Much more that showing off equestrian skills at rodeo events
By Jaclyn Schrock
The Westernaires are the fast-paced horse drill team comprised of “the most tenacious youth in America,” that performed at our Gilpin County Arena Sunday, July 14th to close out our 2019 fair. The teams perform all over Colorado, nation and even internationally. We may be most familiar with their incredible equestrian skills and performances in parades, the Western National Stock Show, Cheyenne Frontier Days, and many others.
The youth, ages 9-19, are trained as skilled riders and horse trainers and meet in Golden, near the Jefferson County Fair Grounds. The primary interest of the 100 riders we saw is to develop skills of riding and caring for horses. Male or female skill level groups have volunteer trainers who may be Westernaires Alumni (having graduated as a performing rider) along with special skills trainers.
Youth from around the foothills area of Golden need not have economic advantages, just simply a desire to perpetuate the joys of riding horses as our Western Culture has perpetuated. Practicing the art of respecting Westernaires traditions of riding and developing personal characteristics of integrity, self-confidence and respectful responsibility is gained by the multi-generational relationships and mentoring developed with volunteer trainers. Family involvement, community exhibitions, and varied roles and relational opportunities develops positive results from commitments and strengthens values of self-worth and responsibility within each Westernaire. They meet every other Saturday, committing to the program for a year at a time, but usually stay in the program until they graduate high school.
What do the Westernaires do?
In our Gilpin County Fair Arena, we saw the versatile Westernaires horsemanship skills and levels of horses trained along with rider’s ability levels. Westernaires continually are building a variety of relationships through shared experiences in horsemanship skills. This makes possible the development of confident, quality individuals, essential for team work. Performances (often a revenue source) are completely dependent on team work, and responsible cooperation with horses, riders and volunteers who make performances run smoothly. Performances maybe indoors or out, in an arena or in parades. The three main areas of skills include the precision drill coordination in:
–Trick riding (the act of performing stunts while riding a horse, like the boys team making human pyramids, the horse not stopping but riders jumping on and off, multiple riders on one horse)
–Roman riding (standing on the back of a galloping horse or one rider standing with one foot on each of two horses)
–Dressage (the execution by a trained horse to complete a sequence of precision movements in response to barely perceptible signals from its rider capitalizing on a horse’s natural athletic abilities and willingness to perform skills valued over 500 years)
Westernaires presentation and costuming demonstrates respectfulness of western riding skills and traditions (rather than English riding styles). They also include some other western arts/skills; like using whips and ropes with influences from our neighbors south of the boarder.
How did they originate?
Consider your recollection of 1949: The world is recovering from the 2nd World War, the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb, Communist forces gain power in China, Israel is brought into the UN, Americans are buying 100,000 televisions a week, and silly putty and the song Rudolf the Red-nose Reindeer are introduced. 1949 is when Westernaires began as a horsemanship training opportunity for the post WWII baby boomers.
Locally, foothills communities and the plains of Colorado had become modernized having been founded on a culture dependent on horse and train transportation. The military, homesteaders, railroaders and miners (all often making poor neighbors with the Native Americans) settled this area primarily dependent on 4-legged horsepower. The Westernaires was one way to keep horse traditions and strong communities alive in rural Colorado.
As those who originally settled this area in the mid-1800s passed on to their next generation the agrarian traditional ways, technology was changing by the 1900s. Those who were descendants of the Civil War Era became less dependent on human and animal muscle power, learning to utilize electricity, gas, machines, and higher speed communication though still dependent on print primarily, while Sunday was still considered a day of rest and worship held for church and family, not work.
In the 1900s ranchers of the foothills and farmers of the plains of Colorado had survived the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the Great War, and now World War II had ended some four years before the Westernaires began. The wars and cost of mining had turned many away from those ventures, and the need to build families for the future was booming. Recognizing the need to retain traditional skills and values after the Wild West tested those limits is part of the way the Westernaires were established by the efforts of volunteers in the community encouraged by Mr. and Mrs. E. E Wyland. The Wyland’s were the driving force for the Westernaires the first 35 years.
Golden can trace their annual Buffalo Bill Days to the 1940’s. Buffalo Bill Saddle Club had an annual trail ride from Buffalo Bill’s grave on Lookout Mountain to downtown Golden. This was to honor the showman Bill Cody who showed the world what it was like to live in the west, the skills used with horses, guns, wagons, and Native Americans who lived in their tepees as they toured the world. The Westernaires also joined into the Golden parade, to honor the past, while developing character values for the future.
In the early years, the Westernaires also made trips to parade at Cheyenne Frontier Days, building horsemanship skills and team work ethics. In 1952-53 the Westernaires participated in the Kid Day activities with the National Western Stock Show. In 1954 they were invited to open the rodeo with their drill routine of flags on horses and continue doing so 65 years later, with no end in sight. The Westernaires also participate in the opening parade, Wild West Show, and the Evening of Dancing Horses. Performing is the Westernaires thrill for the riders, their family and support team of volunteers, and the audiences like our Gilpin County Fair.
Today, there are roughly 1,000 active Westernaires between 9 and 19 years of age, plus alumni totaling more than 15,000 strong. They have hundreds of volunteers committed to training, maintaining operations, facilitating, driving, and being family friends.
Current Westernaires organization
This strictly non-profit organization now has only one employee, a cowboy to tend to the 200 horses they own. These horses are rented at a nominal hourly fee to riders who do not have their own horse. These are the horses they learn to care for and train to ride. They do not have one horse to be exclusively theirs to rent and ride until they reach the advanced Red Division.
Westernaires build deep relationships on and off the horses, in the facility in Golden and out in the community, through the rider’s family. It is all about relationships with their family, the horses, with teammates and with the 500 volunteers of every age and walk of life. Some volunteers are alumni who have graduated through the Westernaires program. Others are parents of past Westernaires who want to give back to the program for what their children have been able to become from the skills and values they learned.
Every other Saturday training occurs at the Westernaires facility in Golden behind the Jefferson County Fair Grounds. There are meeting rooms and a museum of Westernaires history. Horses are available to be rented for $15 per class (an unusually low price compared to private vendors) or bring your own. Horsemanship, drill team work, and character development are the basic program. There are bleachers in the arena where families can give support to their rider.
Riders as young as 9 years old may begin the “Tenderfoot” level. This White Division is the foundational skill set with levels A, AA, and AAA. Male or female teams may progress to the Red Division which is the top level of skills. Each October before Halloween, the year’s final celebration occurs. Students who have graduated high school are given their Westernaires graduation at Horsecapades Annual Show.
In the second year, riders are eligible to join “specialties.” Options include ground or mounted specialties. Ground specialties include; whips, ropes and more. Mounted specialties include; skill development in trick riding, roman riding, liberty riding, riders of Steppes and dressage. Specialties meet on the alternate Saturdays from basic drill teams.
Riders are permitted five absences a year, which tends to be the area some struggle to meet annual goals with. School activities academically required are a good excuse for an absence. Westernaires is considered the athletic program they have committed to, so a school sports is not considered a good excuse for an absence. Breaches of conduct, including being drug and alcohol free, are responded to with a graduated scale of strategies to encourage acceptable behaviors, which can include dismissal from the program.
With deep involvement of relationships with the Westernaires, role models set an example of acceptable conduct according to their “rule book.” All are found to demonstrate real commitment to developing riders and team work. When instances occur that required more guidance for a member, again team work is facilitated.
Two dedicated Westernaires
Glen Keller is the source of much of this Westernaires information. He grew up in Longmont where his family had horses. After attending college and law school he began a law practice in Denver in 1964. After 10 years of practicing law, he became a United States Bankruptcy Judge for the District of Colorado, serving eight years. While on the bench his children joined the Westernaires and he became another parent sitting on the benches on Saturday watching them learn to ride horses.
He recognized after a few months just watching, that he could be sharing his knowledge and background with horses. Glen began as an instructor for the beginning riders. His wife, Elizabeth, had begun volunteering in the kitchen on Saturdays, monitoring tasks there for the riders. She still continues to volunteer in several capacities.
Over the years, Mr. Keller has taught a number of teams and classes. The top level Red Team has been his joy to teach for the last 36 years, and counting. He regretfully retired from training trick riding after 30 years.
When the founder of Westernaires, E. E. Wyland passed away in 1983, Glen Keller assumed management and operations of the program. Then in 2018, he retired from some of those positions when a president’s position was created for him. Mr. Bill Schleicher of Evergreen now manages the day to day affairs of the Westernaires.
Mr. Keller accepted the opportunity to plan the show we saw at the Gilpin County Fair this year. Once the invitation was accepted to perform, he recognized which riders were available for the July 14th show. Then, he planned the events to present in the hour long show. He often announces the shows also, being personally familiar with the horses, riders, and events. He has mentored others who also announce events, so stepped aside for this show to allow another to announce, while he was doing some recovery.
After Gilpin’s incredibly versatile and talented performance of the Westernaires this reporter had to get the scoop of these performers. There was no down time between acts, each large group had amazing costumes and well behaved horses and riders who completed their goals with polishes skills and poise. How did they pull this off?
Walking behind the arena, Saturday, the day before was filled with cowboys and rodeo animals in the stalls, who had moved on after the Gilpin County Bulls and Beads Rodeo. On Sunday afternoon, there were semi-trailers for costumes being put in place, tack and riding equipment and props in another, a bus or two, at least three large horse trailers, and various volunteers for horses and riders. When one volunteer putting costumes out was asked who could help me understand how well this organization functions, I was introduced to Michael Ulshoffer.
Michael was really enthusiastic about the Westernaires program. It was clear, he is eager to put in time and effort to this program because of what he himself got from it. Michael began with the Westernaires at the age of 11. He learned about it watching his sister who had started with them a couple years earlier. She had joined because an elementary school friend was also riding with them. He actually added trick riding and rode in the Red Team a number of years before graduating. He went on to try trick riding as a profession, but realized it was better as a supplement to his income. He attended college, and opened his own business. He feels that the skills he learned with the Westernaires afforded him the success needed to be an employer owning his own successful business. His current young family is supportive of his dedication of time and talents to the Westernaires.
The Westernaires have many events posted on their website. In August, there are at least seven rodeos, fairs and festivals, three parades and two Westernaires team events. Check them out when you get a chance, and Happy Trails to all!