Saturday, June 18, 2011

Frontier Day At Cheyenne Wyoming

Frontier Day at Cheyenne, Wyoming, has become a national event.  The thirteenth annual celebration was held this season in the latter part of August.  With its incomparable exhibition of the best horsemanship in the world;  it's marvelous demonstration of the typical American spirit that welcomes obstacles and exults over difficulties, the celebration is at the height of its spectacular glory to-day - but the end is in sight.
Conditions are changed now.  Cowboys do not have to live the life that was once necessary, and the reclamation of great waste plains is shortening up the regions where the wild horse live.  Therefore, the requiem over the passing of the wild horse has already begun and soon the species will be as extinct as the buffalo.  And Frontier Day without a wild horse would be "Hamlet" without the melancholy Dane.

To imagine the carnival as it is enacted up in Wyoming, one must first of all conceive the scene as one beholds it on an August Day with the cool breezes blowing.  There, on a vast prairie, as unbroken and calm as the ocean sometimes is when, for a brief time, it seems as though the very heart of the might waters had ceased to beat, one sees the half-mile racecourse, the judge's stand, and a semi-circular setting of grand-stand seats and bleachers.  The one feature distinguishing this scene from any other racecourse is a high-posted, heavily built corral, one section of it filled with wild steers and the other with wild and outlaw horses.

What are wild and outlaw horses?  There are regions in the far-reaching, trackless plains where there are herds of wild horses; very many of these horses have never beheld a human being.  They are as wild as the tornadoes that sometimes sweep over the plains.  For thirteen years now it has been the custom to lassoo a bunch of these wild creatures and take them to Cheyenne on Frontier Day, there to make their debut before the "Lords of Civilization."  When the "Roman Holiday" is over, they are led back to primeval regions and for another year left to their own devices in solitude.  Any man may have one of these wild horses for the catching.  The great majority of them can be broken in, and often they make the best of carriage and race horses.  When a man has broken a wild horse he brands it and the horse is his property.

An outlaw is a wild horse that cannot be broken.  Nothing can subdue the fiery spirit of these lordly outlaws; let but a man attempt to mount and that is the signal for such bucking and pitching, such "sunfishing" and "milling," such zigzagging and leaping as man never saw before.  But their hauteur, their insolence, their resentful rebellion is the joy of the multitude on the benches. 

As to picturesqueness, nothing could surpass the dashing brilliancy of this unique carnival up in Wyoming.  This year there was a record-breaking attendance and the most vivid coloring in costume that was ever seen on the field.  Every rough rider to a man wore a silk shirt in the gayest of hue.

In front of the judge's stand the smartly uniformed bands are stationed.  When one rests another starts in, and the entire day is set to music. 

Special train after special train, all crowded, have rolled onto the grounds, the benches are filled, the judges are in place, the band has begun, and excitement is tense when, on the circular green within the racecourse, a thousand cowboys and cowgirls, in colors as gay as the silk shirts of the men, tighten rein.  A tremendous cloud of dust arises, obscuring the riders until they look as though they moved in a cloud of fog, and out into the racecourse they come, filing through an opening in the fence enclosing the oval.  Twice around the course at break-neck speed they gallop with a joyous abandon that causes some to leap into their saddles, and as they ride, spurring their horses to a greater speed, they one and all throw up a hand in triumph and shout as they pass the cheering benches.

The weird medley of rough riders is led by a company of Indians, a pitiful handful of the great hordes that once roamed the plains; brave, squaw, and papooses, attired, as in days of old, with eagle-feather headdresses, slashed leather, blankets and fine beadwork.

An act calculated to rivet the attention of everybody is the breaking in of wild horses.  Out from the corral a group of horses is led.  They are pawing the air with their forefeet, snorting, and resenting at every step man's hand laid upon them.  The method of breaking in is to hitch up a wild horse with a broken one.  The vehicle attached is an old affair, so that, in case the worst happens, the loss will not count much.

First, the wild horse is blindfolded with a piece of sacking.  When that is done, the fractious beast usually settles down, lets the ears tilt forward, and to all appearances is as docile as a lamb.  Very carefully the harness is laid on and there is much fine stepping when the straps are tightened and buckled.  At last the driver mounts his seat, an attendant removes the blindfold, and the wild horse, for the first time harnessed, gazes in astonishment at the scene before him.

The action of the different wild horses at this point is most interesting.  Some simply lose their heads, paw the air, turn, twist, bite and dig up the earth; another will astound everybody by frothing at the mouth and shivering with fear for a moment, and then, with tail straight out, ears laid back, and feet that strike the earth like a battering ram, settle down to a straight run around the course, that leads the civilized horse a dance of it.  At the end of such a run the horse is tamed, and forever more a slave to man.

Another event, captivating everybody, was a relay race ridden by women.  The stunt was to change saddles to fresh mounts and proceed again.  Two changes were to be made, and the horses were drawn, so that no one knew what her mount would be.  All the women were splendid riders, but in this test quickness of movement played an important part.  A woman in black, riding superbly, came in ahead, but in throwing herself off the saddle something caught, there was a moment's delay in reaching the ground, a chill in her fingers as she tightened the straps, a slow mount, and she was left behind.


A slender figure in white dress and slouch hat was now leading.  It was Miss Lily Nicholson of Fort Collins, who has won the distinction of being the best women rider that ever appeared at Cheyenne, and this year she was accorded the world's championship.  Her riding and changing of saddles from one horse to another was a work of art.  She sat her horse lightly and fearlessly.  When her horse came up to the relay, she was already on her feet.  Quickly she removed the saddle, and deftly and gently laid it on the fresh horse, a nimble tightening of the straps, a leap to the saddle and away she went, light as a feather, leaving her rivals behind.  At the second relay Miss Nicholson found a balky horse that would not start for a few seconds.  He would only back and turn.  A sharp cut with her whip, and there was a quick straightening out into a run and the lead was hers.

The feature least enjoyed by gentle hearts is the steer-throwing contest, without a rope, by Buffalo Vernon, of Old Mexico.  But it is a wonderful exhibition of skill, strength and daring.  Riding on a horse at full speed he will, when opposite the steer, hurl himself on the poor creature's neck and bear him to the ground, and in two or three moments will have him securely roped and bound.

The steer roping contest is another trial to sensitive nerves.  Out of the corral come the long-horned, fleet-footed wild steers, almost stunned at first with the strangeness of things, but cowboys hustle them up into the center of the oval within the racecourse, and the melee of leaping, twisting and turning horses and steers is something marvelous to see.  There is a bewildering throwing of lariats, until, to the eye of the spectator, it looks all chaos, but soon the intelligence and cunning of man is again victorious, and, bound and still, the steers strew the ground.

The riding of Gin Fizz by Mrs. Goldie St. Clair, or Oklahoma, arouses much admiration.  Gin Fizz is well named, for he goes off with an explosive vehemence that is marvelous to behold.  But Mrs. St. Clair, looking nothing more than a slight and slender girl, rides the horse as easily as though its vicious contortions were but the frisky exhibitions of a gentle spirit.  The tumultuous ride on Gin Fizz makes her the idol of the hour, and gives her the honor of being adjudged the champion woman bronco rider of the world.

A race as thoroughly enjoyed as a comedy is the one run by Indian squaws.  Cleverly swathing the body and each limb in one great blanket, until a riding costume as compact as a man's is achieved, their hair hanging in braids, they mount and scurry away like brilliant autumn leaves before the gale.  It is serious business with the squaws, but it is high comedy for the spectators, and there is much hilarious laughter.  Then a band of full-blooded Sioux chiefs, young bucks, squaws and papooses join in a war-dance that seems but a faint echo of the real ones given not more than fifty years ago.

A brilliant feature was the Roman and fancy riding of troop A, colored, Ninth United States Cavalry, in charge of Captain H. A. Selverts, Fort Russell.  Although recently arrived from the Philippines and with but a few day's practice, their riding excelled anything of the kind seen here.  In the Roman race between the troopers, some rode three horses and some more.  So far as is known, Corporal Howard is the only man in the world who has driven eight dashing horses, and he did it with as much ease as though driving but two.

The finale in the world's championship bucking contest was dramatic enough to suit the most blase attendant at Frontier Day.  Such well known riders as Dick Stanley, Harry Brennan, Sam Scoville, Clayton Danks, Edward McNurlen, H. S. Crandall and F. C. Carter contended.  In the corral were such famous outlaws as Steamboat, Rocking Chair, Hot Shot, Red Bird, Silver City, Beaver, Bear River, Sybelle and Archbishop.

It was luck and chance as to which horse a man would ride, as they were drawn.  Out on the green were laid as many saddles as there were horses to be ridden.  In turn each horse was led forth, blinded and saddled, the rider mounted, the blindfold was removed.  Then began such a fracas as one never sees elsewhere.  No whips are used, but there is vicious scratching of the animals.  One horse, blind with rage, leaped the fence into the racecourse, and then again the fence in front of the benches, and there was much scrambling on the part of the onlookers. 

A fitting finale to such a carnival is the wild-horse race.  When the blinders are removed the fun begins, for every horse has a different mind; some lie down, some stand on their hind legs, some turn around as fast as a Fourth-of-July pin wheel, some put their heads to the ground, then leap into the air, some, too angry to see straight, will go bumping into everything, and then, after a little, will get down to business and run with the smoothness of a swallow skimming the ground.  The people are too excited to sit.  Everybody stands and shouts until he is hoarse.

Take it all in all, and there is nothing like Frontier Day under the sun.

Originally published in The World To-Day Magazine, November 1909.
Written by Ivah Dunklee





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