Rodeo is no ordinary sport. Riders mount a 1,100-pound animal and charge it to high speeds, weaving intricate patterns or barreling toward livestock on the loose. It requires full-body focus and a trusting relationship with one’s horse. From top-to-toe grooming and practices squeezed in fading after-school light, to full weekends spent on rodeo grounds; it’s a level of commitment and attention to detail that parents say helps their children mature quickly. These riders, though tenderfoot in the grand scheme of life, were raised in the saddle and display an ability beyond their years.
Twins Avery and Chisum Draper, 11, of Wetmore, Colorado live and practice riding on land that’s been part of their family for five generations. Born to Christy Draper, Miss Rodeo Colorado 2003, and Chad Draper, a former Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association team roper, their roots in the arena run deep. The two, who have been riding on their own since age four, were named the Colorado Junior Rodeo Association junior boy and girl Rookies of the Year 2020. They both compete in breakaway, goat tying, and team roping. Avery competes in pole bending and barrel racing, too.
When Avery sets out on a barrel run, there’s nothing in her mind but the communication she needs to give her horse to make clean and swift maneuvers: say “Woah!” when approaching the first barrel, guide his nose around the tight turn, kick to the second and third barrels to do the same, and run home.
“Competitions aren’t always about competing. You get to share your success and your downfalls with your friends and family,
and they always understand and they cheer you on,” Avery says.
This year, Avery and Chisum added team roping to their repertoires, following in their dad’s (hoof) steps. They even got to team up with him in a summertime parent/child roping event with the Colorado Junior Rodeo Association—the same organization that facilitated Chad’s roping with his father.
“[My dad] gives me tips and things I can do,” Chisum says. “We look at a really good run and then we look at what went good and what went bad and then we go to practice and improve on it. It helps me keep learning.”
“It’s going to be an exciting chapter in our lives to take care of this ranch and keep it going,” he adds.
Savannah Roberts, 14, is from Black Forest, where she lives with her family and their eight horses. Nicole Roberts, her mother, competed as a trick rider with the Westernaires in Golden; her dad, Warren Roberts, grew up with horses on a farm in Texas; and Aleeyah, her sister, made the Colorado Pro Rodeo Finals at age 13. Savannah’s competition events include barrel racing, breakaway, and pole bending. She is the reigning Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo world champion and has qualified for the semi finals for the Junior American Rodeo. As soon as she turns 18, she’ll likely try for the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association: “I have enough confidence in myself,” she says.
“[Rodeo has] taught me how to win, it’s taught me how to lose, it’s taught me how to deal with those so-called haters,” Roberts says. “When I show up to one of those high school rodeos I feel at home. Everybody is so respectful, so nice, it’s like a rodeo family.”
As a “horse girl” in non-rodeo settings, like at school, Roberts feels she lives a different life from her peers, but many kids like hearing about her dedication to the sport and the animals.
“My mom always says, ‘Put your horses first and your homework second,’ which sounds a lot more horrible than it actually means. I have high grades, I just have to equalize time between the both of them,” Roberts says. This can prove tricky—Roberts rides different horses for different events, and each one has its own personality and style of riding. Some, she says, are “automatic” in their understanding of the run patterns. Others need more handling: “It’s something that you have to grow and learn with your horse.”
Tom Anselmi, 18, from Lakewood, is part of a Westernaires-devoted family. Each Anselmi child is signed up for their first year by age nine, because their parents believe in the riding organization’s training and character development methods. Tom participates in the Steppes acrobatic team—in which he jumps on and off of moving horses and builds human pyramids with his teammates—and Varsity Red show team—for which he gets to carry the American flag through the arena, a coveted position.
During bus rides to summer shows and the exciting 10-day gauntlet that is the National Western Stock Show, that’s when the teams build the bonds necessary to perform together. Even hard times, when rainy days make for slippery arenas or late nights and early mornings wear the body down: “Most of the time we just go through with a smile and a laugh because it’s nobody’s fault. We’re just there to have fun,” Anselmi says.
Tom’s mother, Jennifer Anselmi, has served as one of the Westernaires logistics coordinators alongside the many parent and alumni volunteers. Her favorite part of watching a performance: when the kids safely exit the arena. It’s not because there’s constant problems, she says, but there’s inherent risk. Throughout the events she’s urging the riders, “Hold on, hold on, hold on.”
Having family and elder Westernaires to look up to means a lot to Tom. He’s learned how to be an achiever in and out of riding arenas.
“The longer you’re on a team, the more you interact with [riders] who are older than you… you get to see how much better they work and how they all act around each other,” Anselmi says. “It really helps from a leadership standpoint and discipline. It can help in school, and there are a lot of skills that I think will be helpful for the rest of my life.”
Helen Erickson, 19, is from Conifer and is the first trained rider in her family. She currently lives and studies in Greeley at University of Northern Colorado, and travels more than an hour each way every Saturday to make it to Westernaires Varsity Red practices. The elite show team includes 30 or so riders who’ve practiced and studied between six and 10 years in order to execute the group’s fast, intricate maneuvers.
“This is definitely a hardcore sport,” Erickson says. “You have to readjust your body to these different things because when you ride a horse, you’re using every muscle in your body, even if it doesn’t feel like it, so you come out of those rides exhausted sometimes.”
Her favorite part of performing is the rush of emotion that turns from anxiety—both her own and what she feels from her horse and teammates—to pride. “I love being in the arena and getting to show off and we work for and riding with my team.”
Her father, John Erickson, who regularly volunteers with the organization, relishes being part of the journey. “You can’t buy seat time with your kid like this. The early morning car rides and end of day car rides, the things that you talk about, and the continuation of that dialogue throughout your week, it’s just unbelievably rewarding,” he says. At the same time, he feels he can loosen the reins on his parenting duties because there’s the support of other families and volunteers as support: “This place helps you let go and let them do.”
Fast-facts about horse-mounted rodeo events.
A horse and rider make a series of sharp turns around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern.
Competitive Times for junior/high school riders: close to 15 seconds in smaller arenas, 17 to 18 seconds in larger arenas
Penalties: knocking over a barrel (five seconds), running an incorrect pattern (no time), recrossing the starting line (no time)
A horse and rider run a tight weaving path through six poles arranged in a line, each 21 feet apart. They go through twice and run up the side to finish.
Competitive Times for junior/high school riders: 20 to 21 seconds
Penalties: knocking over a pole (five seconds), running an incorrect pattern or missing a pole (no time)
A horse and rider wait in the box next to a chute which holds a calf. The calf is released with a head start, and the rider races after it and lassos its neck, then stops their horse so the line breaks away from the saddle.
Competitive Times: two to three seconds for high school, three to five for junior high
Penalties: a dropped or fallen rope that must be recoiled is considered a thrown rope, breaking the barrier (10 seconds), roping without releasing the loop from hand (no time), breaking the rope away from the saddle horn by hand (no time)
A head roper and heel roper on horses wait in the box next to a chute which holds a 600-pound steer. The steer is released with a head start, and both riders race after it. The head roper lassos the horns, head, or neck, then turns the steer while winding their rope around the saddlehorn. Then, the heel roper lassos the feet to stop the steer.
Competitive Times: five to seven seconds for high school and seven to eight for junior high
Penalties: roping just one hind foot (five seconds), roping heels before the steer changes direction (no time), dragging steer more than eight feet (no time), broken or dropped rope (no time), roping without releasing the loop from hand (no time)