Four generations of Cedaredge Horsemanship
November 6, 2012
Marge Bertram, now 88, still smiles whenever she's referred to as "Connie's mom." She's never minded going to rodeos instead of taking vacations, and she didn't object as her country home outside of Cedaredge, Colo., became more and more cluttered with her only daughter's countless trophies, sashes, belt buckles, ribbons, bridles and saddles. (Her late husband, Charles, eventually built an addition onto the living room to help store everything.) Instead, she's remained a steady fixture on the circuit, supporting not only Connie — who became the first Western Slope teen to win the title of World Champion Top Cowgirl of the 1967 National Little Britches Rodeo — but later her granddaughter, Mindy, grandson, Grant, and now great-granddaughter, Alyssa.
According to the official rule book, The Little Britches is not only "one of the oldest, continuing junior rodeo associations in the nation" but it is also the largest, with membership from Canada to Texas and from the west coast to the eastern states. With events that include bull and saddle bronc riding, pole bending, calf roping, goat tying, barrel racing, team roping, bulldogging, and a trail course, its goal is to "develop within the youthful contestant a spirit of fair competition and appreciation of good sportsmanship." Age groups are divided, with 5 to 7-year-old boys and girls competing as Little Wranglers; ages 8-13 as Juniors; and ages 14-18 as Seniors. While Mindy and Grant were growing up, Connie and husband Vern Frost encouraged them to participate because, "It kept us together as a family. We knew where our kids were and what they were doing at all times." The practice and closeness paid off in 1994 when Grant took second in the world in the Flag Race on his horse, Major. Mindy, meanwhile, used the gelding in trail competitions until she got her own horse, Saber, both of them registered Quarter horses.
Grant was especially drawn to riding bulls, but "after he broke his leg two years in a row, and later an arm, Vern and I encouraged him to stop," Connie admitted. Instead, he became a bull fighter, most commonly called a clown by spectators. "Everyone said he was the quickest they'd ever seen," according to Marge. Connie has a picture of her son "getting right in there" to help a kid who was hung up in his bucking gear. "He was really good, and even won a freestyle bull fighting event."
The cowboy and cowgirl tradition got started with Marge's father, Archie, a half-Cherokee horse trader who was originally from Arkansas but settled in Colorado while working with the railroads. "Mom used to ride ALL the time," Connie told me, "on all different kinds. She had me in the saddle when I was just 6-weeks-old because she liked to carry me around" — and apparently her mother taught her EXTREMELY well. At Connie's very first rodeo, at age nine, she got a bloody nose in an event known as the calf scramble but walked off completely hooked. Right away, she began entering the Junior girls events at the Little Britches rodeos in the immediate area, with the winning streaks accelerating after her folks helped her to buy Cricket, a 3/4 Quarter horse and 1/4 Arabian mare. By the time her dad had built an arena (which Alyssa now uses), Connie and Cricket were training and conditioning four to five hours per day. "There were many, many long trips to events all over the Western Slope and some across the Colorado divide," Marge recalled of those early days. "We never kept track of how many miles we travelled but it was a lot." They stayed in hotels during the first few years, but then bought a camper. These days Marge, Connie, Vern, Mindy (now Houston) and Alyssa — along with sisters Emilee and Mariah and baby brother Aiden — convoy together in two.
Although "Emilee wants to be an actress, and Mariah likes riding dirt bikes" they go along on weekend trips to support Alyssa, who started participating in horse shows and gymkhanas at age four (prior to joining Little Britches at eight). "We bought her first pony at a sale," Connie smiled. "He bucked her off one night at the Montrose fairgrounds but we got her right back on. To get the kinks out, she and I then loped around the track with the rail on her side. He ended up jumping it, but when she stayed on we knew for sure that she kinda liked riding." Under her grandmother's instruction, Alyssa has been improving rapidly ever since and this season she won four belt buckles in goat tying (plus came in fourth in the World) in addition to one in Trail while at the National Little Britches Finals. (They credit college goat-tying champion Tia Brannon, a former rodeo coach at Mesa State University, with helping tighten her skills. Vern, too — a lifelong cowboy — has been a huge part of Alyssa's personal training.) "She took five firsts into the finals in trail, but the goat-tying put her down in the points because she messed up a little," they explained. However, Alyssa "went to town" later with the goat event but messed up some in Trail, which surprised everyone. As for other events, she prefers breakaway roping and trail courses to such things as pole bending and barrel racing, because her current mount, Apache, is a bit too high-strung. In order to be an All-Around cowgirl she'll need a different horse … and of course, Connie and Vern already have another lined up for her. Asked how she likes working with her oldest grandchild, she beams, "Training is neat. I love it."
According to Marge, "Every rodeo is different. You never quite know what's going to happen." But would she still be going to them if her family wasn't involved? "I'd like them even if the kids weren't in it. It's a sport that gets in your blood," she says with that little smile.
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Watch next week for a story on the Bertram mink farm. ❖