Vagneur: Along for a memorable rodeo ride
Headed north out of Denver on a well-traveled, four-lane highway, I was a cocksure college kid, driving a new, dark-green Pontiac convertible and traveling to a big rodeo in the ranching and farming town of Brighton. Clocking around 70 mph, I was surprised to see another convertible with two cowboy hats quickly closing the gap on me, and instead of trying to outrun him, I just held it steady in the right lane.
They whomped up on me fast and then backed off, keeping us even, taking time to ask where I was headed. “The rodeo, for Chrissakes, whadya think?” The guy on the passenger side smiled real big and reached out to me, his hand holding a fifth of Jack Daniel’s whiskey and said, “Yeah, I’m in the bull dogging tonight.” Having no thought of the danger involved, I got close enough to grab the jug and take a long pull before handing it back. To cement the deal, he did the same, kinda like smoking a peace pipe between strangers on the plains, only we used alcohol instead. We passed the bottle one more time and they roared off, obviously in a hurry. Say what you want; he won the steer wrestling that night.
My first formal rodeo experience occurred at the long-gone rodeo arena out where the Pomegranate Inn used to be, just west of the Maroon Creek Bridge. They had a special going on steer riding for kids — at least those kids who could get a parent to sign off on the adventure. I was maybe 9 or 10 and, as usual, was following some older boys around the grounds, all of us wishing we were rodeo heroes. The rules said you had to be 12 or older to participate. Anyway, I kind of snuck up on my mother, handing her the form while she was engaged in conversation and got the needed signature before she had a chance to fully read the liability release.
In later years, my mother became notorious for running down the gridiron sidelines, enthusiastically following me whenever I’d make a long run from scrimmage. But on the day in question at the rodeo, my mother could be heard running toward the bucking chutes, just as I was tightening the bull rope, yelling for me to stop. The man pulling the rope, a man who understood life better than I at the time, gave me a look of “What do you want to do?” and I replied, “Let’s go.”
Some things seem better than life when they happen, and that steer ride was one of them. He bucked like a world-champion bull, or so I thought, right down the center of the arena and I thought my arm might give out, but I managed to keep my seat, wondering how I was going to get off such a snaky beast. The fence at the arena’s end was getting dangerously close, and being a smart kid, I knew what I had to do. The steer turned right at the last moment and I bailed into the fence, grabbing the top rail with both arms. Beautiful dismount, I thought, and still do today, although it took a while for the bruises and abrasions to heal.
An experience like that leaves you walking on air, and I knew somewhere deep inside that I had “champion” written all over me. However, my dad’s less-than-enthusiastic response to the whole affair was very distressing. “We have enough broncs to ride around the ranch; you don’t need to go looking for trouble. There’s no future in that.” Well, sure as hell he might have been right, especially when talking to a 9- or 10-year-old kid, I reckon, but that line of reasoning didn’t sit well with me.
It just never worked out. I rodeoed on the eastern slope one summer while going to college, riding bareback broncs in small towns such as Peyton, Palmer Lake and Brighton, but it wasn’t enough even to qualify as practice. Riding bulls was fun, but just not my cup of tea, and besides, not all of those small rodeos had bull riding.
I come from a family of well-known team and calf ropers, but being left-handed, I faced an uphill battle fitting into a right-handed world. I got a lot of advice, mostly to give it up, and there weren’t any other lefties around, so I finally lost interest. Ropes for off-handed people are braided the opposite direction of the ones for “righties,” a “secret” I didn’t learn until it no longer made a difference.
My biggest accomplishment around these parts was getting second or third in the bareback competition at the W/J Rodeo one summer. Not a championship ride, but one I’ll always remember.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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From behind the scenes, the sights and sounds of horse and cattle, and the raucous lifestyle of rodeo culture hasn’t changed all that much since the Snowmass Rodeo arena opened here in the summer of 1973.