Photography by Jeff Nelson
Grab your boots, your Cowboy hat and some ‘tude—Colorado rodeo season is kicking into high gear. Giddyup!
People say the Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, but we beg to differ: To us, the most heart-pounding eight seconds in sports takes place every time a rider rockets out of a rodeo chute on the back of an ornery, gyrating, 1,500-pound bull and hangs on (gracefully) for dear life.
This month, all of the racing, roping, wrangling and riding action is just beginning: Colorado hosts 40 pro rodeos—and countless “unofficial” rodeos—every summer (including the 79th annual Eagle County Fair and Rodeo, pictured on these pages and held this year on July 25–28). Yes, it’s rodeo time—when, each year, more than 36.5 million Americans don their Stetsons, pressed jeans and best Western snap shirts, channel John Wayne and head to the arena stands to watch a bit of old-fashioned Americana come to life.
Long before there was Friday night football, there was rodeo. “People love it because they’re looking for wholesome family entertainment,” says John Shipley, a Steamboat rodeo announcer. “They appreciate the fact that today’s rodeo cowboys are the last remnant of that spirit that settled the West. They are deciding where they want to compete, paying their entry fees and travel expenses—and people appreciate that independence.”
Larry Mahan, a retired eight-time world rodeo champion considered one of the greatest cowboys of all time, now splits his time between a ranch in Sunset, Texas and one in Colorado halfway between Cripple Creek and Guffey. He says he got hooked on the sport because of the challenges it presents.
“The beauty of the sport is that, especially in this day and age, it really is the showcase for Western culture and heritage,” the Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer says. “It still represents a lot of hard work, determination and dedication, which is what it took to survive back in the days when ranching and farming and even transportation were so dependent on the horse.”
How rodeos began in the American West is as hard to pin down as a wild steer. But Colorado stakes its own claim to the first rodeo: The story goes that in 1869, cowboys from three cattle ranches met in Deer Trail (in eastern Arapahoe County) for a saddle bronc riding contest that would decide once and for all who had bragging rights as the area’s most skillful cowboy. Kent Sturman, director of the Colorado Springs-based Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, officially cites that Deer Trail event as the country’s first rodeo, “because it was documented.” But other towns (Pecos, Texas; Payson, Ariz.; Prescott, Ariz.; and North Platte, Neb.) have thrown their hats into the ring claiming they were the first.
A century and a half later, we’re not sure it matters. All we know is that rodeos are great entertainment. Today’s PRCA-sanctioned rodeos all feature seven events: bull riding, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, team roping, steer wrestling, tie-down roping and barrel racing. “These people are professional athletes,” says Laura Lambert, a barrel racer from Wiggins who has won three professional championships and numerous smaller events. “We work out to stay at the top of our game, and our equines are very much professional athletes too.”
Take it from someone who knows: “Riding a bull or bucking horse is an amazing dance,” says Mahan, the first pro rider in history to score higher than an 89 (out of 100) on a bull ride. “If you get out of step, they’ll step on your toes.” Now, who’s ready for a wild ride?
“I’VE BEEN A CLOWN ALL MY LIFE”
J.W. WINKLEPLECK, RODEO CLOWN
You might think being a rodeo clown is all fun and games, but you’d be wrong. When J.W. Winklepleck of Strasburg gets into the rodeo ring, he’s often “the man in the can,” wearing a 55-gallon drum and trying to distract an angry bull. “He’ll come hit the barrel and knock me around a bit,” he says. Of course, Winklepleck, who started pro clowning in 1991 and does 40 to 50 rodeos a year, also does straight-up comedy—being pulled on a snowboard by a horse going 90 mph or riding around the ring in a chariot while attached to a raging bull.
How did you become a rodeo clown?
“I grew up in a rodeo family and competed riding bareback bronc horses for a lot of years. One day, my dad told me, ‘Here, start doing some clown acts.’ Of course, my dad told me I’d been a clown all my life. And I think I’m pretty funny. At least I laugh at my own jokes.”
How mean are the bulls?
“Rodeo livestock are bred to buck people off. But some of the best bulls, the ones that can buck the hardest, you could scratch them in their pens and they’d be friendly. They just don’t want someone on their back.”
And can you outrun a bull?
“No, if you’re running in a straight line, a bull can outrun you—but you can turn a corner faster than he can, so you just give him a fake, or a sidestep, and get out of his way.”
What’s your comedy like?
“In one of my acts, I bring out a box and tell the crowd I’m trying to find my mojo, my dance grooves, because I want to go to the dance after the rodeo. But I can’t dance, so I start pulling out stuff from different decades: I put on my Elvis outfit and dance like Elvis, and then my Michael Jackson costume and dance like him.”