Custer Ranch Rodeo behind the scenes

We just hosted the 12th annual Custer Ranch Rodeo.  My sister, Sue Gallo, got some great pictures of the day.  I love looking at the photos after the ranch rodeo and unraveling the story they tell of the day.


First of all, I’m starting to think we will never host a ranch rodeo without some crazy, unexpected, last-minute mountain throwing itself in our path and daring us to climb over it.  Last year it was a semi-load of yearlings destined for the ranch rodeo high-centered in the middle of an unkempt dirt road; we had to off-load the semi onto stock trailers — in the dark! — and delivered the last load of yearlings to the arena at 2 in the morning.

This year it was a week’s worth of rain prior to the ranch rodeo.  Beau and I hemmed and hawed over canceling or postponing the event because of the weather.  But at about 5 p.m. the evening before, and only because the arena itself is very sandy, we decided to go ahead with the plans I’d been laying out for a couple months.  We knew the biggest challenge would be getting the PV cattle our employer so graciously lets us use every year — we needed 40 pair and 60 yearlings — from their distant pastures to the arena.

Beau left the house very early the morning of the ranch rodeo to gather yearlings and get them to the arena.  I stayed home, printing off scoresheets and making lists and packing diapers.  As Beau handled the yearlings, our coworker Nate Roskelley was trying to get PV pairs on the truck headed for the ranch rodeo.  Nate had decided that, because of the mud, there was no way the semi could get down the road to his cow camp, where the rodeo pairs waited in the corral.  So Nate took it upon himself to haul the pairs, one stock-trailer-load at a time, 9 miles to the shipping pens at Sumatra to meet the semi.

But the first stock-trailer-load full of pairs got stuck in the muck on the first hill out of Ridge Camp.

Nate called Beau.  Beau called me.  There was no way to get the PV pairs to the arena.  Did I have a back-up plan?

We briefly considered the possibility of running the ranch rodeo with only yearlings — but that would completely cancel two of our regular events:  wild cow milking and branding.  What if we could find some pairs near enough to the arena that we could just trail them in?

Bolstering myself, knowing most folks would never allow their cattle to be used in a rodeo, I started making phone calls.  Because one doesn’t know ’til one asks, right?  The first guy replied with a firm no.  The second guy said maybe you should try Levi Hein.  And you know what?  Levi Hein didn’t even hesitate.  He just said yes.

The most awesome thing about it is that Levi’s cattle graze the pasture that surrounds the Custer Arena (the arena property has never been fenced).  Levi’s cattle had only to be gathered and corralled.  So, less than 60 minutes before the ranch rodeo was scheduled to start this year, here came Beau and company over the hill to the north of the arena, trailing in a bunch of borrowed pairs.

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Awwww… my hero on the left there.

Sometimes I ask Beau if his life would be easier if I never put on another ranch rodeo, because of course I know the answer.  He smiles and asks me if something would be missing from my life if I never put on another ranch rodeo.

So we just keep on going.


One rule that sets the Custer Ranch Rodeo apart from other ranch rodeos is that each team is limited to 4 members… and at least 1 of those members must be a woman.  That means each woman there (some of them are closer to girls) has to be ready to rope and ride hard.  I always say the toughest cowgirls around compete at Custer.


(Our top cowgirl this year — voted in by her peers — was Rachel Mitchell, pictured above.)


(Our top cowboy, also voted in by his peers, was Jay Blankenship.  For the second year in a row!)

Some of this year’s teams…


(The PV — yay, go team!)


(Sand Springs Cattle — they took 1st in the average.  The feller on the left is a youngster who, according to the rules, was allowed to ride with the team in the team penning event.)


(Hook Ranch — they were 2nd in the average.)

(You may notice from looking at these pictures that draft horse/saddle horse crosses are trending right now in the ranch horse world.  All the cool kids have one!  Now I want one too.)


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(The Rounders, above, were 4th in the average.  The 3 at left are the impressive Severe siblings; Will Croft rounds out their team.)


At the Custer Ranch Rodeo, each team competes in…

WILD COW MILKING.  A cow is roped by the head and the heels…



… then milked into a bottle…



… and then a team member races the milk bottle to the crow’s nest to receive a time:



TEAM PENNING.  The team works 3 yearlings, all wearing the same brand, out of the herd — and maneuvers those 3 into a pen at the opposite end of the arena:




TEAM BRANDING.  In this event, teams rope baby calves and lay them flat for “branding.”  Traditionally at our ranch rodeo teams drag the calves in by the heels, just like we do at home, but remember we weren’t able to use PV cattle this year, and the calves that Levi Hein so graciously loaned us were much larger than those we had planned to use.  So, completely impromptu-like, I asked the judges this year to come up with rules for a head-and-heel branding competition.  (This was another humbling reminder For Tam From God that any illusions I have of control over the ranch rodeo — or anything else in my life for that matter — are truly just illusions.)  These calves were big enough that we figured heading and heeling would be easier both on the horses and the calves.


Here’s the PV team, above, competing in the branding (our coworkers Tyrel and Jessica Waddington).


Above, Jason and Kary Phipps are doing the same thing (they’re a father/daughter pair… the family-friendliness of the Custer Ranch Rodeo is something we really value).


And the Terry Roping Club with a calf down.  This Terry team has been coming to Custer to compete since our first year, and we’re always glad to see them.



TEAM DOCTORING.  In this event, teams head and heel and string a yearling as quickly as possible.  If they finish the first in less than 3 minutes, they get a second yearling — and the other 2 team members have to rope it.  That means all 4 team members have to catch for a qualified run.


(Jess Hahn.)


(Gillian Severe.)


(Clint Potts on his Top Horse, voted in by contestants.)


(Trail Creek Land & Livestock.)


(Rowdy Alexander & Crew.)


After the ranch rodeo every year, we buck a few ranch broncs for any young fellers willing to saddle up a rough one.


Almost ready to come out the gate…


… and a successful dismount.

(My sister the photographer did not get any shots of an actual bronc ride this year; I suspect she was busy bending someone’s ear during the bronc riding.  Ha!)


There are a couple events for little kids dispersed throughout the ranch rodeo:


(That’s me on the right there, pretending to be in charge as usual.)



The boot race!


I love this picture of Marsielle, our third born, above.  It is so her — she spends her days following the big kids around, pretending she’s cool and that she totally knows what’s going on.  In reality she’s thinking, Hey, what’s everybody doing with their boots off?



I also like this picture of Marsielle’s friend Paisley (our vet’s daughter), who I believe is seriously considering stealing someone else’s hat in the middle of the boot race.


Right before the awards ceremony for the ranch rodeo, the kids line up in droves to sign up for the stick horse bronc ride…


… and then they show their stuff in the arena.


Above — there goes our son Asher!


And there’s Tyree!


Above, our daughter Emi and her friend Rylee wait their turn to ride.


Because my sister (who knows almost all the same people I know) is the photographer, and because I am so busy on the day of the ranch rodeo that I miss a lot of what’s going on in real time, looking at the photos afterward is a fun way for me to relive the day.  There’s a lot going on behind the scenes at a ranch rodeo — much of which I would totally miss if there wasn’t a picture to look at later.


  1. There are my kids.  The big ones go feral and spend all day running in a pack with the other ranch rodeo kids, and we collectively pray that none of them gets caught underfoot a horse or pokes his buddy’s eye out with a tiny treasured pocketknife.  The baby who can’t walk yet is a whole other story:  he spent the day being passed from Grandma to distant relative to mild acquaintance to stranger in the bleachers.  (And I have to give li’l Muggins credit — he was so good all day as I flitted about pretending the ranch rodeo wasn’t going to go ahead and happen without me.)  I didn’t know this was happening until I saw the pictures after the ranch rodeo:


That’s my first cousin, by the way, letting my wee babe check out an ice-cold Coors Light.  (Sheesh — barley growers these days — they’ll do anything to move product.)


2.  There is my husband.  The day weighs heavily on him.  There’s a lot to be responsible for, and he knows that responsibility well.  While I do all the desk work that the ranch rodeo entails, when it comes to the actual physically-making-it-all-happen on the big day, it’s up to him.  He gave up competing in the Custer Ranch Rodeo a few years back because he wanted to have sufficient time to cover his eyes, hold his breath, and pray each time a bovine or a bronc brushed by the rickety arena fence (we’re raising money to replace precisely that fence).  Those are his employers’ cattle out in the arena, and he wishes for them to be safely back in their pastures.  The stock, the volunteers, the contestants, the spectators — he just wants everyone to be safe and go home happy.  Can you tell?



3.  Then there are the reunions, including those with folks who completely show up by surprise at the ranch rodeo.  In the picture below, my dad visits with Shorty Robinson.  Shorty and his family lived at Butte Camp and worked with Dad for many years as I was growing up; they took off to cowboy in Texas over 15 years ago.  And now they’re back in Montana… and what a happy reunion it was for Dad when Shorty appeared out of the crowd at the ranch rodeo.


There are also reunions of the annual sort.  People we don’t see for months at a time as we all collectively, but each in our own corner of the West, slug through fall weaning and winter weather and spring calving.  And then comes June and the start of ranch rodeo season and man oh man is it good to see everyone again.  Some of the friends we’ve made over the years:


Cedar Woodford, a member on this year’s (and last year’s) winning team.


Casey Mott (who judges for us every year).


Bob Lile, one of our most faithful Custer Ranch Rodeo helpers.  I fear there have been years we’ve overworked Bob in the name of the ranch rodeo… but he’s just so darn willing.  Setting up and taking down panels, gathering and trailing and hauling cattle, watering cattle, fixing the sound system, patching up the ol’ broken-down arena… he’s done it all, and many years we wouldn’t have made it to the finish line without Bob.

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Pat O’Neill, who I coerced into picking up bronc riders this year — even though he warned me he’d never picked up off the horse he was riding.  Thank you, Pat.



4.  As our friends and peers age right along with us, there are getting to be a lot of mini-me’s running around the ranch rodeo grounds.  This guy, below, Justin Whiteman?  He competed in the ranch rodeo and won the open ranch bronc ride after.  I didn’t realize until I saw the photos later that he had a mini-me trotting around the rodeo grounds:



How cute is that?  I’m not sure of their relation, but I’m pretty sure they come from the same neck of the woods.

I love to see the mini-me’s.  We really want the Custer Arena to be a happy place for youngsters.


(My kindergarten-to-twelfth-grade classmate, Chad Fink, with son Hazen.)


(Clint Potts on his Top Horse with daughter Clair.)


P.S. — this year’s Custer Ranch Rodeo happened to fall on my birthday.  I always say that I schedule the ranch rodeo for the weekend close to my birthday because it’s how I guilt people into helping me pull it off — like, Please, please, please, can you help, it’s my birthday, you don’t have to get me any other present if you just show up and help, pleeeeease.  Anyhow, the announcer led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to me this year, and my sister took this pic while they were singing:


Beau says this is a really good photo of me.  I’m not so sure; I think I’m looking a little long in the tooth here, both figuratively and literally (perhaps the dentist is right that I need a gum transplant?).  But what’s a gal to do, other than change the photo to black and white in hopes of softening the yikes factor?




There are many people I need to thank, for without many the ranch rodeo would not become reality every year.  First, the sponsors who politely endure my annual money-raising phone calls.  Second, the teams who put up their money and come to play by the rules — knowing they might not win anything back.  Many contestants are our friends, and most pitch in to help as the day proceeds.  Third, the spectators who gave generously at the gate this year to help us keep on rebuilding the Custer Arena.  Finally, the workers and volunteers who show up and spend the day making at least one part of the big picture happen.  The announcer, the timers, the scorekeeper, the guys in the back pens, the gatekeepers, the photographer, my mom (who takes care of my kids), the guy who helped me hook and unhook the flatbed full of panels 4 times in the course of the weekend… and the list goes on and on.

Speaking of which, I really should be writing thank-you notes right now.

So much for my New Year’s resolution to keep it to 100-word, 5-minute blogs.  But, as ever, I just felt like I really needed to tell the whole story of the Custer Ranch Rodeo.

© Tam Blake

photos by Sue Gallo

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