Thrill of a Lifetime |

Thrill of a Lifetime

by Erica Robbie photos by Anna Stonehouse
Garrett Buckley after winning the saddle bronco competition at the first summer Snowmass Rodeo on June 14, 2017.
  IF YOU GO... What:  Snowmass Rodeo When: Wednesdays, June 13 to August 22. Gates opens at 5 p.m. Show starts at 7 p.m. Where:  Rodeo grounds at Snowmass Village Cost:  $15 to $25; free or children 10 and younger For more information, visit

What entices one to straddle an aggressive, 2,000-plus pound animal whose sole goal is to buck off riders by any means necessary?

Local bullrider Christian De La Cruz learned the moment he sat on a bull for the first time.

“It was the craziest adrenaline rush I ever felt in my life, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” the 24-year-old De La Cruz said. “There’s no feeling like it.”

Longtime Snowmass Rodeo stock contractor Darce Vold — who also serves as executive director of Snowmass Western Heritage Association, which produces the 45-year-old rodeo each week — echoed that sentiment.

“The life of the cowboy is a dream to many. There is a freedom that the Western way of life provides. Our rodeo contestants at Snowmass live that dream,” Vold says. “The contestants enter the arena from many walks of life, but at the end of the day, it is about the adrenaline rush in anticipation of your turn and the love of the game.”

De La Cruz can attest — he has been hooked on the sport and the fires
it has created inside him since that first taste at the Snowmass Rodeo four summers ago.

“It’s hard to describe it,” De La Cruz says.

He settles on the word “addicting.”

Born along the Pacific coast in Guerrero, Mexico, De La Cruz guesses he was about 6 when his grandfather brought him to his first rodeo.

The family relocated from Mexico to the Roaring Fork Valley when De La Cruz was still young and his father worked as a caretaker for real estate agent Carol Dopkin’s Aspen ranch, where De La Cruz grew up.

After years of watching the local rodeos and partaking in the mutton bustin’ event, De La Cruz decided around 15 that he wanted to get more involved.

His parents, however, vetoed the idea for “obvious” reasons, he admits, and preferred that he stick with “other sports that didn’t involve playing with bulls.”

And why bull riding, of all the events at the rodeo?

“I was always very drawn to it,” De La Cruz says. “Call me crazy, but it just looked like the most fun one.”

Several years later — in his 20s and on his own terms — De La Cruz signed up to ride a bull on a whim at the Snowmass Rodeo.

“I’m not quite sure what clicked,” he recalls, “but I just remember being at the rodeo and being like ‘you know, I think I’m going to finally do this.’ ”

With no practice or gear of his own, De La Cruz found himself in the shoots sitting atop Smoke Wagon, who just so happened to be one of the largest bulls at the Snowmass Rodeo.

De La Cruz chalks his first experience up to a second-long rush of pure adrenaline.

Though he was terrified to ride Smoke Wagon — who to this day remains one of the larger bulls he’s ridden — he tried to remain as calm as possible.

“Animals can sense everything that you’re feeling,” he explains, “and if they sense that you’re scared, they will use that to their advantage.”

A true adrenaline junkie, De La Cruz says his biggest fear isn’t getting hurt or being in pain, but rather injuring himself to the point that he can no longer ride.

“I think that’s most of the cowboys’ fears, really,” he says. “They really enjoy what they do and to get hurt so bad that they can’t do it anymore is devastating.”

And in a sport where the name of the game is to hold onto a bucking bull for eight seconds, which can seem like a lifetime, injuries are inevitable.

After being hurled off a bull, De La Cruz says, there is a chance of then getting stepped on by the animal.

“You can’t play this sport without getting injured,” he adds. “It’s going to happen at some point.”

A lesser-known fact about bull riding is the level of technique involved.

“It’s more than just holding on for dear life. It’s very technique-oriented. You wouldn’t think so, but it is,” he explains. “It’s really a full-body thing, not targeting one specific area. There are specific moves you want to make when a bull bucks specific ways, which took me awhile to figure out.”

An athlete growing up, De La Cruz says bull riding remains the most challenging sport he’s pursued.

After three summers, he thinks he is just beginning to get the hang of it.

“Hands down to the other guys out there for making it look super easy, because it’s not. It’s not easy at all,” De La Cruz says. “And that’s the reason I’m still doing it, because I want to be good at this sport.”