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.
Keller spends almost 40 hours a week at the Fort, managing his army of 500 volunteers and the one paid employee: Mr. Nicely, the caretaker. Just like in Wyland's day, Keller's army consists of Westernaire parents, grandparents, and alumni; they joke that the Westernaires is a dictatorship, but most of them agree that someone needs to have the final word. And whenever Keller parks his Cadillac SRX on the grounds, his vanity plates spell out who's in charge: "DIRECTOR."
Not everybody welcomes Keller's rules-at least not at first. Jeff McDowell has been a volunteer since 1995 and a member of the Westernaire posse, a specific rank of male volunteers, since 2000, and at first he didn't much care for Keller's strict rules. His daughter was training for Red Team, a Herculean effort involving three months of hell filled with weekly tests and nightly homework, at least four hours of diagramming horse drills seven days a week. She had failed three tests in a row, and that meant dismissal from training-her ride to Red Team was finished. Father and daughter requested a meeting with Keller to see if there was anything she could do, if she could get another chance. They learned that since she was a senior-level rider, in her final year as a Westernaire, there'd be no second chance. Those were the rules. "I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do," Keller told the family. Distraught for his daughter's sake, McDowell was about to give it one more try. When he looked up to speak, he saw tears running down Keller's face.
"It changed for me that day," says McDowell. Today McDowell still instructs the trick riders and travels with the Red Team as a barn man, sleeping in the parking lot of the fairgrounds, keeping an eye on the horses. His daughter graduated from the Westernaires five years ago. "I finally realized there were all these people volunteering their time for my kid's experience," he says. "So I decided to give another seven years, because that's how long my daughter was a Westernaire when I didn't pitch in."
Just before show time on Labor Day at the Trinidad Roundup Rodeo at the Las Animas County Fairgrounds, 40 Red Team members begin the ritual of changing. In a line, they enter the tack truck and hang their sweaters on an assigned peg. Then a "costume mom" hands them their hairnets. Next, they announce, "Sleeves please," and walk into the crisp shirts held up for them by another volunteer mom. Then comes the sequined cape. Last, they are called one by one to take their hats out of individual hatboxes, each labeled with a rider's name. Once their hats are on, they step out of the trailer, mount their horses, and wait. With minutes to go, they stand by the gates as members of the posse hand each rider a multicolored flag. The Westernaires sit tall on their horses. Now the only eyes they meet belong to each other.