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.
While the riders make their way to the arena, their red sweaters hang neatly in the tack truck, quietly chronicling each rider's road to Red Team. Rectangular patches with red stitching name every horse they rode on the way; round patches that have been meticulously saved in shoeboxes memorialize early teams like the Pony Hoedowners; military bars symbolize leadership positions. On each sweater, an American flag is sewn on the shoulder. Kids personalize their sweaters with angels and silly buttons, and almost everyone has a safety pin somewhere: a symbol to protect them on their rides, to keep them safe. They know that any rider can fall.
"Not all my friends understand what I've gone through here," says Mike Ulshoffer, a 19-year-old trick rider and co-major who's has been on Red Team longer than anyone. "But everybody on the team understands each other-we've been through so much. My friends think I'm crazy. But I know I set a goal and I reached it. I know I've made a difference. I have become a leader; I realized it this year." Sure, he's thought of quitting Westernaires at times, when the old-fashioned rules seemed insane, when the work got too hard. But he never gave up.
"It's like that red sweater. Everyone wears it because of what we had to do to earn it," he says. "It's an emblem. It says, 'We made it, this is who we are.'" Then he laughs to himself and says, "Even if it is ugly."
Every January on the final day of the Stock Show, the senior members of Red Team graduate. This year, Ulshoffer will be among those moving on. Keller has witnessed 22 years of tearful graduations, but he shows no signs of leaving himself. Around the Fort, many quietly speculate about a post-Keller era. "Well, I don't want to leave the job the way Wyland did," Keller only half jokes. Although he confesses concerns about his own succession plan, he hasn't set one up yet. He's not ready to give up Wyland's trust. Like his predecessor, he can't leave before finding the one like-minded person to whom he can entrust his clan.