Down and dirty: Greeley Stampede honored for high-quality grounds, which keep rodeo athletes and animals safe | TheFencePost.com

Down and dirty: Greeley Stampede honored for high-quality grounds, which keep rodeo athletes and animals safe

Guy Burke walked across a blanket of dirt in the Island Grove Arena, stooping every few yards to scoop up a stray rock.

The stones ranged from about the size of a quarter to bigger than his fist. His wife, Felecia, crouched and sifted through the dirt despite her sundress and shook her head.

The ground in the arena was good a few days earlier — it even reached Burke's incredibly high standards — but the dirt the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls will ride on during the Greeley Stampede needed to be a bit deeper, so Burke brought in a load of dirt. This load was fill of pesky rocks.

The Stampede has won awards for their dirt for the last three years — Burke's first three as Grounds and Demolition Derby chairman — and he's hoping to go four-for-four.

In 2013, the Women's Pro Rodeo Association recognized the Greeley Stampede for having the second best grounds of any large rodeo in the Mountain States circuit. In 2014, the Stampede won first place. Last year, the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association named the Greeley Stampede the Mountain States Circuit Large Rodeo of the Year. Burke said the consistently good ground was highlighted in the letter from the association.

The work isn't easy. The Greeley Blues Jam takes place about two weeks before the Stampede, which puts a time crunch on Burke and the grounds crew — a team of about 40 volunteers called Wranglers. Right after Blues Jam this year, heavy rains left part of the arena underwater. The crew used trucks and tractors to haul in equipment to dry everything out before they could start working the dirt.

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Even with a streak of awards under their belt buckles, Burke said the crew members still look at the arena with the same sense of responsibility.

"It has a lot to do with the safety of the animals, the cowboys," Burke said. "It's more for safety than anything."

Mel Luark, the Women's Pro Rodeo Association Mountain States Circuit director and a lifelong barrel racer, said the quality of the ground can make a huge difference in safety for both a horse and a rider.

Good ground means good footing for a horse, a bull or a mutton ready for bustin'. Bad ground, on the other hand, is like running down a driveway full of gravel. If the horse tries to turn or stop short at full speed, there's a good chance it will fall. Lurak knows. When she was a teenager, her horse fell on top of her when running over bad ground.

Mary Walker, champion barrel racer from Texas, fell at a local rodeo in Crosby, Texas, in 2011. She shattered her pelvis, broke her hip, fractured two vertebrae and two toes. That fall prompted the Women's Pro Rodeo Association and several other rodeo organizations, including the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, to call for safer rodeo ground. That resulted in the Safe Arena Footing Committee, headed up by Steve Thornton, a Texas man who has held a barrel race in Waco for more than 20 years. Thornton then called in other experts on dirt, rodeo and more to come up with guidelines for ground and to help rodeos with issues turn their dirt around.

One of the biggest things Thornton emphasizes is that it's the ground 6-8 inches under the surface that matters most to safety. Many rodeo committees focus on what he calls "prettying up" the surface of the arena before rodeos, but the real issues come deeper.

When Burke and his team work the dirt at the Stampede, they're looking at that 6-8 inch range. Every time his guys go out onto the arena, it's a four-step process to prepare the ground. First, they water it. Even if the ground is damp from rain, the grounds crew sends in a water truck to spray it down. Evenly distributed moisture is crucial, Burke said. Then, the crew rips the dirt, which means they dig through and mix the moisture in. After the dirt has been tilled up and moisture distributed, the next step is sending in another piece of large machinery to pack it back into place. Finally, the crew sends in a rotary hoe and fluffs up the top two inches of the newly moisturized dirt. Burke and Felecia both joke about the fluffing process — it sounds cute, but it's really just playing with dirt.

Every time the crew goes through this four-step process, it takes a few hours. On the busy days, like those with an afternoon rodeo and an evening concert, or a morning slack rodeo and an evening performance, they go through the four steps four times a day.

He can't put his finger on what exactly makes the perfect recipe for rodeo dirt, but he knows it when he sees it and feels it. All he has to do is take a step in the arena or watch the water truck make a pass, and he can tell if the ground needs a more sand or more clay.

Burke describes preparing the Stampede's award-winning arena grounds as process full of science and luck.

Working on the grounds crew can be a thankless job sometimes, Burke said. It takes him away from his family for long hours, and he has to balance the strain of the two-week Stampede while still working his day job at Atmos Energy.

On the late nights after concerts, Burke is so tired he stays overnight in an RV, sleeps for a couple hours, then is up with the sun to start again.

Felecia said during the Stampede, she sometimes feels like she's a single parent. She and their youngest daughter, 12-year-old Addie, spend as much time as possible at the Stampede with the other grounds crew families — so much so that it feels like a home away from home, she said. Many of the wives bring dinner and the kids experience the Stampede from behind the scenes.

It's all worth it for the crew and their families when the recognition of a job well-done comes in, like it has for the past three years, Burke said.

Though Burke's chest puffs up under his shirt and the brim of his cowboy hat tips upward at the mention of the accolades, keeping the ground in the arena clean and free of debris is more than a point of pride. It's a necessity. ❖

To volunteer

To learn more about joining the Wranglers, the group of volunteers at the Greeley Stampede, go to http://www.greeleystampede.org/p/Get-Involved/190.