Mamas, don’t let your cowboys grow up to be skiers: What you need to know about the Cowboy Downhill
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Some rodeo cowboys can’t get enough of Steamboat Springs and the Cowboy Downhill ski race that takes place every January while the National Western Stock Show is underway.
“This will be my 22nd downhill,” veteran competitor Jed Moore said this week. “Rodeo cowboys and contestants are considered a lot more athletes than they used to be. I can tell you the skiing has improved greatly.”
Moore, who is from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and rode bulls during his professional career, began competing at the Downhill on a snowboard and never placed in the standings. All of that changed when he made the change to skis. The cowboy with the reflexes and skills to stay on the back of a twisting 1,800-pound rodeo bull, quickly jumped up to join the top three finishers, in both the timed ski race and the mass stampede.
For Moore, the best part of the event was being able to socialize with the other rodeo cowboys.
“Cowboys don’t really get the opportunity to decompress and hang out with cowboy buddies and just have fun,” Moore said. “That was always a highlight for me.
“The very first year I went, they had about 30 cases of Bud Lite and some two-foot long sub sandwiches,” he recalled. “We filled our pockets with beer and a bite of sandwich, and away we went.”
Top things you need to know about the Cowboy Downhill
• Before the cowboys and a handful of cowgirls complete the race course, they must rope one of the cowgirls near the finish and toss a saddle on the back of a horse.
• What about those patient horses? Yampa Valley native Chance Garcia provides the remarkably calm horses that tolerate cowboy after cowboy tossing a saddle on their banks without bolting. Garcia is based outside of Limon, where he both trains horses and is a rodeo producer, raising bucking stock including bulls, bareback and saddle broncos.
• Cowboys seem to be impervious to pain. In 2013, saddle bronc rider Jake Griffin of Riverton, Wyoming, told Steamboat Pilot & Today that the year before he had taken part in the Cowboy Downhill unaware that he had a serious injury. “In Denver last year, my horse hit the chute, and I got hung up I the stirrup. My head hit the ground hard,” Griffin said. “I knew my neck was sore, but I didn’t know it was broken.”
Steamboat’s Cowboy Downhill ski race returns Jan. 20 for its 46th anniversary beginning at 11 a.m. with a petting zoo, roping clinic and an appearance by the Denver Broncos cheerleaders.
The timed slalom race is scheduled for 1 p.m., and if you haven’t witnessed the carnage of bowlegged bronc riders skiing over five-foot jumps; you’re in for a treat.
At about 2:30 p.m., the band Fruition will take the stage in Gondola Square to kickoff the 2020 Bud Light Rocks the Boat Free Concert series. Fruition has previously headlined here during WinterWonderGrass.
• It’s no secret that Steamboat Resort has, for decades, promoted Steamboat Springs’ ranching and cowboy heritage. Way back in the 1970s, Steamboat ski instructors wore cowboys hats. That fad went out for good when the ski industry turned its emphasis to encouraging skiers and riders to wear helmets. Yet, to this day, the cowboys and cowgirls competing in the race down the Stampede trail, cling to their traditional cowboy hats. It’s the cowboy way!
• Steamboat’s pairing of rodeo and skiing is part of local history. Late in the 19th century, cowboys coming off the range were so hell-bent on breaking broncs in the middle of Main Street — Lincoln Avenue — the town folk banned the practice.
• When Billy met Larry. The Cowboy Downhill would not exist were it not for the annual National Western Stock Show, held in Denver every January. The great all-around rodeo cowboy Larry Mahan explained its genesis to Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2014.
In 1974, an acquaintance of Mahan met Olympic silver medalist Billy Kidd of Steamboat on an airplane flight. The two strangers easily fell into conversation. The result was that the man persuaded Billy to give Mahan a personal ski lesson in Steamboat.
“Billy took me up the mountain in powder on the first day,” Mahan said. “I can’t remember if my skis were 205 centimeters, or 210 centimeters, but I guess people skied on long skis back then. I think Billy was afraid I was going to take his place in Steamboat.”
Mahan popped back to Denver for the National Western and persuaded a Chevrolet dealer to lend him three cars so he could return to the slopes of Mount Werner with 15 of his cowboy friends. They all competed in a ski race and maybe even partied at the (now long gone) Tugboat Saloon.
The next year, Mahan said he received an offer from Frontier Airlines to fly the first 25 cowboys who showed up at Stapleton Airport to Steamboat for free.
“We left straight from a bar to the airport to catch a flight the following morning,” Mahan said.
Where else can you go to watch a rodeo on skis?
Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2018 after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.
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