National Western Rodeo Preview

Patrick Geipel of Elbert, Colorado gets thrown off a bull during the Bull Riding competition at the 2013 National Western Stock Show. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

The draw of pro-rodeo champions to the National Western arena

By Tom McGhee January 6, 2017

Patrick Geipel of Elbert, Colorado gets thrown off a bull during the Bull Riding competition at the 2013 National Western Stock Show. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Shane Proctor doesn’t know if it was the excitement or the danger that drew him to bull riding, but after 12 years, 1,600 bulls and some brutal injuries, the 31-year-old competitor hasn’t lost his taste for the sport.

“It was always exciting to watch someone ride something that is not supposed to be ridden,” said Proctor, who will compete in the National Western Stock Show pro rodeo events that begin Jan. 9. When he mounts a bull in the chute, he said he feels the muscles quivering along its back. “It is amazing how powerful it feels.”

The energy builds as the animal tries to get rid of the rider, flying into the air, then suddenly dropping and landing with tremendous force, he said.

Proctor, winner of the 2011 Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association bull-riding title, has qualified for the Professional Bull Riders World Finals eight times. His five National Finals Rodeo and eight World Finals qualifications is the most among active riders.

A bull rider must stay aboard nearly a ton of leaping, kicking and twisting fury for 8 seconds, with one hand gripping a rope and the other in the air. The animals, which typically weigh 1,600 to 1,700 pounds, are bred to buck, according to the Professional Bull Riders website.

Judges score the ride from 0-100 points, and the bull’s performance counts for half the tally.

To win, a rider needs a bull that bucks hard, jumps high and spins fast, Proctor said. “You want the bull that is most difficult to ride.”

A writer for The New Yorker magazine once compared the contest between man and bull to “an ice dance with an ax murderer.”

A bull will kick, stomp or try to hook a thrown rider with its horns.

Cowboy bull fighters are on the sand to distract the bull and get a thrown rider to safety. “We really depend heavily on them to keep us safe,” Proctor said. “They’re very good at what they do.”

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In 2011, Proctor was riding a bull called Blackjack, when the rope he was gripping snared his hand, tightening around his fingers and forcing the hand closed. He was thrown, but remained tethered to the bull by the rope.

The bull stepped on his back, its foot sliding onto his shoulder and shattering his left arm. Two metal plates and 16 screws were required to put the arm back together.

“I have had five major surgeries, but you get bumps and bruises all the time,” Proctor said. “That’s just bull riding. It’s not checkers.”

Zeke Thurston, 22, the 2016 World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider, who will also compete at the National Western, started his career as a bull rider.

He moved to bucking horses after breaking his femur, he said. “They put a rod in there, and I had to let the rod heal up, so I just focused on my bronco riding, and it started clicking.”

A ride on a wildly bucking horse may not eliminate the possibility of injuries, but it is safer than bull riding, he said. “In bull riding, when you get bucked off you tend to land next to the animal, or underneath them. The horses try to step around you, but the bulls will try to hook you.”

Thurston won the saddle bronc world championship at the PRCA National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December.

“Winning the world title was the greatest feeling,” he said. “They told me, and I thought they must have the stats wrong, and I was walking away, and it was like, ‘No, for real, you won.’ ”

Thurston, who earned $160,404, during the 10 day event, does his best to calm his horse before it leaves the chute. “Every time I get on I brush my saddle off, make sure there isn’t a burr or something that’s going to poke them and scratch them up. I brush their back off with my hand, and I don’t get on them early, but I make sure everything is good, and try not to stay in the chute too long.”

Tim O’Connell, 25, is another cowboy who has been racking up big bucks on the rodeo circuit who will appear at the National Western.

O’Connell competes in riding bareback bucking horses. He won $397,000 between the start of his rodeo career in 2013, and 2015. In 2016, he raked in $374,000, a record for a participant in a single event.

O’Connell began competing in pro-rodeo in 2013 and was Rookie of the Year, despite an injury to his clavicle that took him out of competition for six months.

This will be the third year that he has competed in the Stock Show. “It’s the first big rodeo of the year, that really starts the winter run off,” he said.

All three men grew up in rodeo families.

O’Connell’s father, Ray, was a pick up man, riding into the arena to grab bronco and bull riders, and get them away from the rampaging animals.

“I got to go around the country quite a bit as a young kid, and I was always around rodeo,” O’Connell said.

Proctor’s dad, Gordon, was a professional calf roper, and he grew up traveling with him, and hanging around rodeos. As a youngster, he rode sheep, calves and steers, but when he was 15 years old, he got his first ride on a junior bull.

Thurston’s father, Skeeter, is a retired saddle bronco rider, his mother, Lynda, a musician and former rodeo broadcaster and journalist, barrel raced.

“I just grew up in it,” Thurston said. “My dad went to the national finals in Las Vegas, and my mom rodeoed, and ever since I can remember, that is what it has been about.”

Rodeo clown Justin “Rumpshaker” Rumford returns to the National Western Stock Show

By Max Siegelbaum January 6, 2017

Top rodeo clown Justin “Rumpshaker” Rumford will return to the National Western Stock Show for 26 rodeo performances in 2017. He says the role of rodeo clown has evolved from defending fallen cowboys from furious bucking bulls to entertaining the crowd when there’s a lull in the action. (Provided by Justin Rumford)

Top rodeo clown Justin “Rumpshaker” Rumford will return to the National Western Stock Show for 26 rodeo performances in 2017. He says the role of rodeo clown has evolved from defending fallen cowboys from furious bucking bulls to entertaining the crowd when there’s a lull in the action. (Provided by Justin Rumford)

To some, hiding inside an aluminum barrel while a 1,600 pound bull slams into it is a nightmare. To Justin “Rumpshaker” Rumford, “it’s pretty fun,” and “not as bad as it looks.”

That’s because Rumford, 35, is a professional rodeo clown. He travels 11 months out of the year — or as he describes it “paid vacation” — performing hundreds of shows at rodeos around the country. For the second year in a row, Rumford is returning to Denver to perform as the rodeo clown of the National Western Stock Show.

Rumford was reared in a rodeo and ranching family in Abbyville, “a little bitty town” in Kansas. His father is a college rodeo coach, his sister is an eight-time pro rodeo secretary of the year and his brother is an expert roper.

Once the scampering front line distraction between downed riders and furious bulls, the job of a rodeo clown has changed. Cowboy protection is now left to the bullfighters, professionals who train hard and study the riders and their bulls closely before entering the ring.

The barrel is kind of the last line of defense,” Rumford said. “My main job is to entertain the crowd, just to keep the show flowing and keep them having a good time.”

Rodeo clowns are more akin to comedy show hosts, providing entertainment during lulls in the action. Rumford has a few recurring bits, but improvises much of his routine based on the crowd.

“I got a motorcycle jumping act, a gorilla hunter act and a Spiderman act,” he said. His motorcycle is built for a child and his Evel Knievel jumpsuit is designed, perhaps, for a person a third his size. He uses a folding table as a launch ramp.

His career began in Pretty Prairie, Kan., after another rodeo clown backed out of a show shortly before it began. Rumford had already been working with cattle and knew the rodeo culture well. He is a perennial joker and acolyte of comedians like Chris Farley and Will Ferrell. He was a natural.

He took quickly to roping fans into the show and poking fun at his own stocky build. He made $1,000 that night and was hooked. He hit the road — with his wife — as a full-time professional rodeo clown.

Since then his career has exploded and he’s regularly booked years in advance, currently until 2019.

One of the most memorable moments of his career came in September, when was performing at a rodeo in Rapid City, S.D. A naked man jumped into the ring and started sprinting across the grounds. “I could smell that dude’s alcohol breath from 10 feet away,” he said.

Rumford sprinted after him, hammering the man with his shoulder. The streaker crumpled to the ground.

“The crowd went wild, they ate it up,” he said. “That was probably the coolest thing ever.”

Rumford understands that being a rodeo clown isn’t a job he can continue for the rest of his life. He has triplet toddlers to raise, a degree in business and some side jobs to pursue when he retires from the ring. But for now, he’ll be performing 26 shows during the Stock Show, which, he says, will be spectacular.

“It’s a rock show, not your daddy’s old rodeo.”

What does it take to be a National Western Stock Show cowboy?

By Tom McGhee January 6, 201

Horses being moved to pasture by ranch hand Bryndel Burke, 12, after being sorted for the National Western Stock Show at the Cervi Ranch Dec. 13, 2016 near Sterling, Colorado. The Cervi Rodeo Company provides superior bucking stock for the NWSS, the National Finals Rodeo and rodeos throughout the country. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

It takes eight bone-jarring seconds for a bucking horse to complete a rodeo ride that can punch up a cowboy’s career, or send him crashing into the dust.

But that 8 seconds is a long-time coming for animals that must mature both physically and mentally before they’re ready to work the professional rodeo circuit.

At Cervi Rodeo Company’s 70,000-acre ranch near Sterling, where bucking horses and bulls are raised, no horse goes to work before it is 5-years old, said Chase Cervi, who runs the ranch along with his brother, Binion.

And that debut ride is held far from the bright lights of Denver’s National Western Stock Show, or other top-tier rodeos throughout the country, where champion cowboys are paired with top-of-the-line bucking stock. “We feel their minds haven’t matured until they’re 6,” Chase Cervi said. “Before that it’s like sending a grade school kid to college. We want to have time to where their body is fully grown, as well as their mind.”

Some companies use a dummy before putting a person on a horse. The dummy is spring-loaded and pops off the saddle after 6 seconds.

“We used them, but we didn’t have any luck with them,” Cervi said.  Instead, “we put learning bucking riders on them.”

The novice riders range from the ages of 14 to 22. Cervi puts the youngest on adult horses that are too weak for rodeo work but can give an inexperienced rider a reason to hold on tight. “We call them ‘nice hops,’ and eventually, they get on a young horse,” he said.

At the ranch, top-rated bronco riders give classes a few times a year. The horses also are used to train riders at small rodeos and college and high school rodeos.

This year Cervi will supply about 300 horses to the National Western for bareback and saddle bronc riders, half of them leased from other stock contractors. The ranch will send another 150 bucking bulls.

Judges score a cowboy who holds on until the buzzer sounds on a scale of 0 to 50. Horses are rated on a similar scale.

With one-half of the total score dependent on the horse, riders want to climb on a tough, and ornery, steed.

They don’t compete for glory alone. A good rider paired with a top-notch horse can leave the rodeo with a substantial purse.

Tim O’Connell, a 25-year-old bareback rider from Iowa, who will compete at the National Western, won $397,000 between the start of his rodeo career in 2013 and 2015. In 2016, he raked in $374,000, a record for a participant in a single event.

“I like a horse that’s got a lot of action and that bucks really hard,” he said. “If the horse is going to do that, it gives me an opportunity to do my job and if I do my job, that’s how we get a pretty decent score, and that’s how we go to the pay window.”

Chase regards two of the horses he is sending to Denver as the best of the lot: Control Freak, an 8-year-old mare who will be ridden bareback, and Hell’s Fire Hostage, a 10-year-old gelding saddle bronco.

Cowboys have no choice in their ride. A lottery determines which bull or bronco they’ll hitch their fortunes to each time they go into the ring.

But all of the horses at the National Western are the best-of-the-best, Chase said. “They don’t want no part of being riding horses.”

Saddle bronco riding is an event that had its start in the old West, when ranch hands would compete in riding unbroken horses.

Riders use a specialized saddle and grasp a rein with one hand.

A bareback bronco rider doesn’t use a saddle or rein, gripping a handhold attached to a strap that fastens around a horse’s girth.

In both styles, the rider starts with his feet above the shoulders. If the feet aren’t in the correct position when the horse’s front hooves touch the ground, the rider has failed to “mark out” the horse properly and is disqualified, according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association.

Riders have to stay aboard for 8 seconds, and can’t touch the horse with their free hands.

Judges consider correct spurring technique, overall control of the horse, and the animal’s bucking action, throughout the ride.

A buzzer signals the rider to end the ride and prepare to dismount. The time limit “keeps the animals spirit high and healthy and keeps them from “breaking” or taming down,” according to the PRCA.

Judges score a cowboy who holds on until the buzzer sounds on a scale of 0 to 50. Horses are rated on a similar scale.

Horses can’t be trained to charge out of the chute and give a bone-jarring ride, Cervi said.

At one time, horses that could give a good bucking ride were used regardless of blood lines. “But most of what you see in rodeo these days are bred,” said Jim Bainbridge, spokesman for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

A top-end bucking horse can cost $50,000 or more, said Nate Morrison, sales coordinator for Benny Binion’s World Famous Bucking Horse and Bull Sale.

“A few years ago at our sale, a horse sold for $100,000,” Morrison said. “To my knowledge that is the highest price on public auction, but there have been some undisclosed amount deals that may have been higher.”

National Western Stock Show brings Old West excitement to modern audiences in Denver

By Tom McGhee January 6, 201

The annual National Western Stock Show Parade has the total attention of 5 year old Jamison Purser of Denver marching up 17 Street in downtown Denver in 2015. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

Champion cowboys and cowgirls, rodeo clowns, and a host of four-legged critters, will take center stage in Denver on Saturday when the National Western Stock Show kicks off.

The annual Stock Show, now in its 111th year, is a mix of fast-paced entertainment and opportunities for attendees to learn about a vanishing agrarian lifestyle, while celebrating Western history and values, Stock Show president Paul Andrews said.

There are rodeos galore, a fiddle contest, riding, roping and shooting, along with 4-H kids, and ranchers showing off the cows, sheep and other animals they raised.

And don’t expect that livestock to be confined to cattle and other staples of the American dinner plate.

In addition there will be llamas, yak, buffalo, as well as miniature Herefords, specially bred cattle that can be half the weight of a normal cow. And if you think small cows might be cute, consider this: children as young as 3-years-old can show these animals.

The National Western features enrichment programs and youth education in livestock, equestrian, farming, ranching, animal awareness and appreciation.

“It is part of the fabric of Denver, Colorado,” Andrews said. “Yeah, there is education and Western values and putting consumers together with producers so they can see that their food doesn’t just show up at the King Soopers. But you can get a rib as big as your arm, you can eat, have fun and shop. Nine-hundred trade show booths offer a shopping experience second to none.”

Exhibitors, vendors and competitors from 42 states and more than 30 countries will be represented at the show.

Last year, 686,745 people attended, the second highest number of people through the gate since the record was set in 2006, when 726,972 spectators pouring onto the grounds of the National Western Complex at Brighton Boulevard and Interstate 70.

The show also clocked its largest opening day attendance record in 2016, with 50,654 fans. This year, the show begins on Saturday and runs through Jan. 22.

A non-denominational cowboy church service on Sunday will include a memorial to Ashley Doolittle, a Boulder County Fair rodeo queen, whose ex-boyfriend has confessed to killing her in June.

Last year, Doolittle, who was the 2016 Boulder County Fair and Rodeo’s Lady-In-Waiting, participated in the Stock Show’s Royalty Volunteer program, said Kendra McConnell, the National Western’s horse-show manager. “Last year she was greeting for Cowboy Church, directing people to seats.”

Doolittle, an expert in horse reining, a technique in which riders put their mounts through a pattern of circles, spins and stops, also rode in last year’s Stock Show. She was posthumously crowned 2017 Boulder County Fair and Rodeo Queen.

Competitors in the more than 24 pro rodeos will vie for purses totaling $655,886.

A Colorado Versus the World rodeo pits champions who have won a Colorado Rodeo, against winners of rodeos outside the state. The payout to winners will total $100,000, making it one of the richest one-day rodeos in the country.

Two pro rodeos will include appearances by well-known mascots. Cam the Ram from Colorado State University will run the arena on on Jan. 14, and the University of Colorado Buffaloes’ mascot Ralphie will run on Jan. 20.

A first-time attraction this year is a Wild West Show featuring a re-enactment of the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows that starred Buffalo Bill Cody, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, and other legends.

Cody was a Pony Express rider, buffalo hunter, and Army scout, who founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1883. The show was an extravaganza that featured iconic Western figures, such as Sitting Bull, and toured widely for three decades.

The first of two ticketed performances will be on Jan. 14, the 100th anniversary of Buffalo Bill’s funeral in Denver. The second performance is Jan. 15. There are free preview shows at noon on both days in the Activity Pavilion.

A newcomer to Stock Show rodeos this year rodeo barrel funny man, Justin “Rumpshaker” Rumford.

It is Rumford’s job to entertain the crowd when there are lulls in the action, he said. But he also serves as a back-up for the cowboys who keep bulls away from the riders thrown during the bull-riding events.

If the cowboys need help to distract an angry bull, Rumford moves in with his barrel, he said.

“The bull might butt and roll it, and that gives the rider 2 or 3 seconds to get away,” he said.

For the second year, an Invitational Ranch Rodeo will feature top ranch hands competing in events based on traditional ranching activities.

One of the events, wild cow milking, features cows that weren’t bred to give milk to anything other than their own calves.

In the timed event, one member of a team holds the cow, as another tries to milk it into a small container. The milking team member then tries to run the container — without spilling — to someone elsewhere in the arena.

“It’s not a cow from a dairy farm, it’s not docile” Andrews said. “It’s not their business to be milked. They’re a mother cow that gave birth to a calf this year, and they’re nursing that calf.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com