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National Western – over 700,000 visitors a year to watch horses in action

Roger Branch

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The National Western Stock Show (NWSS) in Denver, Colorado, is a fixture of the West, enticing over 700,000 visitors to immerse themselves in its culture each and every year. A huge part of that culture is nearly 18,000 horse entries dazzling eager guests on an annual basis. While the sheer volume of equines is remarkable, the breadth and scope of the horse show is even more impressive.

Included in the vast array of options are miniature horses, draft horses pulling carriages, freestyle reining contests, halter classes, performance classes, team penning, ranch versatility challenges, and popular, high-profile show jumping competitions. Those jumping events, highlighted by a $40,000 Grand Prix, draw thousands of spectators each and every year to the venerable locale, where both fans and riders love the atmosphere.

“The NWSS is one of my favorite horse shows,” praised Canadian equestrian, Karen Cudmore, before 2008’s Grand Prix contest. “It always has been. The crowd is amazing. That enthusiasm gets you pumped up, and that keeps it interesting.”

“It’s a great horse show,” agreed John McConnell, a veteran show jumper from the Mile High state. “I won ribbons in the NWSS 10-and-Under Equitation Class (when I was a kid). I grew up here. It’s a great audience,” he shared with a big smile earned after performing in the $40,000 Grand Prix. “They sell out (and) it’s a blast. It’s one of the most fun horse shows we have.”

The general public seems to agree, since the 5,000-seat Coors Events Center regularly sells out to a high-energy crowd chomping at the bit for their favorite riders.

“It’s very well received,” said Brad Ettleman, former NWSS Horse Show Manager and current NWSS Horse Advisory Committee Member, about the annual Grand Prix contests. “And that’s not the only popular show. The Gambler’s Choice, which is another jumping class we created as a sister class to the Grand Prix, is gaining popularity every year.”

Asked his opinion during 2008’s NWSS, Ettleman also provided an enthusiastic review of the popular reining contests.

“The reining freestyle is always sold out in advance (and) our audience is great,” he offered about the competition’s high-energy atmosphere. “We have a very educated and enthusiastic reining-based crowd here. Everybody knows what they’re looking for ” everybody knows what a lead change is ” and they know when the riders get pluses in their scores. I’m real proud of our crowd. It’s the best crowd in the nation, by far.”

While fans love jumping and reining events, another few hundred horses grab big chunks of the historic venue’s spotlight every night … they just do it for 8 seconds at a time. Those brief attention hogs are the untamed broncs bucking their way into the 78th year of rodeo action. After all, the NWSS takes great pride in its Rocky Mountain Wild West heritage, and hundreds of the world’s best bucking horses provide a good reason to join in.

“It’s what they love to do,” said Marvin Witt, NWSS V.P. of Operations and the man in charge of its rodeo, about the healthy dose of bucking broncs that show up throughout 23 scheduled PRCA rodeo performances. “These horses buck because that’s what they’re bred to do. It’s a great way of life for a bucking horse,” he added with conviction. “(They) buck just 8 seconds each performance.”

Not only do ticket-buyers witness world-class rodeo stock from Canada and the U.S., they see plenty of them. Witt estimated in 2006 that it took over 300 horses to keep all the big-name cowboys busy. That number did not even take into account the hundreds more quality horses brought by ropers, steer wrestlers, and barrel racers.

“Yeah, it is a large show,” Witt described of the size and scope of the rodeo. “To get a feel for what the Stock Show is like, in the rodeo end of it, from the time the rodeo starts until the time the rodeo ends (two weeks later), there is always, someplace, a semi-truck on the road 24 hours a day, bringing stock to and from the National Western.”

Ticket sales indicate the general public can’t get enough of this rowdy kind of horse show. From 2003-2006, attendance at the rodeo increased by almost 44,000 people.

“If I look at the numbers, that looks pretty explosive to me,” stated Witt regarding the growth cycle at the time. “I think what we’re doing is, we’re bringing people back to their roots. The western way of life is a great way of life. And you know what? People are starting to realize that.”

While this icon of western culture thunders into Denver with the combined force of more than a century of memories and tradition, NWSS insiders know the horse is key to bringing people back every single year to enjoy the festivities.

“We have such great crowds here at the National Western, that’s the first thing that all the competitors say,” summed up Ettleman after 2008’s performances were complete. “They always thank the crowd. It’s a real energetic, educated crowd. They know what they’re watching, and they reward these riders for it.”

With 103 years and counting in its storied past, the NWSS not only rewards those participating in its high-profile competitions; it also rewards everyone showing up to watch any of the numerous horse events on its packed schedule.


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