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.
Forty horses and riders gallop in, a singular force. For all the rules and regulations, the practices and the homework, the volunteers and the dictatorship, the Red Team riders now ride alone on the arena floor. The horses take in the tension, the energy of the crowd. Their strides quicken. Beneath the din of music and hooves, the captain uses her loud, husky voice to call the rider's next move.
From his perch, Keller announces the drill: the Mariner's Cross. It's a complicated military maneuver, one in which two lines of riders face off and gallop toward each other, sleeves and horses brushing within inches. The drill plays well to the stands. From above, the fans can see the single-file riders criss-crossing from all four corners of the arena, narrowly passing each other as they gallop to the opposite side. It's a favorite so thrilling that riders and crowd alike forget that anything so captivating could ever be dangerous. Because it demands utter perfection and precision, it is also the drill Keller dreads the most.
The riders peel off into four quadrants, creating the individual lines of the cross. All four corners of the arena align in mirror-image perfection. One by one, each section begins to run at each other to execute the exhilarating pass at the center. And then there is the sickening thud of muscle and hide colliding. Two horses hit, catapulting their riders to the ground. "Halt ho," demands Keller from the booth. All the horses come to a sliding stop. The crowd falls silent, the sideline posse freezes-everyone waits for Keller's lead.
"These things do happen," says Keller, his voice willfully relaxed, echoing from the rodeo speakers. "And I can tell you right now the only thing these riders want to know is, 'How's my horse?'" Slowly, one rider stands, dusts herself off, and extends a hand to her friend, pulling her teammate to her feet. The girls hug and the crowd cheers. The riders check their horses and quickly remount, and once again they are racing, the drill continuing from where it had stopped as if nothing had happened. The Westernaires finish the routine with the presentation of the American flag, and then they are off, tearing full tilt out of the arena and into the warm sunshine of a Colorado summer afternoon.
"There go the young people of today. They are ready to take the reins of leadership from you and I," says Keller, his voice ringing with the confidence of an old cowboy. "They are our hope for tomorrow." m
Rebecca Landwehr is senior editor at 5280.