Shae Flanigan, 31, perched atop her tan and cream horse, Hitch, in the stockyard at the National Western Complex. She expertly commanded him as he ran in small circles around the pen with the agility of a much smaller animal. She was killing time and warming up; her competition was up next.
Flanigan had traveled from Wyoming to Denver to compete in the Colorado Pro Rodeo Association Finals for the fifth time. Her event? Barrel racing.
For as long as she can remember, Flanigan has been atop a horse. And it’s her great respect for Hitch and her driving competitive nature that keeps her coming back for what some worry is a dying sport.
The Colorado Pro Rodeo Association presented its annual rodeo finals this weekend in Denver for the 41st consecutive year.
Contestants from all over the world competed alongside Colorado’s best cowboys and cowgirls in eight different events, including barrel racing and breakaway roping for the ladies and steer wrestling and bullriding for the gents. An estimated 2,000 attendees from across the Rocky Mountain region came out Sept. 17 and 18 for family fun and horsemanship — and for a shot at preserving Colorado’s heritage.
“I love competition, it feels good [to be here],” Flanigan said. “You’re proud of your horse. They’re the athletes so you have to take good care of them.”
Barrel racing requires the rider to maneuver around three barrels at breakneck speed.
In the audience, eight-year-old Danielle Dawson watched with starry eyes. She and her parents, Julie and Keith Dawson, came from Centennial for the event.
“We are here for the love of the rodeo,” Julie Dawson said.
Her daughter participates in Gymkhana, an kid-friendly equestrian competition with many of the same games.
“She’s a future barrel racer,” Julie said of her daughter.
Aside from the sweat and the swagger, the CPRA Finals represent something much more significant to contestants and attendees, alike: an attempt to preserve Colorado’s history.
Sandy McSperrin, a first-time volunteer for the Mile High Rodeo Association–that sponsored the event–is a native Coloradan who grew up around die-hard “horse people.” She worries the ranching tradition could be threatened as the city continues to grow.
“Generations of families have been ranching, but think of all the ranches that have been sold or developed,” she said. “Continuing to have these competitions keeps the cowboy culture alive.”
The Dawsons, too, recognize the importance of the games.
“This is our heritage,” Julie Dawson said. “It brings us back to where Colorado started.”
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