By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR
The Big Sky Community Rodeo and the Community Street Dance are produced by Outlaw Partners. Outlaw Partners publishes Explore Big Sky.
BIG SKY – Like a bucking bull waiting to be released from a chute, Montana skies are restless during rodeos. A few minutes into the Big Sky Community Rodeo last night, rain and lightning descended on the Big Sky Events Arena, sending fans to take cover for an early intermission. But the energy only grew as the crowd mingled under tents and athletes retaped their hands and tightened saddles, spilling over when the show started again to make for one of the most lively rodeos Big Sky’s ever seen.
Featuring athletes from Montana State University’s nationally ranked rodeo team along with rodeo stars from around the West, the Big Sky Community Rodeo, presented by the Yellowstone Club, brought a packed audience to its feet for hours to watch everything from roping and barrel racing to bull riding and mutton bustin’ in an arena glowing under a picturesque Montana sunset.
“The best part of the evening was seeing everyone come back after the storm and come back with such a positive energy,” said Matt West, one of the most prominent rodeo announcers in the nation. With the help of rodeo clown Tate Rhoads, West kept the crowd on an electric wavelength throughout the event.
Rhoads, from Custer, Montana, provided entertainment for the length of the competition, at one point even performing comical flips on a trampoline.
“When you get to come into a little small arena like this that’s packed out,” Rhoads said after the rodeo, “you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a good time.”
In addition to the party in the bleachers, the athletes brought their top game to the dirt. The night ended with a triumphant eight-second bull ride from the final rider. As the flaming orange sky softened to indigo, it was the last chance at a successful ride, and he didn’t disappoint.
These adult athletes climbing toward their prime are closely followed by younger contenders looking for their own glory atop smaller stock. West called them “some of the toughest athletes out there.”
Ahead of the rodeo, a group of young boys kicked around a makeshift hackey sack fashioned from a ball of tinfoil and athletic tape.
“It’s kind of a ritual when we’re bored and have a lot of time before the rodeo,” said Jacob Cook, 16, from Green River, Wyoming.
The smallest of the boys, 8-year-old Bronc Demers, threw his shoulders back to give his four-foot stature an extra inch and confidently stated he expected to “cover,” or stay on for the minimum eight seconds.
“I like everything about [bull riding] except getting hurt,” he said.
More junior than the mini stock riders are the mutton busters, small children from the community who try their hand at rodeoing by riding a sheep for as long as possible. The first few riders last night came out with a unique technique, straddling the mutton backwards.
As the little riders cling to the sheep fur, the livestock dart toward their owner, Gretchen Fellerhoff White from Bozeman, who’s been providing sheep for mutton bustin’ events for 36 years.
As she stands smiling with pride in the middle of the arena surrounded by her flock, she looks like the picture of a proud shepherd from a nursery rhyme. And her favorite part of the whole thing? “Watching the little kids worried about getting on and then doing it,” she said as her flock bleated around her.
Rodeo culture is still relatively young in the Big Sky community, but with such talent and grit playing out in an arena framed by mountains, Western tradition feels properly celebrated.
“It’s a class act,” said spectator Ray Iskander, whose daughter, Lexi Iskander, competed in the barrel racing event. “[It’s] unbelievable [the] way the community comes together, and to be able to see local future stars is amazing.”
Long after the stock had been loaded back into trailers, the party continued with the Community Street Dance in nearby Len Hill Park. Electronic fusion duo BoomBox took the DrinkLMNT stage following local openers DJs Take a Chance and Jenn and Juice, and was joined by members of Backbeat Brass, who brought a unique sound with a flute and trumpet.
As a fog machine blasted clouds into a sea of cowboy hats, green and purple light beams highlighted a grooving crowd stomping on ground still damp from the storm.
Julia Barton, Gabrielle Gasser and Leonora Willett contributed reporting to this story.