Australian cowboy wows Colorado crowd with dramatic freestyle reining routine at National Western Stock Show | TheFencePost.com

Australian cowboy wows Colorado crowd with dramatic freestyle reining routine at National Western Stock Show

Story and photos Lincoln Rogers

Riding five-year-old Don Magnum (owned by Magnum Quarter Horses) in the horse's first reining competition, Dan James put on a technical display of spins, slides and lead changes throughout the routine. While those grabbed the judges' attentions and propelled the Aussie to 228 points and a share of first place, the sold-out audience was floored by what happened midway through the performance.

After completing some maneuvers, James came to the center of the arena as a pair of untethered horses was let in through the gate to join his routine. Using hand signals, James directed the pair to move with him and Don Magnum as they performed more moves. The free horses circled with them, as well as appearing to do choreographed moves around them while James spun and slid aboard Don Magnum. It was an impressive display of horsemanship that left the capacity crowd roaring when the performance was complete.

"I've had the opportunity to show at a few different freestyle reining competitions around the country," James said, "and I thought the level of competition and the caliber of horses here tonight was probably by far some of the most that I'd seen anywhere. I was like, holy dooley, it's going to take a lot to be able keep up with these guys."

He was impressed by how the crowd buzzed after his performance, praising the stock show venue and its fans.

"It was a great crowd," he said. "The crowd tonight was electric. They were really receptive (and) they seemed like a pretty well-educated crowd."

The soft-spoken cowboy from Queensland, Australia was humble about his NWSS success, even though he not only shared first place, but received the People's Choice award.

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"It's always one thing to be able to put the score on the board, but to feel that people really felt what you did out there … and get them involved – really one of our jobs being in the industry is to help inspire the next generation," he said. "If we can leave the crowd wanting to know more about horses and be involved in the sport, then I think we are starting to do our job."

Fruita, Colo., horse trainer Bub Poplin also did his job well enough to share first place at the competition with a score of 228. Riding to a catchy Smokin' Armadillos tune titled "I'm a Cowboy," Poplin and fourteen-year-old Great King Pine put on a show for the enthusiastic crowd.

"It's just amazing," Poplin said of the energy from the sold out stands. "We show NRHA all year long and we never have crowds like this. So to see a crowd like that to support our sport, it is just amazing."

Poplin said the hardest part is picking out a song for his routine. His wife picked "I'm a Cowboy" out for him, as he said, he's just an old cowboy. He laughed when he said it takes him a lot of time to get the routine put together.

And twirling his revolver while he was competing?

"That took a long time," he said with another laugh. "It took a long time and I was pretty stressed about it, I won't lie."

Last year's defending champ, Shane Brown of Elbert, Colo., came within a whisker of back-to-back titles as he scored 227.5 points to fall just short and take third place in the contest. Riding Hollywood Golden Gun, a gorgeous deaf horse that helped Brown win the People's Choice award two years ago and win the NWSS freestyle reining title last year, the duo completed a dramatic routine that pleased everyone, including the judges.

"I was very happy with my horse," Brown said. "Those guys (in first and second place) are great competitors, so I was very happy."

He pointed out how high-quality the compeition is at National Western, which makes it a challenging place to take home top honors.

"This is a serious deal," Brown said. "You can't come here and just lope around and win a prize. The only reason some of those people were less (points) is they stuck it out there and had a little bobble. Nobody went out there and played it safe. The thing that impresses me is we have the type of people that are willing to take that risk."

Some of the competitors, like Emily Emerson and Sharee Schwartzenberger, employed bridleless riding as part of their routines.

"They are not here being safe saying, I am going to safety up and get a better check. They are here saying, I want to impress the crowd," Brown said.

He wanted to make sure Coloradans knew how good the freestyle competition in their backyard really is.

"A lot of people don't realize, this is the best freestyle in the nation," Brown said. "They might think I'm just saying that, but really, this is the best. The caliber of horses we had today was incredible. To see these kinds of horses at this level, I know some of the crowd appreciates that, but for a lot of the others, they have been a little spoiled because they have always seen it here at the Denver stock show. If they looked at what else is out there in the country, there is nothing that compares to what we have here." ❖

$20,000 Dodge RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining Results:

First: Dan James – 228 points + People’s Choice winner

First: Bub Poplin – 228 points

Third: Shane Brown – 227.5 points

Fourth: Steve Schwartzenberger – 226.5 points

Fifth: Laura Sumrall – 224.5 points

Sixth: Devin Warren – 224 points

Seventh/Eighth: Melanie Wilhelm – 222 points

Seventh/Eighth: Gabe Garrison – 222 points

Ninth: Guy Vernon – 221.5 points

Tenth: Drake Johnson – 221 points