How the West Was One
Hundreds of teenagers. A herd of mustangs. One man with a vision. In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains rides a cavalry that just might change the world.
It's 7:30 on an August evening and Keller stands, somewhat stiff, behind a podium in a crowded gymnasium on the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. He's wearing a smart sport coat and bolo tie, cowboy boots, and a flawless white cowboy hat. On either side stands a teenager, one boy and one girl, like honor guards-each in a red varsity letter sweater. "You're here now," Keller announces, "so you might as well get used to the Westernaire Way. Around here we like to start on time, so I think I'll get started. I'm Glen Keller, the director of the Westernaires, and it's my pleasure to be responsible for some of the finest young people you'll ever meet."
It's Induction Night for the newest members of the Westernaires, and nearly 300 youngsters, most only 9 or 10 years old, have come with their parents to sign up as Tenderfeet, the class rank of first-year riders. Some children arrive in cowboy boots, others in Crocs. They all hang on Keller's every word. Even though they won't touch a horse for weeks, they're all here with one hope-to ride.
Keller's voice resonates in the cavernous gym, his speech plain and direct. "If you think you're here just to ride a horse, you're going to be sorely disappointed," he says. "You'll learn to ride, but you're also going to learn respect for yourself, respect for others, and you'll learn to become a leader-for your horse and for your teammates." Before turning the mic over to his teenage riders for their own (far less stern) welcome speeches, Keller directs a few comments to the parents, joking that joining the Westernaires is the best deal in town: $25 a year for membership, and horse rentals costing just $7 a day. He also tells the parents about the three required volunteer shifts they'll take at Fort Westernaire, and hints at more demanding volunteer opportunities. Then he reminds everyone of what's at stake. "I'm going to put your little darlings on top of a 1,000-pound dumb animal," he says. "And trust me, horses can be dumb. It's not going to be easy, but you're going to see your kids grow up here."
As the speeches finish, the aspiring Westernaires wiggle in their seats in anticipation. At last, the newest members of the brood are led outside and up a grassy hillside for their first look at the family compound, a hangarlike building high on a hill overlooking Table Mountain and the foothills. It's used only for special purposes-trick-riding practice, and performances such as tonight. The crowd files in the door beneath a sprawling sign in red western letters that reads "Glen Keller Jr. Equestrian Center." Once inside, they pass long glass cases filled with trophies, commemorative plaques, and dolls dressed in replicas of Westernaire uniforms from the last 50 years. To their right climbs a flight of stairs to the Eagle's Roost-Keller's office, which sports a balcony looking down onto the arena below. The families file into the bleachers and take their seats for the evening's Wild West horse show. Now everyone will have a glimpse of the possible future.
Very short clowns, probably only a year older than the incoming Tenderfeet, greet the crowd, prepping them with well-rehearsed pratfalls and other circus antics until the show officially begins, with a parade of elementary-school kids in Wranglers and cowboy hats riding into the arena on perfectly groomed ponies. Middle-school girls in chaps and fringe perform drills carrying large, colorful flags. Eyes widen when the acrobats of the trick team enter-tiny teenage girls in harlequin-patterned jumpsuits drop into one-legged "death drags," splayed over the horses' sides as they bound around the ring. Then the "riders of the steppes" thunder into the arena, pairs of horses moving in tandem, a teenage boy in each saddle and a third standing above, arms wide, balancing one foot on each horse to create a pyramid reminiscent of a Hollywood water-ski formation.
As the next generation sits in the presence of Westernaires in action, the earlier speeches melt away, any initial fear replaced with wonder, amazement, and desire. These kids, their parents-none of them have any idea what they're getting into. When he saw it for the first time, Keller didn't either.
Glen Keller Jr. was born the horse-crazy son of a Longmont farm-implement dealer. He immersed himself in the cowboy way from a young age, reading every horse book in the public library, his head filled with stories of good cowboys and fast horses, of powerful Indians and their impossible battles. He devoured children's picture books, then the Black Stallion series, and when those ran out, veterinary textbooks. All the while, he begged his parents for a horse. They told him no-horses were an expense the family couldn't afford. But at age 8, the future attorney eventually negotiated himself a grumpy range mare named Smokey, a castoff from one of his dad's customers. "Smokey was the meanest horse who ever lived," Keller says. "You couldn't turn your back on her or she might run you over. I learned a lesson from that mare-can't trust an animal whose instincts are wild." But the determined boy worked with her until she'd finally accept his lead.
Smokey was nearly impossible to ride, but the Kellers wouldn't abandon the troubled horse, and instead bred her, resulting in a foal named Flame. Flame was a good horse, and Keller rode her after school and on the weekends, only the setting sun convincing him to quit. In time, with Flame's help, he went from a horse-crazy boy to a genuine Colorado horseman.
But becoming a man meant putting aside his childhood passion, and the horses eventually lost out as adulthood prevailed. It didn't happen overnight. After a lackadaisical undergraduate career including a short stint as a radio disc jockey, Keller took a year off. Then it was finally time to grow up, get serious, and do as his mother wished: He went to law school. He married his college sweetheart and had kids. He became a lawman, first as a lawyer and then a judge in federal bankruptcy court-the kind of man who put mobsters behind bars and forced white-collar criminals to pay their bills. He didn't make the rules, but he was the one who dished out the consequences. By the time he married, Keller's passion for horses had been buried so deep that Liz Keller had no idea her husband was a cowboy at heart-until one day in 1976, when the family went to a horse show and laid eyes on the Westernaires.
Keller's Westernaires are fueled by his own particular brand of tough love. There is distinction of rank; there is order. Understanding this is the only way to succeed.