In Wyoming, you’re never far away from the real frontier. Jackson Hole is no exception, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Jackson Hole Rodeo. It's been running since 1890, when the Wilson family crossed Teton Pass to settle on our side of the mountains. Eventually, the annual, summer-long rodeo moved from Wilson, Wyoming, to its current digs near downtown Jackson.
Growing up, the floodlights and distant sound of applause on certain nights were hallmarks of the summertime. On this particular August evening, I got to experience the local rodeo from an entirely new angle—behind the scenes. What did I find? Even for a local, the Jackson Hole Rodeo represents a glimpse into a rich, familial heritage where teamwork and tradition are honored, every rider loves the ride and the chance to dazzle the audience in a brief moment of glory is grasped, every time.
What most surprises me from my backstage vantage point near the “chutes” (a.k.a. the barricades that funnel bulls and broncos towards the front of the arena) is the air of ritual solemnity. Yet, as they prepare for events that include bareback bronc riding, bull riding, calf roping and team roping, the riders of the Jackson Hole Rodeo are full of warmth, joking around with old friends while they get to the business of donning chaps and boots.
These cowboys are also very young. Having only glimpsed them from further up in the stands, it’s hard to reconcile those backbones of quivering steel with this uniformly polite bunch—down to the routinely observed hat tipping and “ma’aming.” This is when I notice the spirit of camaraderie in full effect, interspersed with quiet moments of introspection. There’s some posturing and tough talk, sure, but also the loving brush of saddles, which are then laid out ceremonially alongside the well-used and scuffed regalia of chaps, boots, laces.
I watch one contestant kneel to untie his more quotidian tennis shoes. He pulls and pins up his boots; fastens chaps and belt buckle: a bronc rider is born. Still, the same competitor sneaks a quick peak at his cellphone before stashing it away. Looking down at my own sandaled feet on the dusty, cracked boards, I reflect that I should have worn better shoes myself.
The crowd begins to filter slowly into the stands. Meanwhile, I’m aware of a whole multi-generational backstage staff of ropers and handlers, there to guide livestock through the chutes, open the all-important gates and help the riders on and off their bucking, snorting rides.
The Jackson Hole Rodeo has a wide-reaching support crew and it’s all cowboy hats, all the time.
As showtime draws closer, many of the riders mime what will soon take place in the arena, positioning themselves on their saddles and stretching their torsos and arms in the arm-outstreteched-torso-thrown-back-hand-gripping-the-reins-for-dear-life pose of the iconic bucking rider.
From the “Crow’s Nest,” perched above the chutes and facing the stands, the loudspeaker crackles as the announcers commence opening ceremonies with a salute to “America’s original sport,” and ask the crowd to join them in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Patriotism and pageantry run deep here: Hats are removed and held to the chest. Silent prayers are mouthed. This show is about to get big.
As the affable announcers work the crowd, they announce the first contestant: one of “Wyoming’s finest!” hailing from Pinedale, Wyoming. And we’re off—this time for real with a bunking bronco kicking up huge clods of dirt, a froth of dust caught like a stop-time smudge; the rider thrown up and down yet miraculously still hunkered on.
This event—bareback bronc riding—has some pretty demanding restrictions and requires a great deal of skill and control. Rules dictate that the cowboy ride one-handed and not hold onto anything with his free hand. Another requirement: The rider must lean back far enough to point his spurs above the point of the bronc’s shoulders. Only a ride where he can stay seated and exhibit proper technique for at least 8 seconds is scored by the judges. The highest possible score is 100 and takes into account the rider’s control and spurring, while the horse itself is evaluated for power, speed and agility.
Two of these champion bareback riders are neck and neck in the rankings: One is Orrin Sparkman, a fresh-faced ranch hand and rising star originally hailing from Texas. He found his way to the Jackson Hole Rodeo floodlights through the ranching life six years ago and hasn’t missed a rodeo since.
The other, Mark Nelson, is a veteran rider and the man who “taught me everything I know,” according to Sparkman. Dubbed the “Hometown Cowboy” he throws down his hat exultantly after his 79 point ride on the meanest horse of the night. Once back up on deck, he exchanges a round of convivial handshakes and thanks his crew. Trim and compact, Nelson has a face that shows the marks of years of riding in one of the world’s most death-defying sports.
Nelson tells me he notched his highest score in the '80s after beginning the competition circuit in 1982. When I ask him if he still loves being in the game, he replies, “Yeah,” drawing out his pause before adding, “but my advice would be to take advantage of your youth.” All said with a twinkle in his eye. Tonight he’s wearing his luckiest yellow shirt and Sparkman congratulates him on his ride. I note that the two of them seem to share a respect for one another’s gifts and a brotherly sort of bond.
“I’d smile like a sonofabitch if he fell off, but we gotta help each other out,” Nelson grins in response.
It’s a fraternal order that I notice time and again, especially with the representatives of the Wilson family, who still comprise a huge portion of both competitors and hands. For instance, there’s young champion bull rider Kitkin Wilson on the eve of his 10th birthday, with grandparents watching in the stands and behind the scenes. After his thrilling bull ride, he drops to his knees and works the crowd like an already-minted pro. It’s clear that cowboy is in his blood.
“I just love getting to ride these bulls,” he says. This is his third year of competition.
Bull riding has similar rules and scoring criteria to bareback bronco riding, but on animals with an average weight of 1600-1700 pounds. This daredevil rodeo event is also known as “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.”
Between events, it’s the rodeo clowns in their tattered, brightly colored costumes who round up bulls and scatter any particularly determined trajectory. This serves a dual role, of which comic relief is only a small portion. As the rodeo clowns distract with their antics, safety is being maintained for both bull and rider. The clowns can rope, too, always able to expertly twist and pivot on a dime.
“Anyone here on vacation?” the announcer asks and the stadium erupts in cheers. Throughout, the team mixes up the Western proceedings with splashes of contemporary music, their running commentary punctuating rides that often last only seconds.
As each prancing steer kicks its surprisingly nimble feet in the air, it’s already being hustled back to the gates, which clang behind him, allowing the animal to return to a cool-off tank at the back of the chutes. A faint smell of manure wafts through the air. There are real lasso tricks and real calf roping in the program, too—exercises of attuned skill that have all but become freeze frame iconography for the west. Up close, it’s much faster, much more dynamic and pointed. You can’t really catch a lasso in motion: Its blur tips like a whirring plate.
Over the course of the Jackson Hole Rodeo, kids and teens have many chances to be involved: There’s a rambunctiously chaotic calf scramble and a 30-person dance contest in front of an appreciative crowd. This fills time between gravity-defying rides that can all be over in a second. Bucked off cowboys land with grace, often—seemingly impossibly—on their feet. In the deepening twilight, the floodlights are a haze of gold, and the kicked up dust floats, burnished by the deepening chill of a summer’s evening in Jackson Hole.
“Is this your first rodeo?”
The answering roar would seem to suggest, yes.
One of the last events, barrel racing, injects a feminine presence into the rodeo. The Rodeo Queens ride through the barrels with jaws set and heads down, personifying the maxim of “breakneck speed” with their lean riding and feats of intense control.
As the show goes on, the atmosphere near the chutes grows punchier, more voluble. One steer, apparently spooked more than the average, shudders against the bar of his stall and with indomitable courage, rider Kale Luke climbs aboard, helped by the patient, seasoned hands of the crew.
Luke holds his hand up: the wordless rodeo gesture that means simply Go. The handlers release their grip, then the gate. This is a Brahma bull he’s riding—the granddaddy of them all—and he’s all in. In the most charged moment of the evening, Luke is bucked off and the bull charges, slamming him back into the bars of the pen. I wince, close enough to hear the furious rattle of the bars. The crowd is caught in an audible gasp. Luke ducks lithely away, apparently unharmed.
Later, I ask him what goes through his mind when he’s in those situations, and he replies, “I look up at the sky and if I see either hooves or horns, I get outta there.”
“What do you love about the rodeo?” I ask.
“Everything,” he answers.
Kirsten Rue is the Managing Editor of Jackson Hole Traveler.
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