Oakley residents support the annual rodeo, which draws world champions and 5,500 fans to city of 1,500 | ParkRecord.com

Oakley residents support the annual rodeo, which draws world champions and 5,500 fans to city of 1,500

The Oakley Independence Day Rodeo Freedom Riders present the colors before the start of the annual rodeo July 4.
Photo by Nan Chalat Noaker

The kids rodeo was in the afternoon under the hot sun, with a fire hose arcing lazily into the blue sky and mist drifting back onto the rodeo grounds.

Boys and a few girls with numbers pinned to their shirts donned helmets and protective vests and dropped into the chute before brief and explosive steer rides that inevitably sent them flying.

Some were shocked and a bit dazed, some were thrilled and raised their arms in triumph. There were a few rough whacks, with one girl’s head meeting the steer’s almost immediately after the ride began. But every rider heard their name echo around the arena and applause from the crowd, especially after a hard tumble.

This was a few hours before the Oakley Rodeo kicked off in earnest the night of the Fourth of July, before the 5,686 seats filled with spectators and before scores of local volunteers fired up the concessions grills, took programs to the entrance gates and donned red vests to help people find their seats.

Oakley, population 1,470 as of the last census, punches above its weight when it comes to “Cowboy Christmas,” the week around July 4 when professional cowboys can make a large percentage of their year’s winnings, some hitting a dozen or more individual events.

It’s a stop on the professional circuit, and announcer Wayne Wise alerted the spectators to at least two world champions who were competing in their midst.

The city’s postmaster Mike Burns was one of the red-vested volunteers helping out, manning the walkway nearest the bull chutes.

“The community takes pride in putting on a good rodeo,” Burns said. He said there were about 50 locals working the concession stand and other various posts, making sure the event ran without a hitch. That’s a point another usher echoed, explaining that he’s volunteered at the rodeo for more than 20 years just to “help out” the community.

After the kids rodeo, as the crowd trickled out to find some shade and lunch, one girl was putting her mom’s horse Flash through its paces inside the practice arena. The family had come from Texas, and Utah was the sixth state they’d visited in the last week including Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. It was a lot of driving, she said, but she wasn’t complaining.

A few hours later, the crowds came to the rodeo grounds in earnest as a storm darkened the skies in the west, kicking up dust and threatening rain.

Inside, the rodeo queens were warming up, riding in patterns and making sure they and their horses looked just right.

Miss Rodeo Draper, Maline Wallwork, dazzling in a shimmering red outfit, said she’d been going to rodeos with her grandparents since she was 5 or 6 years old.

“So many aspects are changing the Western way of life,” Wallwork said from atop her horse. “When the rodeo comes to town, it can teach a lot to kids.”

Another member of the rodeo royalty, Utah State Fair first attendant Taylor Preece, said participating in rodeos has helped her “come out of her shell” and taught her valuable lessons. She also sought to dispel some misperceptions.

“A lot of people think we stand around and look pretty, but we do a lot of work,” Preece said. The queen and her attendants drive the animals into the corral during the steer-roping and tie-down competitions, and they open the rodeo each night.

Preece had been bucked off her horse during the previous night’s opening, right in front of everyone, but waited until after the rodeo to get medical attention. Turns out, she’d sprained her wrist. She was on her way to get it wrapped up so she could ride again in that night’s opening.

The rain came, and then left, and the rodeo started with the national anthem and Wise leading a cowboy’s prayer asking the Lord’s protective hand to visit all of the participants, human and otherwise.

The pickup riders entered the arena in clean white shirts and American flag ties, ready to rescue a cowboy from a would-be trampling and guide the revved up broncs and bulls back to where they should go.

Bareback bronc riding was first, with the cowboys tied to their mounts, their necks and veins bulging and the whites of their eyes showing as the horses did their best to send them to the ground. The crowd oohed and aahed as horse hoofs sent clods of dirt flying 50 feet in the air.

Everyone was competing, the riders, the horses, even the barrelman “Backflip“ Johnny Dudley, who went through comedy routines with Wise as his straight-man between events. There were some Rosie O’Donnell jokes, some pro-Ute, anti-BYU football talk, and a pair of giant women’s underwear that belonged to someone’s wife.

The loudest cheers and most excitement of the night came during barrel racing, as the crowd urged the ponies and their female riders on while they made circles around three barrels and galloped to the finish. The top seven finished within 0.26 seconds of each other, according to official results.

It turned cold after the sun set, and though the audience members bundled up in coats and blankets, very few left before the main event.

They lined the fence near the chutes where the bulls and their riders would be released, cheering on the men who did their best to stay on the giant animals for 8 full seconds.

Even though the chain-link fence was six feet tall, little Emma Greene, 3, had one of the best seats in the house on her dad Eric’s shoulders. Eric Greene has been coming to the rodeo since he was 8, and he was passing on the tradition to his daughter. It was cold and her boots were uncomfortable, but Emma stared with rapt attention at the spinning spectacle in front of her, one more generation imbued with a Fourth of July tradition.

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