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Welcome To The Wild West Rodeo In Snowmass

by Catherine Lutz

“Let’s go, let’s show, let’s rodeo.”

It’s a fine summer evening, a refreshing wash of light rain cooling the air and the warm flush of sunset beginning to turn everything nostalgic. The participants have filed into the rodeo arena on horseback and the American flag galloped around its perimeter by a beaming cowgirl in a crisp white shirt. After the national anthem, Snowmass Rodeo announcer Derek Barton kicks off the competitive events of Colorado’s longest-running rodeo — celebrating 44 years this summer.

Authentically western and put on by a crew and contestants with deep Roaring Fork Valley roots, the rodeo is a unique highlight of a summer visit to Snowmass. Held every Wednesday at 7 pm (pre-rodeo activities and the barbecue begin at 5 pm), it’s an event that brings you back to another era, to the wild west beginnings of the Brush Creek Valley when a handful of ranches dotted the valley and being a cowboy was surefire way to make a living.

Indeed, the very first Snowmass rodeo, in the summer of 1973, drew 1,400 people — an impressive number given how sleepy summers tended to be back then. Today’s rodeo may be more heavily attended by tourists —with modern touches such as a bouncy horse (among other kids activities), vendor booths, and even VIP seating —but its core events have remained unchanged for decades, representing the daily skills needed to run a ranch and ride the range.

If you get a hankering to go to the rodeo (and everyone who passes through should treat themselves), here’s a primer on some of its key events.

Bronco Riding

Today’s bareback and saddle bronco events have their roots in the cowboy task of breaking wild horses to ride for ranch work. Said to be one of the original events when rodeo was reportedly born, in 1869, competitors are judged by how well the cowboy stays in control and in sync with the horse’s movements —naturally, if he gets bucked off during the eight-second ride, he’s disqualified.


Team roping tests contestants’ timing, judgment, and teamwork. A pair of riders try to quickly rope a running steer —first around the horns or neck, the second around the hind legs —with time penalties given for failing to properly complete the tasks. Dally ribbon roping is a similarly timed event: A roper on horseback attempts to lasso a calf and stop it, while his partner grabs the ribbon attached to the calf’s tail and hightails it back to the start point —fastest time wins.

Barrel Racing

Rodeo’s most graceful event, barrel racing shows off cowgirls’ agility and speed on a horse. Riders race around three barrels set in the arena in a cloverleaf pattern, as tight as they can without knocking a barrel over (which incurs a five-second penalty).

Bull Riding

The Snowmass Rodeo’s grand finale is the bull-riding contest, a crowd favorite for good reason. A seemingly straightforward goal, riding a twisting, bucking 2,000-pound bull without getting thrown for eight seconds is obviously dangerous and downright thrilling. It’s not uncommon for no cowboy to achieve this in an evening, let alone earn extra points.

Ride ’em, cowboy!