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What’s a Ranch Rodeo? Photo Essay on a Montana Tradition

IMG_4072-2Photography by Robert A. Cole

The end of summer is on the horizon, and with it comes a seasonal change in Ranch customs. Our weekly summer barn dances and ranch rodeos stop with August as we focus more on wildlife migrations, fall fly fishing and harvest. A staff member and talented photographer, Robert Cole, spent the summer documenting our weekly Ranch at Rock Creek rodeo at Camp Roosevelt Arena. Robert traveled from Northern California to work in Montana this summer. Although he has photographed sports before, the rodeo was a new experience. Trying to balance the cultural significance with the athleticism is always a challenge. In this week’s blog, we explain the historical significance of rodeo events to modern competitions and working ranches, while Robert explains his approach to photographing this important Montana tradition. 


Rodeo Origins

The word “rodeo” is of Spanish origin and roughly translates to “round-up.” During the mid-1800’s the term referred to “vaqueros,” or cowboys, gathering cattle to sort or move to other pastures. These skills needed to manage cattle and horses later became the basis for the competitive sport we know today.

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Photography by Robert A. Cole

Modern professional rodeos combine timed speed events with “rough stock” events. Common categories are team roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc and bareback bronc riding, bull riding and barrel racing. While some events such as team roping derived from original ranch practices, others like barrel racing and bull riding are modern additions that have no link to traditional ranch practices.

At our rodeo, events such as dummy roping and “goat-tail tying” for little ones, get the audience participating in the fun, before guests and cowboys enjoy a barbeque at the Blue Canteen.

Barn Manager Joe DeMers (pictured above) produces the rodeo with the support of Ranch staff, family, local ranchers, and of course, rodeo athletes.  Executive Chef Josh Drage, whose ranch cuisine and cooking philosophy is featured in the October 2015 issue of Cowboys & Indians, rallies his culinary team to create the memorable, open-air dining experience.  Tuesday nights are favorites with guests of all ages, because they get to experience an authentic ranch rodeo and meal, similar to what goes on in small communities around Montana.

Barrel Racing

Barrel racing is a timed rodeo event where riders must complete a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels. Generally, only women participate in this event. In professional rodeos, if a rider knocks over a barrel during her performance they are penalized with a five-second addition to their score time. If a rider misses a barrel or deviates from the pattern they are disqualified.

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Photography by Robert A. Cole

Team Roping

Team roping is a timed rodeo event where two riders must successfully rope the head and two hind feet of a steer, known as heading and heeling. The steer exits a chute located between two equal starting positions of the riders. At this point the timing begins. The header must catch the steer, dally and turn left to allow the second roper to catch the hind feet. If the heeler only catches one heel, there is a five-second penalty. If the header or heeler misses, the team does not receive a qualified time.

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Photography by Robert A. Cole

Rough Stock Events

Contrary to popular myth, modern broncs used for rodeo sports are not actually wild horses. They are specifically bred or chosen for their innate ability to perform. All rough stock events use at least two “pick-up’” riders on well-trained saddle horses, whose purpose is to facilitate the safe dismount of the rough stock rider. In our Ranch rodeo we have saddle-bronc riding and bull riding. Riders must stay mounted for a full eight seconds to achieve an eligible score.

In professional rodeos, points are awarded to both rider and horse. How secure the rider remains in the saddle and how well the animal bucks determine scores. For example, a rider who is on a very difficult horse will earn a higher score than a rider whose horse doesn’t buck as hard.

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Photography by Robert A. Cole

Breakaway Roping

Breakaway roping is a timed rodeo event that is a variation of calf roping, where a calf is roped, but not thrown and tied. The rope has a small flag attached to its tail and is tied to the saddle horn with a string. This event features one calf and one mounted rider. The steer exits a chute adjacent to the rider’s start position. The rider attempts to rope the calf as quickly as possible. Once the rope is around the calf’s neck, the roper signals the horse to stop immediately. When the calf hits the end of the rope, the rope is pulled tight and the string breaks. The breaking of the string marks the end of the run. The fastest time wins.

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Photography by Robert A. Cole

Goat Tying

Goat tying is a timed event where riders must tie three feet of a goat as quickly as possible. Riders race to a small goat staked at the end of an arena with a 10-foot rope. Contestants dismount their horses and must secure the feet of the animal with a four-foot rope. Once the rider has completed their knot, they signal the end of their run by throwing their hands in the air. In professional rodeos, the goat must remain tied for six seconds otherwise the rider is disqualified. During the Ranch rodeo, this event is usually adjusted for younger contestants, allowing them to run from a starting point, tie a ribbon on a goat’s tail and raise their hands to signal the end of the run. We’re always impressed by how quickly the Little Grizzlies pick up this tradition and enjoy their turn.

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Littlest Wrangler, Bronc DeMers, Photography by Robert A. Cole


Capturing A Ranch Rodeo

by Robert A. Cole

I’ve shot a wide variety of subjects, including sports, but never rodeos before I arrived at The Ranch at Rock Creek. It is an entirely new experience for me especially coming from South Lake Tahoe, California. It took a few times shooting one before I knew exactly where to be and where NOT to be. I generally prefer to shoot without a telephoto lens, in order to be close to what I’m shooting. However, with rodeos if that bull is close enough to fill the lens, there’s not a lot of room for error. As Newton’s second law states “mass times acceleration equals force,” and the average weight of a rodeo bull is 2,000 pounds. A bull can exert more force than some cowboys can endure and it’s amazing how well that comes through in some images. There are some that dare to say that bull riding is not a “real sport,” but I dare anyone who thinks so to hop on one.

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Photography by Robert A. Cole

The primary lenses I’ve been using for capturing the rodeo are my Canon 16-35mm 2.8/f Wide angle and my Canon 50mm 1.2/f Prime. These offer amazing detail of both the main subject and the surroundings. Despite the dangers, shooting a rodeo offers an abundance of photographic opportunities and provides for very powerful images, allowing you to capture nature, action, culture and history. The cowboys, bulls and horses are being pushed to their limits.

Quite a few rodeo photographers shoot with the main goal of capturing the action of the event, which is totally correct during such a fast-paced sport. However, this can sometimes leave you with some awkward framing due to cropping or poor lighting due to poor arena lights. My desire as a photographer is to capture the beauty as a whole.

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Photography by Robert A. Cole

The Ranch at Rock Creek’s natural setting is much more visually pleasing than professional rodeo arenas filled with metal structures. The Ranch’s fully wooden corral, historic ranch buildings, narrow valley and big sky serve as a natural frame. At the same time, this antique-looking structure is still sturdy enough to hold back a full-size rodeo bull. The weekly rodeo takes place at 5 PM, offering ideal lighting. It’s both beautiful with the clouds in the sky and offers bright enough lighting for an extremely fast shutter speed to better capture the action.

Rodeos have an amazing history here in Montana as well as many other western states. I enjoy thinking about how many of the rodeo events were and still are based on real life tasks required by cattle ranchers. The Ranch at Rock Creek has retained the historical vibe of their rodeo whilst keeping it very family friendly and fun.


See more pictures of this season’s rodeo on Instagram. Other summer highlights include the Barn Dance, Summer Friday Breakfast Ride and stagecoach rides.  See more of Robert’s work here:  Robert A. Cole Photography.