What a change 25 years can make.
In 1996, the National Western Stock Show and a few Colorado equine professionals organized the first freestyle reining contest at the historic Denver venue.
Although initial attendance was low, and enticing top-flight riders was challenging, organizers saw promise in the entertaining freestyle format.
Striving to improve it through the years by adding sponsors, upping prize money, luring a higher quantity of accomplished riders, and consistently impressing the ever-growing crowds, the current $25,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining competition has become one of the hottest tickets of the entire NWSS.
A driving force behind the creation of the NWSS event is Steve Schwartzenberger (Schwartzenberger Equine in Longmont, Colo.), who also won the original competition in 1996.
“We hoped it would get exciting,” recalled Schwartzenberger after the completion of 2020’s NWSS freestyle, where he competed and placed third with a 220.5 score. “We knew the freestyle reining would be real popular for people to watch. With freestyle, everybody puts their own little twist on it and it has gone ballistic. It used to be, if you wore a little tuxedo coat and a hat, you were really dressed up. And now, like my daughter and her bizarre outfit and Dan James and his free horses in the arena, it is a whole different deal.”
Thirty-two-year-old Sharee Schwartzenberger is the daughter mentioned, and “her bizarre outfit” was a neon-orange Elton John style costume replete with wings, feathers, horns, sequins, sunglasses and glitter. Designed to captivate, it did its job for the crowd while her bridleless riding aboard Game Day Surprise impressed the judges. After finishing as a runner-up on four other occasions, the accomplished younger Schwartzenberger claimed the prestigious freestyle’s title with a score of 226.
“Finally!” she declared as she waited on horseback to officially collect her title. “It has always been a dream of mine (to win here). I try really hard to come up with new ideas, something special that will get me a win and to finally get it is really exciting, especially against this pen (of riders). They are the best out there.”
Discussing her outlandish costume, Schwartzenberger confessed she pivoted from doing a more traditional and dramatic routine to the attention-grabbing Elton John tribute. As it was a late change, there was a scramble to complete the outfit in time.
“I literally came up with this idea last week,” she revealed with a grin. “This morning, we were still constructing wings on our kitchen table. My dad had the power tools out and he was drilling on them, trying to get them so they didn’t fall off.”
A SPECIAL WIN
Asked about the family distinction of winning the NWSS’ 25th freestyle while her father won the original 1996 event, Schwartzenberger summed up her feelings in one sentence.
“That is pretty special,” she said with a smile.
Even dad thought so.
“It makes me pretty proud,” said Steve about seeing Sharee win the 2020 freestyle. “She loves this and works at it so hard and it all came together. I would rather have her win than me, right now. She and that horse have a bond and it shows.”
“You can’t predict stuff like that,” said NWSS Horse Show Manager Kendra McConnell about the serendipity of having family members win both the very first event and the special 25th edition. “You can’t plan that and it is awesome.”
To earn her first NWSS win, Sharee Schwartzenberger bested a talented pen of 12 other riders, some with multiple NWSS freestyle titles under their belts and all with impressive resume’s. The 2016 NWSS co-champ Dan James is known worldwide for his training and riding skills, and the Aussie horseman wore detailed makeup and a black costume to portray the Night King from the Game of Thrones cable series, as well as using fog and spotlights for dramatic effect. James also incorporated four extra horses into his choreography inside the arena, which added complexity and made the crowd roar with approval. Upping the ante, James rode his horse, Don Magnum, without bit or bridle. The performance earned him 224.5 points, which put him in the lead until Sharee Schwartzneberger topped his total four rides later.
“I was super happy with the way my horse showed,” said James. “We had five horses out there, including Don Magnum. It is a lot when you put all that together and it is a lot of work to get it all done, but it is a fun time and it is a good crowd.”
The capacity crowd rewarded James with the People’s Choice Award, voted on by applause after the conclusion of the event.
“It is a real honor to come here and have the crowd respond the way they do,” said James of the 2020 honor, his second NWSS People’s Choice Award. “I really appreciate them, they are such a wonderful audience.”
“It just gets better every year,” said McConnell about the NWSS’ freestyle reining contest. “I can’t wait for next year to see what these guys bring. Those riders put their all out there and it is amazing.”
“We were hoping it would turn into this big of an event,” summed up Steve Schwartzenberger. “Thanks to Denver for having such a great freestyle. It’s the best in the country.”
What a change 25 years can make. ❖