Snowmass Rodeo volunteers keeping western heritage alive

Jill Beathard
Snowmass Sun
Kids from all over participate in mutton bustin' at Wednesday night Snowmass rodeos.
Jeremy Wallace/Snowmass Sun |

For John Canning, volunteering at the Snowmass Rodeo was the natural thing to do.

Born on a ranch in southwestern New Mexico, the 65-year-old remembers being fascinated by the sport as a child.

“We lived on this huge ranch,” Canning said. “It was 400,000-something acres, 90 miles of dirt road to the ranch house. No phone; no TV; we got mail once a week. The only time we got to go to town was in the summer because all the little communities in that part of the state had a summer rodeo.”

A large-animal veterinarian, Canning never actually tried the sport himself until after moving his family to Colorado in the late ’80s. Living in the Vail Valley, Canning thought it would be fun to ride with his son, and the two learned how to team-rope, and they competed at events including the Snowmass Rodeo.

Later, he and a friend helped start an event in that valley that has evolved into the Beaver Creek Rodeo. So when he was approached about serving on the board of the Snowmass Rodeo in 2003, two years after he relocated to outside Carbondale, it was a no-brainer for Canning.

“It was just iconic, it had been around so long,” Canning said. “I didn’t bat an eye. … The fact I’ve got a little bit of experience putting one on, I said, ‘let’s go for it.’”

That year was when Snyder, Pyle and others were forming the nonprofit Snowmass Western Heritage Association to help raise funds and keep the rodeo financially stable enough to exist in the future.

“With some luck, this rodeo will be here for our grandkids,” Canning said. “That’s the plan.”

Canning, who is now the association’s board president, will receive the Volunteer of the Year Award at the July 1 rodeo. Each board member has a job at the rodeo, and this week, Canning said you can find him in the contestant parking lot. It takes about 15 to 20 volunteers to pull off a rodeo each week, said Executive Director Darce Vold.

“It’s really a hands-on job,” Canning said.

However, Canning sees the primary role of the board to be ensuring the financial future of the rodeo.

“The primary purpose of the rodeo as I see it, and the whole Snowmass Western Heritage Association, is just to provide the continuity so that the rodeo will always be there for the valley and preserve the valley’s western heritage,” Canning said. “That’s really the focus in my opinion of the board, is to make sure this rodeo happens and build a community relationship.”

Community relations can be tough when some members of the public see rodeo as cruel to animals. While activism has helped clean up the sport, Canning said, the veterinarian added that animal welfare is very important to him.

“They’re not going to suffer under my watch, I can assure you,” Canning said. “It’s a perception issue, and we’ve got to address the concerns of those who don’t approve of the sport.”

Rodeo is unique in the camaraderie it fosters, Canning said.

“It’s a very competitive sport, but very seldom do you find the competitors supporting each other like you witness in rodeo,” Canning said.

Canning says one of his biggest accomplishments as a board member was creating a sustaining fund for the rodeo, with the goal that one day the event can operate just off of interest from that account. Only in its second year, the fund currently has $75,000 in it, he said.

The other thing he’s most proud of is inviting the Rev. Robert de Wetter, the Snowmass Chapel’s pastor and a Western Heritage Association member himself, to write a prayer that is now recited at the start of every rodeo.

“My heart says that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done for a rodeo, is put prayer back in the Snowmass Rodeo,” Canning said. “It means a lot to me.”


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