The cowboy is pacing.
Behind the chutes at one of Cheyenne Frontier Days (CFD) nine rodeo performances, this cowboy-athlete is about to get on the bare back of a thousand pound bucking horse. He paces, he stretches, he checks and re-checks the belts and buckles on his mount. Then he prays.
For one moment, he stops, removes his hat and bows his head. He’s about to do something that may seriously injure or even kill him. He wants to make sure he’s right with God.
His private moment is over in seconds.
He climbs aboard the hellion of horseflesh and the fun begins – bucking, twirling, hopping, twisting. The horse, bred for bucking and prompted by a fleece-lined strap around his belly, does everything in his power to put the rider in the dirt. The cowboy, one gloved hand firmly grasping the handle on the rigging, the other waving in the air, uses his legs and spurs to keep his balance and urges the animal to buck even harder. As the horse responds, his ass and back legs kicking high into the air, the cowboy’s neck snaps back and forth like a bobblehead doll and he lays far back on the animal’s body, looking for all the world like he’s going to nap for the required nine seconds.
Then, suddenly, it’s all over. The buzzer sounds and white-shirted riders on horseback come to his rescue, one plucking him off this bucking monster’s back, the other leaning over to loosen the bucking strap to calm the horse.
The crowd claps and roars its approval when the MC announces the cowboy’s ride has earned him the top spot for the day in this, one of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s(PRCA’s) largest, if not the largest, outdoor rodeo and Western festival in the world.
Welcome to Cheyenne Frontier Days, a two-week Western extravaganza, dubbed the “Daddy of “em all,” that makes everyone, at least for a brief time, release their inner cowboy or cowgirl. Every year, more than 250,000 visitors don cowboy hats, boots, jeans and big belt buckles to attend this mega-Western event. If you think this is just another rodeo, think again. This Western celebration includes four parades, a carnival, exhibits, an art show, an Indian Village, a Western shopping center, chili and chuck wagon cook-off’s, multi-day professional rodeo performances, nightly concerts featuring the best Western artists, pancake breakfasts where 100,000 pancakes are served, military open houses and the U.S. Air Force’s Blue Angels Air Demonstration, and a museum with one of the best collections of wagons and carriages in the world.
Stars, Old Wagons, and Rodeo Queens
I’m standing in the Old Western Museum at the 100-acre CFD Park. The museum celebrates Western lifestyle and the 116-year history of Cheyenne Frontier Days. This museum is open year-round, but it’s during Frontier Days that it really hums with activity, including a large and well-attended Western Art Museum and Sale.
Some of the most interesting exhibits focus on rodeo stars and other luminaries from past CFDs who have been inducted into the Frontier Days Hall of Fame. Another highlight is their collection of horse-drawn vehicles, one of the largest in the United States. Among the 150 vehicles are stage coaches, early ice and milk wagons, and even rare Drop Front Phaetons.
Suddenly, there’s a buzz of activity as a large group of school children gather around pretty young cowgirls in sparkly, color-coordinated outfits and cowgirl hats, many with tiaras on the crowns. This is rodeo royalty — Miss Frontier Days, Miss Rodeo Colorado, Miss Rodeo Virginia, Miss Rodeo Nevada, Miss Rodeo America. There’s even a rodeo queen all the way from Australia. These girls, selected to represent and promote professional rodeos in their regions, states, or countries, are having their photos taken with some underprivileged school kids who are enjoying a complimentary day at Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Looking more like Hollywood (or perhaps Bollywood) starlets with all the make-up, teased hair, and rhinestones, their appearance belies their horsemanship. Each of these young women is a real cowgirl in her own right. In fact, many of them compete in barrel racing, the only women’s competitive event sanctioned by the PCRA, and, in their everyday world, many live rough and tumble Western ranch lives.
They’re also accustomed to plenty of media attention. These rodeo queens smile on cue for the camera and are poised when interviewed for TV or radio. When I point my camera into a crowd of queens, Miss Rodeo Australia notices me and instantly flashes a mega-watt smile.
Native Americans and Western Goods
Indian Village, greenspace and retail shops that celebrate Native American influence in Western life, is on the other side of the Park. Today, Jasmine Pickner-Bell, a Crow Creek Sioux hoop dancer, is rhythmically moving to the beat of drums by the Little Sun Drum and Dance Group of South Dakota. Native peoples have long played a role at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Tribal members were first invited to perform in 1898 at the second CFD celebration and they’ve been coming ever since. As the music speeds up, Jasmine twirls and hops, all the while using her hands, feet, legs, and arms to spin and manipulate two hoops, then four, six, eight, and more until she has created a huge hoop sculpture that soars above her head. The plastic hoops, which represent the circle of life, are used by hoop dancers to tell stores and create shapes like wings, tails, and spheres.
The drums beat faster and faster and Jasmine spins the hoops, circling her body round and round, the colorful hoops radiating out, constantly moving, changing, expanding and retreating. When the drums abruptly stop, Jasmine is encircled by a massive hoop figurine and the audience bursts into applause.
Later, Jasmine holds a workshop for people who want to learn the basics of hoop dancing. A half dozen young children and two adults sit on the grass in front of her. Everyone else, me included, is too shy to take on this challenging dance form.
Just a short distance from Indian Village, I stroll down Wild Horse Gulch, a series of small, Western-style shops selling everything from kettle corn and cowboy boots to Western signs and knickknacks for the home. Re-enactors dressed in early Western garb engage visitors in lively banter. A couple of the characters stage a mock gunfight, with the sheriff and his deputy stepping in to arrest the gunmen. I stop long enough at a shop selling iron goods to buy a couple of horseshoe coat hooks for gifts.
Hot Temperatures, Hot Performances
The temperature is heating up by the time I get back to the rodeo area. Earlier this morning, I joined the crowd for “Behind the Chutes,” a 40-minute guided tour of the rodeo arena, the stockyards, and the chutes where cowboys mount their bucking bulls or horses. Walking onto the massive arena and looking up at the six grandstands gives me a sense of what it’s like for the cowboys and rodeo clowns who perform in this venue. This arena is so large, in fact, that they give roping calves an extra 30 foot head start before the cowboys ride them down. The steers in standard rodeos tend to average 450 lbs; at Frontier Days, they’re 650 lbs. This is, after all, the big one, the rodeo all pro cowboys covet.
Tonight, this dirt covered arena will be topped with special flooring and massive stages and sound equipment will be brought in. Nearly every night, the venue hosts top-drawer Western music acts like Reba, Merle Haggard, Journey, and Hank Williams Jr. But today, it’s all about rodeo.
The side of the arena where I’m seated is shady, a good thing because the temperature has soared into the high 90s. Only part of the grandstand on the opposite side is in the shade. The folks who sit in the unshaded portion right above the chute area are kept cool by an intricate system of misters that cascade fine sprays of cool water on them. In the chutes themselves, there’s no such relief. The cowboys and volunteers who help them mount up work in the blazing sun with only their long sleeved Western shirts and broad-brimmed hats to protect them.
A giant bull named Ain’t No Tomorrow explodes from the chute. He’s black and massive, his muscles rippling and snot flinging from his broad nose. The average weight of rodeo bulls is 1700 to 1800 lbs, but this guy weighs at least a ton. And he’s not happy. The cowboy who has drawn him looks puny on his broad back.
The bulls in professional rodeos aren’t run-of-the-mill pasture stock. They’re born and bred to buck and breeders look for the biggest and meanest of the mean. This bull bucks, rears, kicks, spins, and twists in an effort to throw the rider off, but the hardy cowboy sticks. Rodeo cowboys have a chance of earning a paycheck only if they can stay on the animal the prescribed length of time, which for bull riding is eight seconds. That may not seem like much, but atop the back of a raging bull like this one, it must feel like a slow motion lifetime. The rider must also only touch the bull with his riding hand; his other hand must remain free throughout the ride. He scores points not only by staying on, but also for maintaining control and rhythmically matching his movements with the bull’s.
Bull riding can be deadly dangerous. Back in 1989, professional bull rider Lane Frost died in this arena after a successful ride. He was on the ground and raised his hand to acknowledge the crowd’s approval when the bull gored him with his horn. Today, a huge statue of Lane riding this bull watches over the CFD grounds.
This bull spins in tight, quick circles, all the while bucking and tossing the cowboy like a rag doll. But the man hangs on. Finally, mercifully, the eight-second buzzer sounds and one of the pick-up cowboys slides next to the bull and the rider slips onto the horse to safety. It’s just one more cowboy who can say he’s successfully ridden at Cheyenne Frontier Days, surely the “Daddy of them all.”
Cheyenne Frontier Days in generally held in mid- to late July. Start planning now. – Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
Want to know more about Cheyenne, Wyoming? Check out our story, “Cheyenne, Wyoming: Birthplace of American Women’s Rights.”