What did you do last weekend? If your plans didn’t include the National Western Stock Show, well, you missed out. Not familiar with it? Well, this annual event that rides into Denver every January just so happens to be one of the world’s most important livestock, rodeo, and agriculture extravaganzas. While you may know a thing or two about bull riding (if not solely because of the gimmicky bars your "woo girl" college friends insist on frequenting for every bachelorette party), if you’re anything like us, you may have forgotten that cowboy culture is as integral to Colorado’s DNA as the Rockies. Just take a look around Denver; doesn’t it feel like roughly 90% of the city’s iconography is bucking bronco related? OK, so whether it was the feelings of Denver pride or the romantic notion that cowboys do still exist, we decided to finally check out the National Western Stock Show for ourselves. And guess what? As of January 21st, we’re HOOKED on the pro rodeo circuit (as well as on a few of the men in it, if we’re being honest). For the uninitiated out there, here’s a breakdown of what we learned over the last weekend about the seven events in the pro rodeo championship. We may be less than a week removed, but by God: we may be rodeo lifers now. Only 360 days until NWSS ‘19!
Again, bull riding and the rodeo may go hand-in-hand for some, but it turns out that there’s A LOT more to the sport than potentially being ragdolled by an angry slab of good beef. With steer wrestling, the cowboy’s job is to basically wrestle the steer down to the ground as soon as they both leave the gate. That said, the hopeless steer is given a tiny lead…only to immediately be flanked by two grizzled men riding atop massive horses. So, the steer runs for its life for literally three seconds before one of the cowboys MacGyvers off his horse to grab the steer by its horns. Then, he wrestles the steer to the ground, at which point, the steer assumes the worst and buckles—only to find out that it was all an elaborate game of proverbial cat and mouse. The cowboy jumps up, and the steer shamefully trots away. It’s riveting, but it also feels a bit survivalist. This year, the world champ Tyler Pearson took home the much-deserved win.
Taking a different tone entirely, barrel racing is a game of delicate precision. It’s the only event that seems to be dominated by female competitors (Christine Laughlin won this year’s competition), and is kind of…well, exactly what it sounds like. The rider and her horse bolt out of the gate, and circle three barrels placed around the arena as fast as they can. Where the other events seem to be more about the cowboy, this one is all about the relationship between the rider and the horse. It’s quite beautiful really, hearing the way these competitors talk about their loyal steeds. Here’s a video of this year’s winner talking about her horse Six Pack (and yes, you heard correctly: one of her other horses is named Bud Light. Rodeos are the best.)
Saddle Bronc Riding
This one’s a classic that you might already be familiar with. A cowboy holds one hand high, while the other fiercely holds onto a piece of rope for dear life as the bronco tries with all its might to buck the pesky dude off its back. Evidently, saddle bronc riding used to be something cowboys would use to chill out wild, undisciplined horses. Because of this, there’s a lot of technical skill involved, much of which requires the cowboy to become completely in sync with the animal. It may sound violent, but it’s also beautiful and quite impressive to see someone who has mastered the song and dance. This year’s winner was Zeke Thurston, a baby-faced Canadian we *hope* will not have his boyish complexion kicked in any day soon.
Let’s just get this one out of the way. We’ve all seen bull riding simulators (which are weird, right? Can we all agree on that?), but real-life bulls are straight up terrifying. It may not be obvious on the surface, seeing as broncos seem to actually buck a lot harder, but the mere fact that bull riders sprint to safety almost immediately after they’re bucked off—with rodeo clowns intercepting and distracting the bull so they can do so—says a lot about the degree to which these bulls can ruin you. While we certainly get why this is cool, we also can’t really shake the idea that this is a sport for sadists. These people ride these angry animals for less than 10 seconds, only to get thrown to the ground (where we normal folk would probably lay for a moment to contemplate our very existence), and then have to immediately sprint away so as to not get impaled. Either way, Chase Dougherty won this year, and all we can think about is how stoked those who don’t know he’s a world champ must be when they see him riding a mechanical bull.
Team roping is straight up black magic. This event is the only “team” sport in the mix—and the concept of teamwork is integral to the whole event. Similar to steer wrestling, two cowboys leave the gate flanking a poor, helpless steer. Each cowboy then simultaneously guides his horse and readies a lasso. First, the header throws his lasso, snagging the steer by its horns. Then, by some insane divinity, the second cowboy manages to lasso the steer’s back legs, bringing him to the ground. Mind you, people pay pretty good money just to learn how to make a horse walk in the direction they want him to, and here are these guys riding a horse while also throwing a rope in a way that traps the feet and the head of a living, running animal. It’s the work of the devil, so if you ever cross paths with a pair of team ropers like this year’s champs, Aaron Tsinigine and Kyle Lockett, you best keep on moving.
Tie-down roping has the same survivalist vibe as steer wrestling, but also requires a bit of the dexterity and freakish lasso aim that team roping employs. Here, the cowboy chases a calf out of the gate, and readies his lasso. As soon as he has lassoed the calf, he hops off his horse, and sprints toward the calf, wrestling him to the ground. As if the calf is going to go anywhere after being John Cena’d just a moment before, the cowboy then ties up its legs. And all of this somehow happens in about seven seconds. This year, Shane Hanchey took home the goods, and the calf, as always, was the ultimately loser.
Finally, there’s bareback riding. Not only is this event the perfect culmination of both classic saddle bronc riding and the always terrifying bull riding, but this year’s winner, Caleb Bennett, also happens to be a total dreamboat. Basically, the cowboy puts his hand in a leather holster designed to keep it in there despite any effort otherwise, and then proceeds to sacrifice every ounce of free will as the bronco he’s riding tries its best to buck him off its back. It’s no wonder then that when you search “Caleb Bennett” on YouTube (have we mentioned how good looking this guy is?), you’ll find plenty of videos where he discusses his insane drive to succeed, as well as his LeBron James-esque workout routine. It’s a good thing because otherwise, that hunk of a man would be…well, a literal hunk of man.