Freedom Riders light up rodeo |

Freedom Riders light up rodeo

Maisie Crow/Vail DailyThe Freedom Riders perform during the intermission last weekend at the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo.

EAGLE – As they prance and lope past in their glittering red-white-and-blue costumes, the Freedom Riders are a sight to behold. This August marks the third appearance for the Freedom Riders at the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo. The team rides each rodeo night, carrying the sponsor flag. This year’s team is the largest yet, with 21 members. What’s more impressive, however, is that these skilled riders – who perform daring passes, circle horses in close quarters, and change formations at dare-devil paces – are between 8 to 18 years old. Many of them are brand new, not only to the team, but also to the sport of riding.Hard workPerforming the pinwheel formation, “thread the needle” and the horse version of the doh-se-doh takes hours of practice. The Freedom Riders started practicing back in March for this year’s rodeo, meeting every Monday for at least an hour. In July, practices were doubled. “It’s quite a challenge,” the team’s coach, Shelly McCoy, says. “The horses are not always in the best of moods; they are temperamental. The riders are at different levels and the horses are at different levels.”Even the simplest of routines requires not only sound riding skills, but also the ability to slow and speed up horses and keep the proper space between horses. All that must be performed in time to the music,”So much goes into making something like that,” says Kensie Scott, a Freedom Riders’ inaugural member and the 2004-2005 Eagle County Fair and Rodeo Queen. Something as seemingly simple as carrying a flag while riding can be a major challenge for riders.

“It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but a lot of horses are actually scared of (a flag) at first,” Scott says.McCoy, a rider since fifth-grade who has participated in numerous Little Britches Rodeos and other competitions, designs the team’s patterns and trains the riders.”I think there are about 11 different maneuvers this year,” McCoy says. McCoy, who also is the postmaster in Bond, has the young people walk through the patterns without their horses in the fairground’s exhibition hall. The pinwheel is particularly difficult because riders must keep their horses close together – something horses aren’t fond of. Additionally, the pinwheel involves graduating speed, with the horses in the center moving more slowly, while the outside horses must gradually attain a gallop at full speed.”They go from a walk to a trot to running,” McCoy says. “Most of it is that they have to stay together and place themselves properly to make it work.”Starting from scratchLearning all this is a daunting enough task for an experienced rider, but for the Freedom Riders’ eight new members, it is particularly challenging.”I’m really impressed with all of them,” says Scott, who says she was practically born on a horse. “They worked really hard to catch up.”

Scott, a junior year at South Routt County High School this fall, came up with the idea for a local drill team after watching another team, the Westeneers, in Denver a few years ago. Growing up on a ranch outside of Burns, one of her earliest memories is of riding on a saddle with her great-grandpa, Orris Albertson, she says. Although her friends weren’t too enthused at first, they gradually saw the merit in the idea, Scott says. “The first time I talked about (a drill team), I didn’t have enough people to go into it with me,” Scott says. “Then, kids started to say, ‘hey, that would be a lot of fun.'”McCoy agreed to be the coach. Along with Kris Whittaker and Scott’s mom, Kendra, they formed the Freedom Riders. Whittaker chooses the music, takes care of the uniforms and helps with financing. Whittaker Landscape Services has been the team’s sole sponsor.Kendra Scott is also a whiz with the horses, and helps the children work with their riding skills. “It takes everybody to make it work,” McCoy says. The drill team has grown steadily from its original 16 members. This year’s 21-member team was almost too big to perform the pinwheel.”My reward is watching these kids and the crowds just loving them. It’s such a great group of kids.” Lessons of lifeBoth McCoy and Scott say there’s more to learn than riding skills. They riders learn about dedication ands teamwork, they say.

There are three leaders this year – Abbe Batten, Traci Schlegel and Kirstie Eckert – who switch off positions leading formations, Scott says. “I think being part of a team is important because you learn you are only as good as your team is,” McCoy says. “There’s not one person out there trying to look better than the rest – they all help each other.”And, as 4-H Club members as well they learn proper care of horses and bookkeeping skills, too. And, says Scott, everyone becomes “like one, great big family.””I used to be really scared to ride really fast, now I open up and go,” Scott says. “It’s been a great program for me.” These days, the Freedom Riders are in demand, and not only in Eagle County. They have ridden in regional parades and performed in fairs, rodeos and shows around the state, including McCoy, Kremmling, Topanas and Rifle.”It’s just so rewarding at the end of the summer,” McCoy says. “The crowds just love them and give them standing ovations.”Vail, Colorado

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