Sure, we could sit here and wax poetic about rodeos. Talk about the grit and strength of men and women who tuck into mortal danger just to feel the thrill of adrenaline pop through their veins. Or maybe compose an elegy to the Western ideal of the cowboy, talk about its rights and many, many wrongs.

But wouldn’t we all rather go to a party? Because, in the end, that’s what rodeos are—gatherings of hundreds of revelers who yell themselves hoarse while riders careen around the arena—and summer ’tis the season to celebrate, with dozens of cowpoke Olympics raging throughout the state in cities big, medium, and small. Here are just seven you can saddle up to.

Jump Ahead:

1. Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series

Cowboy on balancing act while wrangling bull
Steer wrestling. Photo by Aaron Colussi
  • Dates: June 21–August 24, 2024
  • Location: Brent Romick Arena at the Howelsen Rodeo Grounds
  • Tickets: $15 to $50, $5 extra for the Fourth of July rodeo
  • Younger Than Ever: In 2023, a historian discovered that Steamboat’s Fourth of July rodeo, called Cowboys’ Roundup Days, began 23 years later than previously thought, so organizers will get a second shot at celebrating its centennial in 2027.

Wearing red suspenders over a floral print shirt, his real hair tucked under a wig of long orange, blue, and white locks, J.W. Winklepleck clutches a handle in his left hand as the horse his rope is attached to takes off in a trot. Winklepleck crouches low around the first turn and traces his right hand in the dirt to keep his balance. At the end of the following straightaway, the horse gains speed and the rodeo clown finally releases his grip on the line and comes to a sliding stop.

Young rider in chute
Photo by Aaron Colussi

The crowd erupts as Winklepleck steps out of the snowboard he’s just ridden around the ring and lifts it to the sky. The act, which Winklepleck calls “dirtboarding,” doesn’t always end so well. “Sometimes we ride it out, sometimes we don’t,” the Strasburg resident says. But even if he crashes, “it’s pretty entertaining,” he says.

Dirtboarding is appropriate at the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series. Although best known these days for its world-class ski resort, Routt County was largely settled in the late 19th century by cattle and sheep farmers, and its ranching industry continues to grow along with its winter sports economy: Between 2017 and 2022, the county’s bovine population increased by 31 percent. When the snow melts, the cowpunchers take Steamboat Springs back from the shredders (Winklepleck notwithstanding). “We want to keep ranching and cowboying alive,” says John Shipley, the rodeo board’s president. “It’s what separates us from every ski town in the state.” Plenty of high-country destinations have rodeos nowadays, Shipley notes, but many got their starts as mining camps. Steamboat’s authenticity is palpable.

Young cowboy in b&w
Photo by Aaron Colussi

The town does everything it can to make the summer last. Unlike most pro rodeos in Colorado, Steamboat’s runs for multiple weekends—10, to be exact, taking place every Friday and Saturday night from June 21 through August 24, with bonus bucking on the Fourth of July. Steamboat’s prolonged schedule makes it a popular spot for cowboys, especially ones looking for redemption. Seth Peterson and Chisum Docheff, steer wrestlers and coaches for Colorado State University’s rodeo team, spend their summers carpooling to different rodeos. “If you made a bad run the other night, you can always go to Steamboat,” Peterson says, “and flip your luck around.”

Ultimately, however, cowboys flock to Steamboat for the same reason skiers do. Peterson and Docheff may hit three or four rodeos per weekend during their summertime sojourns, but every time they pull into Steamboat, the mountains, the cool weather, and the old-time charm of the historical downtown make them feel like they’re on vacation. They’ll park their truck by the river, unload the horses, and then saunter along Yampa Street in search of some grub. “That lifestyle is going away,” Docheff says. “But when you go up there, you can still feel the cowboy heritage in that town.”

2. Meeker Range Call

Meeker held its first rodeo in 1885 and hasn’t let a Fourth of July pass since without corralling another, making Range Call the oldest continuously operating rodeo in Colorado. Expect fireworks in the sky, the arena, and downtown, where performers will re-enact the 1896 shootout at the Bank of Meeker.

3. Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo

cowboy holding hat
The dirty truth of cowboying at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo. Photo by Aaron Colussi
  • Dates: July 9–13, 2024
  • Location: Norris Penrose Event Center
  • Tickets: $25 for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings and Friday and Saturday matinees; $30 for Friday evening; $35 for Saturday evening
  • Renaissance Man: The rodeo was started by Spencer Penrose, who also founded the Broadmoor
Keenan Hayes. Illustration by Arthur Mount

Keenan Hayes pulls his hat down so low that the brim pushes his ears out wide, creating an endearing, mousy effect. That is, until you zoom out enough to take in the whole scene: Inside a chute at the Norris Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs, the Hayden-born then 20-year-old’s eyes are obscured by shadow, his mouth is set in a firm line, and he sits bareback atop a horse named Pass the Hat.

When the chute door opens, the announcer screams, “He belongs to youuuuuu!” to the crowd as rock music begins to blare. Pass the Hat slings Hayes back and forth—less like a ragdoll and more like a Whac-A-Mole, endlessly popping back up only to be drubbed again by the horse’s hindquarters. Almost a dozen collisions occur in eight seconds. Having successfully completed his ride, Hayes, a rookie on the pro tour, dismounts and lands on his feet in the arena’s dirt. “One thing is definitely true in this moment,” the announcer says, “that’s one of the greatest bareback riders in the game!”

Bareback rider on bucking horse
Bronc riding at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo. Photo by Aaron Colussi

Sure enough, Hayes’ score of 86.5 out of 100 is enough to win the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s (PRCA) 2023 National Finals Rodeo Open at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo. “I was excited it got moved to Colorado Springs,” Hayes said at the time, “and I got to get this win in my home state.”

To outsiders, pro rodeoing can seem like a byzantine affair, and the red tape emanates from Colorado. The Colorado Springs–based PRCA has been around since the 1930s and features rough stock (bull, bareback, and bronc riding) and timed (barrel racing and roping) events. But in the early 1990s, star bull riders splintered off to form Professional Bull Riders (PBR), based in Pueblo. The main differences between the two are that PBR organizes its own tour, while the PRCA governs hundreds of independent rodeos throughout the United States, 23 of which are in Colorado.

In 2022, the PRCA moved the National Finals Rodeo Open to its hometown, instantly making the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, first held in 1937, one of the jewels in the organization’s gigantic belt buckle. The PRCA splits itself into 13 geographic circuits; Colorado and Wyoming, for example, comprise the Mountain States. In July, the athletes who have won the most money up to that point in the season within their circuits descend on Colorado Springs to try to ride their ways to a share of a $1 million-plus purse spread across eight events.

The National Finals Rodeo Open, however, isn’t to be confused with the PRCA’s National Finals Rodeo, the end-of-the-year championship event in Las Vegas where the top 15 athletes in their respective events (regardless of circuits) compete for a golden belt buckle. But don’t worry: Hayes kept things simple in 2023 by winning bareback at the National Finals Rodeo, too, becoming the first rook to earn that honor.

Woman performer on horseback
Trick riding at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo. Photo by Aaron Colussi

4. Cattlemen’s Days

Local ranchers began meeting along Main Street in the late 1800s to square off in informal roping and riding competitions before formalizing the contests in 1901. Today, Cattlemen’s Days is an official Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event—one whose Thursday night edition has helped raise more than $7 million for cancer treatment, via the national Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, in the Gunnison Valley.

5. Deer Trail Rodeo

B&W image of man riding bareback
Bob Britton in 1967. Photo courtesy of Deer Trail Rodeo
  • Dates: July 12 and 13, 2024
  • Location: Deer Trail Rodeo Grounds
  • Tickets: $10 Friday, $15 Saturday
  • What is Deer Trail?Jeopardy recognized the town for hosting the world’s first rodeo.

Like his father and his father’s father before him, John Jolly is a member of the Deer Trail Jockey Club, a nonprofit that has organized the town’s namesake rodeo for around eight decades. But even before the Jollys became jockeys, feats of cowboy strength defined the small community: Deer Trail claims to have hosted the world’s first rodeo, on July 4, 1869, when, according to the now-defunct Denver Field and Farm, an Englishman named Emilnie Gardenshire won the title of “Champion Bronco Buster of the Plains.”

The tiny Eastern Plains town wears its brand proudly, though the title is far from undisputed. Two rodeos in Arizona—in Payson and Prescott—claim they bucked first, while a competition in Pecos, Texas, says the same. Jolly remains steadfast: “We’re the home of the world’s first rodeo, and until somebody finds a date older than us, I would sure debate it—and very strongly. It’s important to me.”

In truth, none of them were first: Hispanic horsemen have been rodeoing for centuries (see: “The Torres Family”). What is undeniable, however, is that 155 years after Gardenshire’s legendary ride, the sport is essential to Deer Trail’s identity. Every July, the population of the 1,068-resident town nearly doubles during rodeo weekend, when people come from all across the Eastern Plains to watch cowboys and cowgirls compete in the dirt while visiting with friends and neighbors they rarely get to see. “These small-town rodeos are the lifeblood of pure rodeo,” says Michael Grauer, curator of cowboy collections at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. “That’s why the Deer Trail Rodeo still lasts, because it’s a big family reunion.”

Come midsummer, that party consumes the entire state of Colorado, with at least 30 cities and towns hosting rodeos both big and small. For those who participate, the expense and the risk are often great. So, too, is the opportunity to connect to a past that, though hugely mythologized, remains vital to a diverse contingent of Coloradans.

6. Park County Fair

Woman on horseback with flag at Park County Fair
Park County Fair. Photo by Cody Klein, TK210 Photography, courtesy of Park County Fair

The Park County Fair Rodeo might lack some of the bigger-name cowboys, but young buckaroos won’t mind, especially not when a carnival and circus precede the cowboying. Stay around till Sunday, when the little ones can compete in the Park County Kids’ Funday, which includes mutton busting, greased pig, and stick horse rodeo events.

7. Eagle County Fair & Rodeo

  • Dates: July 24–27, 2024
  • Location: Eagle County Fairgrounds
  • Tickets: $20 for Wednesday or Thursday, $25 for Friday or Saturday

If your summer vacation isn’t complete without a trip to the mountains, consider adding some barrel racing, bronc riding, and mutton busting to your itinerary. Celebrating its 85th birthday this year, the Eagle County Fair & Rodeo unfolds on a property next to the town’s namesake river.

People and Players You Need To Know in Colorado Rodeo

The Torres Family

man bull riding
A member of Charros Las Delicias holds on during the 2022 Colorado State Fair. Photo by Chris Sessions

In 1537, more than 330 years before Deer Trail claims to have spurred rodeos into existence, the Spanish government decreed that the livestock throughout the colony of New Spain, which comprised modern-day Mexico, had to be rounded up so ranchers could count and brand their animals. These biannual events soon included large, multi-day fiestas, where the gathered hands began to show off their riding and roping skills in formal challenges. It might not be surprising to learn, then, that the Spanish word for roundup is…rodeo.

Over the next half millennium, the hacienda lifestyle bred respect for charros (essentially, expert horsemen), who became heroes in the 1810s for their exploits during the Mexican War of Independence against Spain. Today, charrería is the national sport of Mexico—and it’s growing in Colorado.

That’s partly due to the efforts of Roberto Torres Sr., who was born in Mexico and owns the Las Delicias restaurant chain in the Denver area. In 1990, he founded a charro team solely to publicize his business—he thought the squad might ride in local parades—until a friend invited his outfit to compete in a charreada (a charrería competition). The contest usually features nine events, or suertes; unlike in American rodeos, riders are mostly judged on horsemanship. The first suerte, for example, is called la cala de caballo, where horse and rider sprint for 60 meters before sliding to a stop in the dirt. The longer the horse skids without raising its hind legs, the more points it receives.

woman on horseback
Celebracion De Los Charros in 2022. Photo by Chris Sessions

Although Torres didn’t grow up in the saddle, two of his children did. Roberto Jr. competes in roping events, while Naiomy participates in the only suerte that permits women: the escaramuza, in which eight sidesaddle riders perform a synchronized dance around the ring. They’re both members of Charros Las Delicias, one of more than a dozen teams now competing in Colorado. “We’re just people out here trying to feel closer to our roots and our culture in Mexico,” Naiomy says.

Charros Las Delicias is interested in raising the sport’s profile in its home state, too. The team has qualified for the National Charro Championship and Congress in Mexico, the Super Bowl of the sport, six times, but it also stages productions for the Colorado State Fair (September 3) and the Adams County Rodeo (July 25 to 27). “There’s so much opportunity here that we still haven’t opened up,” Naiomy says, “and so much growth that I think could happen soon.”

Ace High Rough Stock Academy

cowboy getting bucked
Photo by Daniel Bedell

Human innovations such as barbed wire and railroads hastened the end of the Wild West, but it’s a human emotion that’s threatening the modern-day rodeo: fear. “Cowboys that ride bareback and saddle bronc are an endangered species,” says Binion Cervi, executive director of Weld County–based Cervi Championship Rodeo, “because they’re such physically demanding, dangerous events.” A stock contractor who raises bucking horses, Cervi was particularly concerned about what the shortage meant for the future of rodeos. So eight years ago, he started the nonprofit Ace High Rough Stock Academy, a free three-day clinic usually held at the Cervi Ranch in Weld County that teaches aspiring cowboys and cowgirls from around the world how to survive on a bucking steed.

We spoke with three of Cervi’s graduates about what it takes to make it to eight.

Cole Hollen, 23, Texas: On the first day, they get you on the bucking machine and teach you what to do—but you forget about everything they told you once you get on a real horse. My first ride, I got bucked off, but by the second day I was staying on. It felt awesome. Like, That’s what it’s supposed to feel like. It gives you confidence. I was all fired up. Then on the third day, I got bucked off, hit the ground, and—well, I don’t really remember much before getting to the ER.

Zac Dallas, 22, New Mexico: When the horse leaves the gate, you have to set the heels of your boots above his shoulders. You’re holding your feet straight out there until that horse breaks, which means it hits the ground, and that muscle and momentum send your feet backward. You have to get them back up in the shoulders before he takes off again. It’s a dance. At Ace High, I started to at least try to catch the timing. But it probably took me another three months before I really started to click.

Andy Chalifour, 25, Quebec, Canada: You don’t only learn from the coaches. Binion explained the stock contractor’s perspective about how to be a horseman. If you sit on a horse that’s anxious, you got to calm him down, pet him, tell him that it’s going to be fine, that you have that rigging in place properly on his back so you don’t hurt him. Because it’s a team event. As much as it’s your performance, it’s the horse’s performance, too.

Barrel Racers

Savannah & Aleeyah Roberts with horses
Aleeyah (left) and Savannah Roberts. Photo by Aaron Colussi

Barrel racing seems easy enough: Woman and horse ride a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels, and the fastest duo wins. But the experience, as outlined by Colorado Springs sisters Aleeyah, 22, and Savannah Roberts, 16, is far more exhilarating than it sounds.

Aleeyah: It’s almost like I’m sitting on a stack of dynamite and I’m holding the match. I know when I turn this horse loose it’s going to explode, and I mean explode. You know how much power you have underneath you, how much power you’re holding back. Your heart just starts to beat like—I don’t think it even compares with drinking five Monsters. Chugging them. And I feel my horse’s heartbeat at the same time. It’s the craziest feeling.

Savannah: I think the only way you can really describe it is “insane.” It’s dark out. You’re under the lights. There are people everywhere. Last night, I was at a little Tuesday night race. There weren’t even 40 people entered. And I still found myself shaking.

Aleeyah: I completely black out during my runs. Muscle memory keeps you in the saddle and makes you do what you need to do to get through the pattern. If I have a fast run, it’s like, That’s cool. What did I do? I have to watch my video. Some people forget to do human functions. They hold their breath the entire time.

Savannah: I do. I’m bad about that.

Aleeyah: You get thrown, slammed into—all kinds of things hurt. One time I had a horse fall on top of me, and then she got up and dragged me behind her. By the grace of God, I was able to walk away from it. Then, I had to get on that same horse and make a pattern. With every injury comes a sense of, Well, what’s gonna happen to me this time? But then it’s like, Well, what if I win? If you’re not bleeding—or even if you are, as long as you’re alive—you can go to the race the next day.

Vold Rodeo Company

We asked Kirsten Vold, whose Avondale-based Vold Rodeo Company supplies bucking horses to rodeos, what it takes to deliver an animal that’s ready to rumble out of the chute.

Kirsten Vold. Illustration by Arthur Mount

On starting in the rodeo business: Harry Vold traveled to the United States from Canada in the 1950s intending to trade horses. He ended up leasing them to a rodeo instead, spurring a dynasty that would provide stock for more than 100 rodeos throughout the country. Upon his death in 2017 at age 93, Harry’s daughter, Kirsten, picked up the company’s reins.

On teaching a horse to buck: “There’s no way to train them to buck,” Kirsten says. “They either want to or they don’t.” Mating two successful buckers improves your odds, but even then, Kirsten never knows how a horse will perform, so she often takes her stock to college practices to get a sense of their desire to dislodge unwanted passengers.

On the mentality of a great bucker: Horses don’t have to be ornery to make great rodeo stock. Kirsten raised a colt named Painted Valley in her backyard, feeding it cookies out of her hand. Despite his gentle disposition, Painted Valley became the PRCA’s Saddle Bronc Horse of the Year in 2010. “Some of the best horses are very, very docile,” Kirsten says. “They buck off cowboys because they don’t want to be rode.”

Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo

B&W historical image of man on bareback at Bill Pickett
Curtis Hobb, Jr. Photo courtesy of Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo

Maurice Wade’s heroes have always been cowboys. “Roy Rogers, the Cisco Kid, the Lone Ranger,” says Wade, who grew up in Michigan, far from the range. “The good guys always wore white hats, and I wanted to be a good guy.” Wade couldn’t help but notice, however, that the white hats also had white skin. “You never saw no Black cowboys,” he says.

Lu Vason made a similar observation in 1977 while attending Cheyenne Frontier Days, the biggest rodeo in Wyoming. “He didn’t see anybody that looked like him,” says Valeria Howard Cunningham, his widow. California-raised Vason had helped form the Pointer Sisters before moving to Denver to book Black acts for a local concert promoter, and the absence of color in the rodeo ring intrigued him. He soon discovered it wasn’t for a lack of history: Experts estimate that 6,000 to 9,000 of the approximately 35,000 cowboys in the American West in the late 19th century were Black. With that in mind, in 1984, Vason organized the all-Black Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR), which was named in honor of the legendary inventor of bulldogging (the art of wrestling a steer to the ground). “Lu said, ‘There’s incredible history here, incredible culture,’  ” Howard Cunningham says. “ ‘We need to share this with the world.’  ”

After BPIR’s first event at the Adams County Fairgrounds, it spent the next four decades traveling the country, taking its self-proclaimed “Greatest Show on Dirt” to 34 cities. Just this year, the BPIR participated in the National Western Stock Show’s MLK Jr. African-American Heritage Rodeo (its 18th straight appearance there), staged a five-stop national tour, and enjoyed a rodeo-in-residence position of sorts (four performances throughout the year) at the famous Fort Worth Stockyards in Texas.

Vason died in 2015, but his legacy lives on in cowboys such as Wade, now 76, who learned rodeoing after moving to Denver in the 1970s and has been showing off his roping skills in BPIR competitions since the 1980s. Even more important is the impact that Vason’s vision continues to have on young cowpokes of color. The rodeo, for example, organizes a show specifically for kids in Memphis. Howard Cunningham, who now runs the business, stands out front to greet children as they arrive. One year, a little boy in a two-gallon hat went still after catching sight of the arena. “I mean, he just literally stopped in his tracks,” Howard Cunningham says of the child. “He put his little hands on his hips and said, ‘I don’t believe this. There really are Black cowboys.’ I stood there with tears coming down my face because, at that moment, I realized that what we are doing is important to the world.”

Rodeo Bullfighters

Rodeo bullfighters look very different than their counterparts in Spain: Instead of wearing a red cape and wielding a sword, they’re usually dressed like clowns. But their job is no joke. Bullfighters protect riders in the arena by drawing the attention of 1,500-pound animals away from vulnerable cowboys lying on the ground.

Here, Burlington resident and 2009 PRCA Bullfighter of the Year Cory Wall explains the risks—and rewards—of the job.

Cory Wall. Illustration by Arthur Mount

“Over my 25-year career, I’ve woken up in a couple of different hospitals, but I never felt like this was gonna be the end. I’ve broken all my ribs, fractured my skull, broken my collarbone, dislocated my shoulder, dislocated my hip, blown my knee out, dislocated both of my elbows at the same time, broken just about every finger, had a broken eardrum down in Houston one year.

You’re there to let them bulls do their job, which is to try to buck those guys off, and then you need to be there at a moment’s notice. Those bulls can only fight one guy at a time, so if a rider is in the arena, I want to make sure the bull is fighting me. They have big ears, big eyes. If you can get their attention, then they lock on to you, and you end up getting run over in place of the bull rider.

My first daughter was born in 2010, and two days later, I got mashed pretty good. They had to carry me to my trailer. When I got down there, I thought, Man, I’ve got this two-day-old baby girl, and she’s dependent on me to make a living for our family. My focus as far as what I wanted out of life began to change. Not that I quit anytime soon.

I didn’t retire until 2014. Waco, Texas. That was my last rodeo. It was pretty emotional. I was counting down the bulls. That’s seven more…six. After the last bull, I burned my cleats in the arena. If you hang them up, there’s a chance you can get them off the hook. I burned ’em to prove to myself that I was done.”

Jim Houston

Bareback rigging
Bareback rigging used to win the 1992 world championship. Photo by Aaron Colussi

For 100 years, this handle mount, called a rigging and placed around a horse’s shoulders, has been the only thing keeping cowboys tethered to bareback steeds bred to buck like popcorn kernels. For almost as long, cowboys have been finding new ways to cement themselves to it—and perhaps no rider had a stickier imagination than Coloradan Jim Houston.

In the 1960s, Houston replaced the soft handle that had been in use since 1924 with fiberglass, which was subsequently outlawed by the PRCA, then aluminum, which was also banned, then hard rawhide, which was deemed acceptable and continues to be used today. Of course, the contriving didn’t end with Houston.

Thicker gloves and a wedge discreetly placed between hand and grip make it almost impossible for riders to come loose these days, so when they do get bucked off, they often get hung up on the horse and dragged around the arena. “It amazes me they haven’t killed anybody yet,” Houston, now 84 and living in Weld County, says. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the innovation Houston pioneered to make the event easier has also ratcheted up the danger. “He made it where you kill ’em off a lot easier,” says Binion Cervi, a Colorado stock contractor who breeds bucking horses. “And when I say kill ’em off, I mean where they don’t want to be
bareback riders anymore.”