In a season when people are suddenly focused on very real dangers of competitive sports, you can’t find one where the risks are more vivid than they appear from atop 1,500 pounds of angry saddle bronc, as somebody prepares to open the chute.

“It’s not a matter of if you’re going to be hurt, but when and how bad,” said Jesse Guillory from Beaumont Texas, in the hospitality center at the Denver Coliseum Saturday, a few yards from where saddle broncs and bulls were being loaded in as the National Western’s Colorado vs The World Rodeo was set to get underway.

Guillory suffered torn ligaments and a separated pelvis before he quit riding saddle broncs in 2004.

“You get hurt all the time, it’s just a part of it,” said Tucker Zingg from Crow Agency, Mont., who was readying to climb onto a horse for the bareback competition—a bronco, but without the benefit of a saddle. Last fall he cracked his sternum, and he recalls at various times having had both elbows repaired, along with a shoulder, a broken ankle, and a bunch of cracked ribs.

Randy Britton of Kiowa started riding rodeo as a kid, but broke his neck in 2005—an event that turned him from bronc rider into a ‘pickup man’—the rider that follows the bronco into the arena and pulls the contestant to safety after the 8-second whistle blows marking a successful ride.

Bareback riding may be the toughest of rodeo sports, according to Britton. “Bareback is harder on the body,” he said. The pickup job is no cinch either, he added, noting that the quality of the horse he rides makes a difference in how well he pulls that off.

“Rodeo is one of most dangerous sports,” added Dawn Lindner, who grew up in Durango, became a paramedic, and for a while served on the National Western’s emergency medical support team. She now serves on a security team that monitors the riding entries to the arena.

Like everybody riding yesterday, Lindner finds that what she gets back from the culture of rodeo far surpasses any hazards that the sport involves.

“I like the values,” she said. “Everybody cares about everybody. When somebody gets hurt, they’re on it.”

Tucker Zing has competed in dozens of summer outdoor rodeos, including in California and Texas, but finds the National Western to be above and beyond. “The National Western is huge. Up here there’s nothing that compares to it,” he added, noting that he considers it well worth the risks. “It’s ten times bigger than me. I like the lights, the crowd is louder.”

In Crow Agency, where the family ranch lies adjacent to where General Custer camped on his way his army’s massacre at Little Big Horn, both his mother and father rode rodeo—his dad on bulls, and his mom doing team roping.

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“I did five events through high school and college. I started to focus on whether I could clear money on it.” That led to five years of intense riding and confidence building on the winter rodeo circuit. He won rodeos in Oakdale, Calif., and a few events in Colorado, and began making some income at it.

“I grew up roping calves before I could walk,” said Kade Berry, currently a sophomore at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, who was preparing to climb bareback onto a bronc for Saturday’s afternoon semifinals. He recalled during high school the moment when he knew he wanted rodeo as a profession. “I woke up one morning and said, I really want to try this. It came to me fast and I got on good starter horse.”

Last year he won events in Cheyenne and Mesquite, Texas, but developed a nerve issue in his riding arm. “My hand was going numb holding onto the rope,” he recalled. He has since recovered.

“This is a pretty big deal for younger guys like myself,” Berry says. “People know your name and it can boost your confidence.”

“I rodeoed for years when I was a kid back in Oklahoma, said Blake Rowan, originally from Muskogee, now from Denver. Competitive riding came to a halt in 2012, when shoulder injuries began to pile up on him. “I had to be operated on four times. I knew my career was over,” he recalled.

“Bull riding is physical, but 90 percent is mental, and I knew I wasn’t capable of giving 100 percent,” he said. After the injuries, he was approached by some older bull riders, who prompted him to begin judging the sport, and he is now in his third year of judging the National Western.

Rowan talked extensively about how focused he and his colleagues are on keeping rodeo and its culture alive. The pandemic, he said, shut rodeo down as it did many spectator sports.

“Back home, people are struggling to keep that culture alive,” Rowan added. Meanwhile, the ranch culture that lies behind rodeo’s popularity is threatened, as an older generation of ranchers pass their land and stock on to kids who may not be as close to the lifestyle as were their parents and grandparents.

Jesse Guillory, who now works for the Dodge Ram Rodeo Tour, is less worried about the sport’s future. “This is what gets your motor running,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle and a culture. No matter how cold it is, how much rain there is, you’ve got that cowboy mentality of let’s get it done today. As a cowboy you know you want to be here, you want to win something here.”

“I don’t care if you’re a politician, or what religion or what color you are,” Rowan added. “You should go behind the bucking chutes and see the mentality of a cowboy, how they communicate, how they help each other, and what they do with their families and how they love their kids.”

The National Western continues Sunday with the annual Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza, 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., at Denver Coliseum, 4600 Humboldt Street, off Brighton Boulevard just south of I-70.

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