The Ranch at Rock Creek: Stories

Located in Western Montana Wilderness, United States

A Ranch and Its Rodeo: Preserving a Western Tradition

By Alena Hadley

A bucking bronco bursts through the gates of the Camp Roosevelt Arena. 

A rider readies his lasso in preparation for roping a calf.

Guests of The Ranch at Rock Creek pack the bleachers on Tuesday evenings in the summer to take in the thrills of the lodge's weekly rodeo competition. 

A rider presents The Ranch at Rock Creek flag during the rodeo's Grand Entry. 

The Grand Entry, which ceremoniously presents the U.S. and Montana Flags, kicks off ranch rodeo festivities. 

A rider flies the American flag during the rodeo Grand Entry.

A rodeo clown anticipates a steer's next move as he works to protect the animal and his rider. 

In barrel racing, riders race against the clock to complete a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels.  

Framed by the rolling foothills of the Montana Rockies, the Camp Roosevelt Arena is as intimate and scenic as rodeo venues come. 

Following the rodeo, ranch guests join atletes and staff for a barbecue at the lodge's Blue Canteen. 

Rodeo goers relish the chance to mingle with the athletes at the post-competition barbecue. 

The Ranch at Rock Creek’s Camp Roosevelt Arena is a far cry from the super-sized stadiums of Calgary and Houston, where rodeo fans travel annually in droves to witness gripping bouts between man and bull. Despite the fanfare surrounding these world-famous exhibitions, staff at the secluded Montana guest ranch will tell you that rodeo is still a relatively obscure tradition, and even a little misunderstood. Ranch riders point out struggles among their communities to educate the world-at-large about the rich culture of rodeo and its strong connection to an honorable Western way of life.

With guests traveling in from across the globe, staff at The Ranch, under the direction of Barn Manager Joe De Mers, have a unique opportunity to share the true spirit of the rodeo with the uninitiated. A quintessential Montana cowboy himself, “Cowboy Joe,” as guests affectionately call him, has made it his life’s work to ensure that authentic cowboy traditions are celebrated at this 19th-century ranching homestead. And with its intimate atmosphere, The Ranch is in the unique position to invite guests into the world of rodeo, showing them first-hand what the sport means to Western communities.

“It’s spiritual.”

Rider and Head Wrangler Mindy Avila is referring to the Grand Entry—the moment when she and her fellow athletes gallop into the mountain-framed arena for the ceremonial presentation of the U.S. and Montana Flags that kicks off The Ranch’s rodeo festivities. For Mindy, rodeo is a way of life. She grew up in the saddle and is a decorated rider, having won numerous trophy buckles for team roping. These days, when she isn’t leading trail rides or practicing lasso technique, you might find her in the barn handcrafting leather belts, saddles, and spur straps.

Mindy sees the pageantry of the ranch’s Grand Entry as a celebration of her heritage. “I get teary-eyed just talking about it,” she says. “It’s a tradition that is uniquely American and shared by everyone in our communities. It’s family.” Assistant Barn Manager Kari Peterson says that the competition reflects what she does in her day-to-day life, and also, importantly, it honors the relationship that she has with her animals. This deep connection between rodeo and the cultural fabric of the West has a significance that might easily get lost at a large event venue, where competitors are introduced under bright camera flashes and scrolling fast food endorsements.

Naturally Homegrown

Much like the earliest rodeos—which originated from cowboys perfecting their ranching skills after a day’s work in the pastures—the rodeo at The Ranch at Rock Creek evolved organically. In the early days of the guest ranch, some of the wranglers on staff would travel throughout Montana on the weekends to compete, and they took to using The Ranch’s riding arena to practice after work. Guests crossing between their cabins and the main lodge would often stop to watch the roping and barrel racing. This interest, coupled with the staff’s passion to share the rodeo and cowboy way of life, prompted The Ranch to organize its own competition—one that showcases all the elements of a traditional event, from the amusing antics of the rodeo clown to high-octane bronc and bull riding.

While there is nothing officially at stake in the lodge’s rodeo, staff here relish the opportunity to introduce visitors to what they reverently refer to as “America’s Sport.” Mindy explains, “It is both our job and an honor to share our culture and the Western way of life with our guests. It’s a humbling and honorable lifestyle, and we are proud to help tell the story and bring the experience to life.” And after enduring the jerks and jumps of a bucking bronc or a galloping steer, the athletes are regularly sought out by guests who are eager to learn more about rodeo. Some are so intrigued by the sport that they rearrange their plans so they can join the athletes in the arena to learn the basics of roping and barrel racing.

Post-Game Party

In the ranching world, ranchers don’t eat until they’ve tended to their cattle and fed their horses. Perhaps as a direct nod to that tradition, The Ranch at Rock Creek’s rodeo—and all the work that goes into making it happen—is followed by a festive barbecue. The Ranch celebrates their competition with an open-air Western feast of smoked ribs, potato salad, and beers from the local brewery. This is the time for everyone to mingle—guests, athletes, lodge staff, and a few friends from neighboring ranches who help put on the show each week.

It’s here, while sharing a meal against a backdrop of rolling pastures, that guests might find it easiest to get in touch with the true meaning of rodeo. The buzz of the event is still in the air, and the cowboys and cowgirls remain at the center of the attention. But there’s also the opportunity for the community to share in the pride of these impressive athletes. Former riders, nicknamed “old timers,” analyze the impressive roping skills of young cowboys, guests can ask questions about technique and tradition, and a kid in a cowboy hat might shyly solicit his or her favorite athlete for an autograph or a word of riding encouragement.

No matter if they experienced the rodeo from the saddle or the sidelines, family, friends, and guests of The Ranch at Rock Creek leave the party ready to share the spirit of this timeless competition, whether they’re flying home to New York or driving back down the road to nearby Philipsburg.

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