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Gustafson: Saddle up, ghost riders

Snowmass Rodeo is a timeless western tradition

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

When the dust settles in the rodeo arena and the breathless cowboy clambers to his feet, wiping the crimson sweat from his brow, it’s like watching a part of our living history here in Snowmass Village. As he slaps his hat clean against his thigh, squinting from the rays of the setting sun, he pulls that hat back down as he hurls himself out of sight, leaving behind only the ting of his spurs against the rails. And then he is gone, like the stories of yesteryear that he personifies.

The hustle and bustle of the modern day spectator-filled arena resume with the return of the Snowmass Rodeo. Each Wednesday evening, the wild spirits of the past will still rise up and ride like the ghosts of a bygone western world. And the pulse of the past continues to beat in the hearts of the men and women who saddle up each week for our small town rodeo.

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.



Aspen was born in the age of mining, while Snowmass Village has the raw roots of a ranching community. And the allure of the rodeo is not just for today’s tourists.

As a teenager, I found myself drawn to the seemingly unrestrained cowboy mystique. The family of a good friend of mine ran Snowmass Stables, and before Rodeo Place, or even Horse Ranch and the Crossings were built, we used to run free and ride around those hills. My friend and his buddies would compete in the rodeo during the summers, and we often snuck in to sit under the contestant bleachers, dodging the raining droplets of chewing tobacco and listening to stories that were not meant for our young ears.



When the competition ended and the horses were untacked and fed, the gear wiped clean and oiled, the last spectators cleared out, the gritty showmen would sidle up to the bar. If I was lucky I could linger a little beyond my curfew, just long enough to watch the Snowmass Stable hands and wranglers begin to cut cards before I had to head for home, stepping back into the present day.

It’s easy to get caught up in the criticism of the old cowboy world, what it took to “pioneer” a frontier that wasn’t in actuality unoccupied, and the negative connotations associated with a hyper-masculine culture.

But if you get out and learn about the current culture, you’ll discover that at the gut level, there is a truth in the saying that one of those grizzled old cowboys once whispered to us. He would say something to the effect of, “Horses require both great strength and a gentle hand to tame. And so too is filled the cowboy’s heart.”

From the cowboys and cowgirls I have met over the years who live the rodeo life, that lifestyle isn’t about turning away from modern technology, refusing to have an open mind, or intentionally staying unchanged by time. Nor are they just putting on a show for the tourists. For them, it’s a hardcore western lifestyle that is just inherited. It is still a culture of determination, infused with a passion for adventure; they simply eat, sleep and breathe rodeo, reveling in every mud stain and bruise picked up in the arena.

Unlike most of today’s spectator sports, rodeo still has life and death consequences seeped into every moment out in that arena. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal for the spectators, and perhaps it’s the reason for some of the true cowboy’s disregard of a crowd that may not be capable of appreciating what they are experiencing.

And though most rodeo cowboys embrace the modern world, it still seems there is a part of them that lives to maintain the wild western traditions and lifestyles of their parents and grandparents, perhaps much like those who at one time pastured this valley.

Today’s cowboy still embodies some of the mystique of our ranching era. They move around, restless and unsettled, searching for a place to tame, wild at heart and frozen in time, like ghosts of the past. And when they rise up and take over the arena Wednesday nights, we are all graced by the past that is resurrected. And when the arena lights go down and the horses are led back to pasture, the cowboy vanishes into the night.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.


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