Big time equine fun in little western towns
Horse and human stories have been intertwined in the West for centuries, and while only a few people work with horses today, that deep connection lives on through horse-centered contests, races, and celebrations scattered throughout little western towns. Here are a few fun, small-town events, sampling the range of equine entertainment.
Dubois Friday Night Rodeo
Clarence Allison Memorial Area, Dubois, Wyoming
Rodeos are the most obvious horse-centric entertainment in this region, and you’ll find one in almost any town over three hundred people. But it’s not every little town that hosts one each Friday night. Dubois’ weekly event offers the stalwarts of rodeo—bull riding, barrel racing, and saddle bronc riding—alongside more unusual events. Take stick horse racing for kids or the Ribbon Race, where teams of three compete to pull a ribbon off a feisty calf’s tail. About five hundred people come out for the rodeo each week.
Hecht Creek Ranch Cattle Drive
Centennial Valley, Wyoming
Well-worn boots and halters grace the spacious porch at the Hecht Creek Ranch. A medley of curious dogs greets visitors. Between their chores, the quiet wranglers at this multigenerational ranch lead guests on two- to three-hour cattle drives, moving cows from pasture to pasture. Ed, Harmony, Gus, and Moxie enrich the ride with information about natural history and land stewardship practices, including rotational grazing. Guests get a dose of working ranch life and are immersed in the prairie, mountains, and streams in the Centennial Valley.
Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Tour
Between Rock Springs and Green River, Wyoming
As the long drive to Yellowstone gives way to yet another stretch of endless desert near Rock Springs, despairing drivers can pull their rented Hyundais off the interstate onto County Road 53 to try their luck at glimpsing wild horses. The steeds might be hunkering down for the winter or romping with spring foals. The 24-mile gravel road tour takes about one and a half hours to complete, and is one of the most reliable places in Wyoming to see wild horses.
Don E. Erickson Memorial Chariot Races
Buck Springs Rodeo Grounds, Saratoga, Wyoming
Each March, spectators in Carhartt coveralls and Sorel boots gather at Saratoga’s rodeo grounds to place Calcutta bets on the State Championship Chariot Races. Pickups, backed up to the berms of snow plowed off the racetrack serve as impromptu grandstands. At the sound of the starting gun, the teams explode through the gates. Clods of ice and dirt pelt the drivers who shout encouragement to the horses as they thunder down the quarter mile track. Around 25 teams compete over the two-day weekend, and the winners take home prize money.
World Championship Indian Relay Races
Sheridan Rodeo Grounds, Sheridan, Wyoming
The high-octane Indian Relay Races are one of the best-attended events at the Sheridan WYO Rodeo. Teams consist of three fast horses and four Native American contestants: one rider, two holders, and a mugger who controls the spirited horses as the rider jumps on bareback. The rider sprints each horse for a breath taking spin around the racetrack, leaping from one to the next between laps. Contestants vie for $50,000 in prize money, awarded both for speed and decoration—think headdresses, loincloths, neon body paint, and beaded masks for the horses.
Mustang Makeover Days
Wyoming State Fair, Douglas, Wyoming
Every year, the Bureau of Land Management seeks homes for thousands of wild horses removed from the range. In August, mustang enthusiasts gather to celebrate success stories at the Wyoming State Fair. Previously adopted wild horses and their owners, including children, perform in western pleasure, team sorting, dressage, and halter classes. More recently captured wild horses, gentled at the Mantle Ranch in Wheatland, Wyoming, or by inmates at the Wyoming Honor Farm, compete to show off their skills before going up for adoption.
Miles City Bucking Horse Sale
Miles City Fairgrounds, Miles City, Montana
Each spring in little Miles City, Montana, the best bucking broncs try to land themselves careers by landing cowboys in the dust. Stock contractors watch the animals’ performances closely, and purchase them to supply rodeos throughout the country. The town swells with spectators, also there to see other fist-clenching events, including wild horse races and mutton bustin’. When the dust settles, the crowds move into the streets for the parade, vendors of all things western, five country music bands, and bars that stay open late into the night.
Big Horn Polo
Big Horn Equestrian Center, Big Horn, Wyoming
The thunder of hoof beats, thwack of a mallet hitting a ball, and shrill whistles from referees may seem like unlikely sounds to hear in Big Horn, Wyoming, but this town is home to an international polo scene that dates back to 1890. Every Sunday throughout the summer, teams from places as distant as Nicaragua and Argentina engage in fierce competition. Tailgating sideline spectators gasp at the breakneck maneuvering of horse and rider and cheer for the two home-team clubs.
Pack Burro Triple Crown
Fairplay, Leadville, and Buena Vista, Colorado
Runners in bright shirts and shorts toe the line. A flag drops. The participants take off, each leading a burro packed with a minimum of 33 pounds of prospector paraphernalia, which must include but is not limited to a shovel, pick, and gold pan. The courses are grueling, varying from 12 to 29 miles, and climb as high as 13,000 feet up rugged 4-wheel-drive roads through Colorado’s historic mining areas. Although prohibited from riding, runners are allowed to “push, pull, drag, or carry” their furry friends.
Will James Roundup and Ranch Rodeo
Big Horn County Fairgrounds, Hardin, Montana
Forget screaming crowds and star-studded circuit-touring rodeo stars. Real working cowboys and cowgirls converge in little Hardin, Montana, for the Will James Roundup. The Ranch Rodeo, one component of the three-day get-together, features contestants on ranch horses racing to brand calves, load stock into trailers, doctor yearlings, and milk cows. The roundup is a fundraiser for the local museum, and the teams with the most cumulative points take home modest cash prizes.
Text by Celeste Havener, Carly Fraysier, and Emilene Ostlind
Drawings by Joel Ostlind