The Cowboys Forever Foundation rodeo series returns to Eagle
The Cowboys Forever Foundation kicked off its third annual rodeo series at the Eagle County Fairgrounds this week, combining mental health awareness with classic rodeo fun to help reduce stigma and increase accessibility to behavioral health resources in the valley.
The rodeo will take place every Friday evening from now through August 12, featuring bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, team roping, breakaway, dally ribbon roping, barrel racing, and bull riding. The event will also include mutton bustin’ for children 4-7 years old, and a calf scramble for children 3-10 years old.
Samantha Eckhart founded the Cowboys Forever Foundation in 2019, after losing a close friend and local rodeo competitor to suicide in 2018. That year, Eagle County saw a record amount of suicides, with 17 lives taken, and Eckhart said the shock opened their eyes to the widespread mental health needs of the county.
“It awakened us to this huge crisis, I guess you can call it, going on in our county of suicide,” Eckhart said. “Rodeo is another big thing in our lives, like our western heritage, and so we thought, why not combine it? Especially because one of the demographics that is really impacted by suicide is men. They’re taught to be really tough and not talk about when things aren’t right, and the cowboy-cowgirl industry — it’s definitely more of an atmosphere where that stuff isn’t talked about.”
The foundation teamed up with the local nonprofit SpeakUp ReachOut to create the Eagle Cowboys Forever Rodeo, which addresses suicide prevention in a number of ways. Erin Ivie, the director of communications at SpeakUp ReachOut, said that first and foremost, the event brings the community together for a positive shared experience. These opportunities to connect are even more critical in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“A big piece of a strategy around suicide prevention is improving connectedness and really implementing strategies that increase protective factors so that we’re reducing isolation and loneliness, which ultimately would reduce attempts and death by suicide,” Ivie said.
Ivie also said that the rodeo is a unique way to connect with people who might otherwise not learn about the behavioral resources available to them in the valley. The SpeakUp ReachOut team operates the front gate of the rodeo, where they share information and resources while selling tickets to the event. Members of the organization also speak at the opening ceremonies of every event, and SpeakUp ReachOut banners with the National Crisis Suicide Prevention Lifeline are included in the flag ceremony.
While the rodeo is the main event, interspersing these messages with the fun and the competition creates small but powerful opportunities to have an impact on attendees.
“In a community gathering, it takes five to ten minutes to start the conversation, and then people can still enjoy a night, but maybe one person walks away with a phone number or a resource that they can use for themselves or someone else when they’re struggling,” Ivie said.
A percentage of the proceeds goes towards supporting SpeakUp ReachOut, and last year’s rodeo raised over $6,000 for the nonprofit. While the financial impact is considerable, the community connection that the rodeo facilitates is what is truly unique about the Cowboy’s Forever Foundation’s approach to addressing suicide prevention in the county.
“They didn’t want it just to be that funds went to SpeakUp, ReachOut. They wanted more,” Ivie said. “They wanted to be starting these conversations. They wanted to be able to talk about hard things. The audience that is at the rodeo is one that maybe we aren’t normally able to reach because they’re not likely to seek help, they’re not likely to seek resources. Being able to meet people where they are to provide those resources for themselves or for their loved ones, that’s a big piece of why we see this as really important.”
Four years after the first event, Eckhart said that she has noticed a substantial change in how suicide and behavioral health is talked about in the valley, a shift that the Cowboys Forever Foundation is just one part of.
“I think it’s just a combination of everybody in the community coming together, and they’re seeing it in so many different places by all these different avenues that are going towards mental health awareness,” Eckhart said. “Even if it just saves one person or it helps one person, then this is all completely worth it.”
Entry to the Eagle Cowboys Forever Rodeo costs $10 for those 12 and older, $5 for children, and is free for children under the age of three. All tickets must be purchased in cash at the door. Gates and registration for the kids events open at 6 p.m. and the rodeo begins at 7:30 p.m. every Friday evening from now through Aug. 12.
For more information about rodeo events and contestant registration, visit CowboysForeverFoundation.org.