Eagle County Fair & Rodeo celebrates 79th annual event July 25-28
For those who aren’t up on their cowboy vernacular, burning the breeze means traveling at top speed.
That’s what barrel racers do in a competition or what spectators do when it comes time to attend the Eagle County Fair & Rodeo.
Sure, Eagle County is home to some of the world’s greatest ski terrain, but that doesn’t mean locals have forgotten their ranching roots. Once a year, the community gathers to celebrate its heritage during the annual county fair.
The event is marking its 79th anniversary this summer. Like their local predecessors first did back in 1939, area residents will gather to enjoy rodeo competition, check out the work of 4-H Club kids and compete in a variety of cooking, craft and horticulture contest.
The Eagle County Fair & Rodeo runs from Wednesday, July 25, through Saturday, July 28, at the Eagle County Fairgrounds.
“If you go back to when I was in college, Eagle County was surrounded by ranchland,” said Ern Mooney, a member of the county’s fair and rodeo advisory council. Mooney showed cattle at the fair during the early 1960s.
“We’re very fortunate that the county takes a real interest in our fair and rodeo,” he said.
“I think our fair and rodeo is an event that everybody can attend,” said Eagle County Fair manager Tanya Dahlsied. “We’re going to have carve wars with chain saws, the livestock shows, the rodeo and the carnival. It reaches a lot of diversity in our community, and we’ve had a lot of people from Europe come; they talk about all that there is going on.”
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Ride ’em cowboy
As the event title states, rodeo action is a central part of the Eagle County Fair & Rodeo. The nightly performances feature sell-out crowds.
“There’s no other rodeo setting like Eagle, tucked among the mountains with the Eagle River right behind it,” said Clay Heger, a bullfighter who has been in the middle of the action for several years at the rodeo.
“That time of year makes everyone and every animal feel great. Waking up on a cool 60 or 70 degrees in the middle of the summer is amazing,” Heger said.
“We’ve been on the rodeo trail all year, and we’ve been to some beautiful places,” said John Gwatney, the livestock superintendent for Pete Carr Pro Rodeo, the stock contractor for the event. “We just got done with Big Spring (Texas) and Pecos (Texas), which are two fantastic rodeos, but there’s a lot of heat. To go from there to the beautiful setting of the mountains and a crowd that is so captive and responsive is amazing and makes Eagle a wonderful rodeo.”
The PRCA competitors showed their appreciation for the Eagle County event by nominating it for Medium Rodeo of the Year in 2017, a first for the annual contest. With the nomination, Eagle was recognized as one of the top 20 rodeos in North America, and the PRCA sponsors more than 650 rodeos annually.
“We have a lot of great history in Eagle,” said Pete Carr. “The horses and bulls love it up there, and the mountain climate adds to that. There are usually a lot of high scores and great rides in Eagle because of that.”
In fact, Carr’s bucking horse Grass Dancer was part of a world record-tying 94-point ride when she matched moves with bareback rider Ryan Gray in 2009.
“I think one of the keys to making the rides so memorable is the crowd,” Gwatney said. “The energy of the crowd electrifies the whole place. The night that record ride was made, there was lightning in the background, and the crowd was just as into it as if there wasn’t weather around us. That’s the electricity that place brings.”
Combine that electricity with history, and you have a legacy in the making.
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Building a Legacy
“When you’re growing into 80 years, you have touched a lot of people,” said Hanna Albertson, chairwoman of the fair and rodeo advisory council.
“You have gone through multiple generations. It’s one of the longest-running events here in the county. That’s what makes it so special,” Albertson said. “Kids remember going to the rodeo with their grandparents. One thing we tend to miss in everyday society is that generational connection. The fair and rodeo provides that.”
Though he spent a number of years in Texas, Mooney has strong ties to Eagle County and its agriculture base. From his day of showing steers and heifers nearly six decades ago, he understands why it is so important to keep that history going.
“I’m a firm believer that 4-H and Future Farmers of America produces really good kids,” he said. “Most places nowadays, agriculture has changed. Eagle County is a prime example. When I showed as a kid, it was mainly farm and ranch kids. Now I’d say the majority of it is town kids. If you’re going to keep this program going and be successful, you’ve got to find ways to get these town kids to join these organizations.”
As the Eagle County event has evolved, organizers have found a winning formula of combining fair exhibits from 4-H Club kids and residents with nightly PRCA competition. The popularity of the PRCA rodeo has grown so much that all four nights feature a sold-out crowd.
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Organizers of the Eagle County Fair & Rodeo aren’t just in the entertainment business. Every year, they look for ways to give back to the community.
The Saddle Up Program, which benefits nonprofits in the Eagle area, invites groups to apply to be part of the program, and one beneficiary is selected each year. For 2018, people who are part of the Eagle River Youth Coalition will be able to enjoy a barbecue on Thursday, July 26, and will have tickets provided to them for either the Wednesday or Thursday performances of the PRCA rodeo.
“We saw this as an opportunity to achieve two goals,” said Michelle Stecher, executive director of the coalition. “One, we expose local youth and families to the fair experience that they may not have had another opportunity to be part of that. Our second main goal is to use this as an opportunity to bring together the people that use our services and those who support our services.”
Stecher said there are about 4,000 people impacted by the Eagle River Youth Coalition.
“We work a lot with other providers, anybody that is interacting with youth or supportive people involved in the community,” she said. “We invest really heavily in parent and family education. We work with prevention programs in the schools. We do a lot of work to increase the youth voice in the community.”
Because of the Saddle Up Program, there is an opportunity to raise awareness about the coalition and also to help those associated with it know more about the community and the region’s legacy through the eyes of a fairgoer.
“The Saddle Up Program is a great way to get another group of people involved in the rodeo and to give an experience to people who might not otherwise be able to attend,” Albertson said.
Additionally, on Friday, July 27, Tough Enough to Wear Pink will return to the Eagle County Fair & Rodeo. The event is a fundraiser for the Shaw Cancer Center locally and part of a Wrangler’s national Tough Enough to Wear Pike campaign for rodeo and Western events.
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A royal visit will be part of the schedule at the Eagle County Fair & Rodeo this year. Miss Rodeo America 2018 Keri Sheffield and Miss Rodeo Colorado 2018 Alex Hyland will be participating in the 79th annual event.
Sheffield is a 24-year-old cowgirl from Summerfield, Florida. She earned a bachelor of science in nursing from Berry College, and works as an ICU nurse. As Miss Rodeo America, she will receive more than $20,000 in scholarships. When the year is over, she plans to continue her education to become a nurse anesthetist and carry out her vision to serve as a medical missionary. During her reign as Miss Rodeo America and as the official representative of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Sheffield will travel more than 120,000 miles and appear at more than 120 rodeo performances,
Hyland, a 23-year-old Windsor resident, competed for the title during the Greeley Stampede and won the categories of horsemanship, appearance and speech. Hyland’s experiences in the agricultural realm include being active in FFA, 4-H Club, Colorado High School Rodeo, being raised on a farm, holding the title of the 2012 Rooftop Rodeo Queen and re-starting the Colorado State University in Pueblo’s rodeo team and serving as its president. A recent college graduate, she obtained a degree in mass communications and graduated cum laude from CSU-Pueblo.
To learn more about the 2018 Eagle County Fair & Rodeo, or purchase tickets, visit eaglecounty.us/fairrodeo.
Vail Mountain opens Nov. 15, about a week earlier than normal. But that earlier opening will be out of Vail Village, not Lionshead.