown from Yampa in 1900 when Fourth of July passengers on the stagecoach that ran from Wolcott to Steamboat Springs got to stop, stretch their legs and watch some buckin’ and rollin’ before loading up and continuing on their way.

“For a number of years, rodeos were popular in small communities like Yampa, Toponas, Burns and McCoy,” writes John Ambos in McCoy Memoirs in 1977, “but now, those who are interested in these events prefer to attend big ones.”

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And Eagle County Fair & Rodeo was a big one from the beginning, though today’s multi-day affair is exponentially larger than the inaugural event of 1939. Called the Eagle County Fair and Fall Festival that first year, more than 1,200 people showed up to browse exhibits, compete in contests and eat the free lunch. Much ado was made over the local potatoes and livestock. A football game between Minturn and Eagle high schools (Eagle took it, 27-0), a free picture show at the local theater and an evening dance were among the day’s highlights. At the encouragement of the Eagle County Enterprise, in its recap of the fair – or perhaps it was simply the resounding enthusiasm the festivities generated from the get-go – it became an annual event.

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Last year marked the Eagle County Fair & Rodeo’s 75th anniversary, with plenty of fanfare for the diamond celebration, including a lunch with old timers who could speak about the first few festivals. Long-time resident Jac Laman remembers being without the means to pay his entry fee when he was 8, so he snuck in via an irrigation pipe that spanning the Eagle River. For local rancher Vern Albertson, catching the calf at the first county fair wasn’t just a tale of victory. After raising that calf to become a mother of her own, he showed both the heifer and her calf at the next fair and did well, thus beginning his own cattle career.

There was chatter about Harvey Ickes, the mayor of Fulford, who ran the “meadow muffin throwing contest” that happened before the rodeo. Local lore says that if he liked you, he’d slip you a tennis ball instead of a horse plop. “It was a social thing and there was a big competition among the women especially,” says Mary Jo Gerard in the fair’s 75th anniversary video tribute.

Eagle County Fair & Rodeo

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For the past 20 years, Burns’ resident Jackie Schlegel has been attending the fair and rodeo; her kids came through the local 4-H program and raised everything from cows to goats over the years. The Schlegels are multi-generational ranchers; her husband’s family homesteaded in Burns in the early 1900s, making her kids fifth-generation locals.

“Ranching is our livelihood, so it was always fun and interesting to see if we could raise a steer that would show well at the fair,” she says.

What makes a steer show well?

“He needs to be nice and square, and wide in the rear end,” she says matter-of-factly. “They used to talk about being able to set a plate right there: a nice even square, that’s what they’re looking for. And pretty hair.”

Schlegel would choose plenty of savory meat over soft, downy fur any day, so she didn’t take it personally when the family steer tasted better than it showed.

“The fair and the livestock — it’s just a good way to raise kids. It teaches them responsibility,” she explains.

The 4-H kids raise their animals, show them and then give them over to the auction block. The students get to keep whatever funds are raised – which is no small amount during the boom times. “That was college money, vehicle money for our kids,” Schlegel remembers.

Though the fair, with its exhibits and animals, is the backbone of the area’s history, the rodeo component is just as important and, admittedly, the lifeblood of the event.  The Schlegel family would practically camp out for the festivities, starting on the first day and going all the way through to the end of the event (and their energy) on Sunday.

“What makes a rodeo exciting is good stock, really good buckin’ animals. They need to be good, you need to have a good stock contractor. That’s how you draw the good riders. They don’t want to waste their time on bad animals,” Schlegel explains.

Though she cites the national finals in Las Vegas as the best rodeo you’ll ever see, she loves the local rodeo, especially when she knows the riders as sometimes happens in a ranching community. “They’ve got to be in shape. It’s not an easy eight seconds,” she says, referring to the amount of time a cowboy stays astride a buckin’ bronc for his ride in the ring, dismounting at the sound of the buzzer.

She remembers going to the Little Britches rodeo in Eagle during Flight Days 40 years ago – before somebody got hurt and a lawsuit ensued, marking the end of the rodeo for kids ages 8 to 18. But plenty of local riders got their start there, and went on to the pro circuit.

“It’s a way of life for some people,” she says. “There’re people in the valley now who have never been to one before. There’ are some people who don’t care to see the animals. They say it’s cruel. But these animals, they’re fed, they’re well cared for, probably better than some people treat their pets. They have a job — this is their job.” And no matter how long eight seconds feels, it’s still only eight seconds.

The 2015 Fair & Rodeo will include 4-H events such as a clothing project, Western and English horse show and competitions for myriad of animals including rabbits, lamb, swine, poultry and dogs. A carnival runs for the duration, and public competitions for canned goods, perishables, fashion projects and other events happen throughout the festival. Rodeo with pro riders, members of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, is the headline event, though the barrel racers and mutton bustin’ are big crowd favorites – as are the various musical acts.

“There’s an excitement there – the fun, the food, everyone all together. The crowd really gets going when the rodeo is happening on Friday night,” Schlegel promises.

Beaver Creek Rodeo

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While the downvalley fair and rodeo is both historic and (seemingly) all encompassing, upvalley there’s a weekly, family-friendly rodeo hosted by Beaver Creek at Traer Creek in Avon.

“This is awesome!” enthuses Ohio resident and annual Vail visitor Jeremy Ensel. The father of three brings his family to the Vail Valley every July. They raft on the Colorado River, hike up Beaver Creek Mountain and ride bikes in Vail, but their all-time favorite tradition is gussying up for the Beaver Creek Rodeo and moseying over as soon as the gates open for “fair food” and ambiance. His youngest, Clare, age nine, has managed to wear a new pair of cowgirl boots each of the past three years (pink, white and purple, respectively).  She fits right into the mix of locals and visitors who pack out the venue most Thursdays from late June to mid-August.

The national anthem is sung at 6 p.m., and then it’s almost a greatest-hits tour of all rodeos, everywhere. Each event gets 10 or 15 minutes, and then boom – next event. Saddle bronc riding, team roping, bareback riding, calf scramble, barrel racing, mutton bustin’, burro racing and bull riding. Whew – it’s fast and furious, and doesn’t give anyone time to get bored, though somehow there’s still plenty of opportunities for margaritas and pulled pork sandwiches.

In addition to riding the mechanical bull and pony rides, families are welcome to sign up and participate in the calf scramble, burro racing and mutton bustin’. But a word to the wise: if you’re not acquainted with mutton bustin’, ask someone else to take a photo of your child astride the grumpy, rocking sheep, as you will either be too nervous or too giggly – or both – to hold the camera still.

For some, rodeos come through bloodlines and fields and endless practice sessions, but others gain entry with an open sense of adventure and appreciation for the Wild West. Though a pair of pink cowboy boots doesn’t hurt.

SIDEBAR OF RODEO TERMS

How to Speak Rodeo

Learn these terms and feel like an insider

Arm Jerker: Horse or bull that is really stout and bucks with a lot of power.

Bail Out: When a horse comes straight up on its hind legs as it comes out of the chute and just before it begins to buck.

Barrelman: An entertainer who uses a barrel to distract a bull after a ride, and sometimes to protect the cowboy.

Bulldogger: Steer wrestler.

Chasing the Cans: A rodeo term for barrel racing.

Crow Hopper: Description of an animal that jumps stiff-legged.

Floating: A technique sometimes used by saddle bronc riders that make them appear to be bucked off with every jump of the horse.

Freight Trained: When a contestant or clown gets run over by a bull traveling at top speed.

Hat Bender: A horse or bull that doesn’t buck and, rather, runs around the arena.

Heeler: The cowboy that ropes the hind legs of the steer in team roping.

High Roller: A horse that leaps into the air when bucking.

Hung up: When a bull rider or bareback rider cannot remove his hand from the rope or handle before he dismounts or is thrown off the bull’s or horse’s back, his hand is “hung up.”

Kack: The saddle used by saddle bronc riders.

Out the Back Door: Term for a rider that is thrown over the back end of an animal.

Pickup Man: A cowboy on horseback who assists the bareback and saddle bronc riders in dismounting.

Piggin’ string: In tie-down roping, the small rope used to tie a calf’s legs together.

Pigtail: A piece of string attached to the barrier that breaks if a timed-event contestant’s horse exits the box too soon, not giving the calf or steer enough of a head start.

Ropes: The correct term is rope, not lasso, lariat or riata; most ropes used in ProRodeo timed events are made of strong yet flexible braided materials, and a cowboy may change his rope selection depending on the weather and the cattle.

Roughstock: The bucking horses and bulls used in bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding, usually bred and raised for the job

Seeing Daylight: When a cowboy comes loose from a bucking animal far enough for the spectators to see daylight between the cowboy and the animal.

Snorty: A bull that blows air at a clown or downed cowboy.

Toes Out: A rider’s preferred style of holding the feet a 90-degree angle to the animal to ensure maximum spur contact.

Try: A noun used for both cowboys and livestock, denoting grit, determination, fitness, stamina and resilience: “Give that cowboy a hand – he had a lot of try.”

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