Rough rides and rawhide |

Rough rides and rawhide

“I was off balance coming out of the shoot – then I fell off and got kicked in the head,” said Crystal Brown.

The fact that a steer had just thrown her into the dirt and kicked her in the skull didn’t seem to phase the 19-year-old Basalt High School grad. She was still excited about next week’s rodeo in Carbondale.

“I kinda started on a dare,” she explained, rubbing the back of her head. “The first time I did really good – I didn’t win, but I was hooked.”

Gary Broom from Silt knows exactly what she means. The retired bull and bareback bronco rider was watching the action up close at the Carbondale Rodeo arena last Friday night.

Back in his day, Broom broke vertebrae on two separate rides, once in his back and once in his neck. But the injuries never stopped him from tying himself to 2,000- or 3,000-pound bulls that have had their balls cinched up with a rope.

“You ride because of something inside,” he said. “You’ll never quite know how it feels until you come out of the chute on a horse or a bull.”

According to Broom, rodeo really is a contest of man and beast – and the bulls are just as determined to win as the cowboys: “Bulls enjoy the challenge, and they’ll change their tactics and moves in the middle of a ride to get the cowboy off.”

He finally quit the amateur circuit in the late 1980s because his wife and kids needed a breadwinner more than they needed a bull rider.

On the other hand, 26-year-old Johnny Rebel isn’t roped down by family obligations. Last Friday, the Grand Junction resident was nursing a sore back after his first ride, on a bull named Lone Wolf. The ride ended with a swift kick between Rebel’s shoulder blades, far short of the eight-second buzzer needed to score.

In fact, Lone Wolf had the advantage from the get-go. Rebel was under hoof and scrambling to get away a mere second or two after the ride started.

“He’s a good bull,” said Rebel, who plans to make a run at the professional rodeo circuit next season. “I just didn’t make it past that second jump.”

Just as it appeared Rebel would escape unscathed, Lone Wolf bucked and caught him in the upper back. Despite Rebel’s padded vest (all the other riders wore them, too), Lone Wolf’s hoofprint could be seen on his bare skin.

Even when they do make it past the second jump and the eight-second buzzer, cowboys like Rebel still face the challenge of dismounting.

“I just jump off and hope for the best,” he said.

Three a week in the Roaring Fork

Cattle ranching may have mostly disappeared from the Roaring Fork Valley. But the entertainment aspect of ranching life seems alive and well. This summer there are three rodeos a week in the Roaring Fork Valley, two in Snowmass Village and one in Carbondale.

Celebrating its 31st year this summer, the Snowmass Village Rodeo, held Wednesday and Saturday evenings at the town rodeo grounds, has become a longstanding tradition in the upper valley. The organizers of the Friday night Carbondale Rodeo are aiming to start a tradition as well, but they’ve still got something to prove, having just started this year.

So far, so good. Carbondale’s Friday night rodeo has consistently drawn between 300 and 600 people. The more established Snowmass Village Rodeo can bring in anywhere from 600 to 1,500 people.

Children in the audience, both in Carbondale and Snowmass, are invited each night to join in the calf scramble, judged by clown (riders call him the “bullfighter”) Jeff from Florida, and the mutton-busting contest.

In the calf scramble, four or five calves scurry around the dusty arena with ribbons tied around their tails. The kids (at Snowmass last Friday, there were at least 75 of them) chase the creatures around the enclosure, trying to yank a ribbon free. The winners all get prizes.

The mutton-busting contest is for younger kids brave enough to climb (or be lifted) onto the back of an unshorn sheep and hold on for dear life (they all wear flak jackets and helmets). The longest ride wins. Sometimes the winning ride lasts five seconds, and other times it’s 15 to 20, a feat achieved by a young girl in Carbondale last Friday.

All three rodeos are produced by the Rimrock Rodeo Co., based in Fruita and owned by Roger Frahm. Frahm has been in the rodeo business since 1992, when he started producing community rodeos in Fruita.

For the last two years, Frahm has tried to round up a rodeo in Glenwood Springs, which with its Wild West history and longstanding role as a commerce center would seem like a natural fit. It’s proven, however, to be anything but.

“We’ve been working on Glenwood Springs for two years now, trying to get it started, but people just don’t go,” Frahm said. ” They don’t know they have a rodeo arena, because it’s so out of the way.”

So this year, after a few weeks of sparse attendance, Frahm and the organizers canceled the rest of the season. Fortunately, things couldn’t be more different in Carbondale and Snowmass Village.

As the producer, Frahm is responsible for hiring vendors to sell food and souvenirs, supplying the announcers, the clown/bullfighter (Jeff from Florida), all the stock (bulls, horses for bronco busting, calves for roping and chasing, and sheep for busting) and a couple of pickup men, who are ready after a ride to help the cowboy off of the animal.

About the only things Frahm doesn’t bring are the cowboys, cowgirls, rodeo arena and a few of the horses. And the audience.

The Snowmass Rodeo has long been one of the upper valley’s favorite tourist attractions, with white tents, picnic tables and an open barbecue, but the Carbondale Rodeo is gaining a reputation as a cowboy’s event, with more locals than visitors in the stands.

The difference can be seen at the gate. At Snowmass, a ticket goes for $16 (locals can get in for $8), while at Carbondale the price of admission is just $6 a head or $18 a truckful, no matter where you’re from.

At Snowmass, there’s an open barbecue buffet – all you can eat for $16.95 – run by the Rafter 4L Trading Co., owned by Rod and Fonda LoBach of Fruita. The LoBachs also run a burger shack a little closer to the grandstands.

There’s a plastic steer’s head atop a hay bale and a stack of ready-to-throw lassos that kids and grownups use to try their hand at roping. Or, they might show off by performing a rope trick or two – if, like 12-year-old Dillon Anderson of Tucson, they’re experienced hands. Anderson said his clan runs about 15 head of cattle on a five-acre spread.

A few Wednesdays ago, Anderson could be seen by himself, performing a trick called the “wedding ring” by holding the end of the rope high above his head and circling his wrist and elbow so the loop twirled around his knees.

Downvalley, across the Garfield County line, it’s a little different.

“Carbondale is your community rodeo. Most of the people we have there are local,” Frahm said.

In Carbondale, working cattle ranches are visible from the grandstands. The blue burger shack (a trailer that the LoBachs drive between rodeos in Fruita, Carbondale and Snowmass Village each week) is the only food choice. And the seating consists of a few bleachers on one side of the arena, leaving plenty of room for other spectators to back their pickups to the fence and view the show from the truck bed with a handful of friends and a cooler of beer.

“This is the way rodeo oughta be – people sittin’ around drinkin’ beer and havin’ a good time with their friends,” said J.P. Eagleton of Golden, who drove up to Carbondale two Fridays ago because he’d heard it was a pretty good rodeo.

The original `extreme’

Long before the word “extreme” was attached to the word “skiing,” and long before the first mountain bike, surfboard, skateboard or any other “extreme” equipment had been devised, ranchers and their hands were strapping themselves to angry bulls and untamed horses, just for fun. Rodeo might just have been America’s first extreme sport.

Until recently, ranching was a big part of Aspen’s economy, and rodeos were one way locals kept themselves entertained.

The power of the ranching culture became especially clear to Aspen’s new, post-World War II elite in 1953, when cultural patriarch Walter Paepcke and the classical musicians he brought to town were stampeded by local rodeo afficionados. Paepcke objected to The Aspen Silver Stampede on the Christiansen Ranch next to Maroon Creek because it conflicted with a classical music program at The Aspen Institute’s West End campus.

According to the Aug. 6, 1953, edition of The Aspen Times: “Mr. Paepcke said that the one rodeo would not be so bad but that if we as a community supported this event and others were sure to follow that it would be a slow nibbling away of the force and effect of the Institute’s music program. He said that Aspen would have to decide what was most important and stick to it 100 percent as a community.”

In 1953, Aspenites were more interested in bull riding than bass playing, and the Chicago industrialist quickly threw in his hat with the rodeo organizer, Aspen Saddle and Bridle Club.

Beginning in the 1960s, the W/J Ranch on the west end of McLain Flats began staging rodeos on a regular basis, and by the early 1970s the ranch had one of the Western Slope’s premier rodeo arenas. In 1971, for instance, a W/J rodeo in early August drew more than 4,000 people, and in September of that same year, the ranch hosted the Western Slope Rodeo Association championships.

The arena that is now home to the Carbondale Rodeo was also built in the early 1960s. Longtime local rancher Ernie Gianinetti said Carbondale’s arena was once located where the elementary school now sits. Once the school district announced its plans to build a school, the ranchers, who comprised a good percentage of the lower valley’s population, began looking for a new arena location.

“Between the 4-H Club and the roping club, we convinced the school of the need for these programs and they bought out our lease. That gave us the money to buy the arena,” Gianinetti said.

Through the early 1990s, the arena on County Road 100 was owned by a loose association of users, Gianinetti said. In 1991, they gave it to the town. That made the arena’s survival more likely, but it was mostly neglected for the next few years.

A few years ago, Carbondale’s town trustees finally agreed to make some upgrades, and last year they hired Frahm and his Rimrock Rodeo Co. to capitalize on their investment.

“I’m pleased to see that the town is putting some money into it,” said Susie Darrow, probably the only Carbondale town trustee who actually uses the arena to train horses.

In Snowmass Village, the rodeo grounds were built in 1972 and a valley tradition began in earnest. But at the time, with the W/J Rodeo at its peak, the Snowmass rodeo didn’t even merit a mention in The Aspen Times.

“It didn’t become a full-fledged rodeo until 1973, when they added the chutes,” said Twirp Anderson, a 37-year resident of the valley who spent most of the last 30 years either riding in or calling the rodeo at Snowmass Village. During the early 1970s, Anderson would trade his announcing for his saddle bronc entrance fees.

Over the years, as Aspen came to value bass players more than bull riders, rodeo began to fade in the upper valley, becoming more of a tourist attraction than a community event.

Even so, Snowmass Village remained an important stop on the amateur rodeo circuit in Western Colorado. Like the rodeos in Carbondale and Fruita, the Snowmass Village event gives young riders a chance to practice for the professional circuit, and gives anyone else a chance to try out the original extreme sport. The oldest bull rider on the local circuit this year is Jim Rickert, a 42-year-old engineer at Snowmass Ski area.

Anderson, a local music and rodeo icon, gave up calling the rodeo after last season, when the town of Snowmass Village awarded the rodeo contract to Frahm’s Rimrock Rodeo Co.

“I’m not broken up or disappointed about not being out there,” Anderson said. “I enjoyed it while I did it; it paid me well. No prejudice against Rimrock; I hope they succeed.”

Frahm said he’d love to have Anderson back as a guest announcer.

Despite Anderson’s departure from the Snowmass Village Rodeo, many others are still coming around to compete in and watch the Roaring Fork Valley rodeos.

Snowmass Village and Carbondale generally attract the same cowboys and cowgirls for events like bull riding, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, team roping and barrel racing.

One 20-something cowboy, Shane Brown, was hanging out and shootin’ the bull with Rebel last Friday in Carbondale instead of riding a bull. He’d been sidelined by a rough ride in Snowmass a few nights before and had to let his back heal.

But he’ll be back. And judging by attendance numbers, so will the spectators.

The recent dip in tourism has made it harder to make a living as a rodeo producer, Frahm says. But like Anderson and Johnny Rebel and Crystal Brown (the 19-year-old bull rider with the headache), Frahm thinks the work is worth it.

“There’s a lot of people like myself who are working their tails off to keep the heritage alive,” he said.

Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is

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