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Most wannabe cowboys have dreamed of what it’s like to experience a ranch rodeo – whether it’s from the ground or on the back of a horse or bull!

So what is a ranch rodeo? To capture the essence of ranch rodeos in the summertime, a staff member and talented photographer from The Ranch at Rock Creek, Robert Cole, spent the summer documenting the ranch’s weekly rodeo at Camp Roosevelt Arena, Montana. Although he has photographed sports before, photographing the rodeo was a new experience and trying to balance the cultural significance with the athleticism is always a challenge!

In their blog, the ranch explains the historical significance of rodeo events to modern competitions and working ranches, while Robert explains his approach to photographing this important Montana tradition.

Rodeo origins The word ‘rodeo’ is of Spanish origin and roughly translates to ‘round-up’. During the mid 1800s, the term referred to ‘vaqueros’, or cowboys, gathering cattle to sort or move to other pastures. These skills needed to manage cattle and horses later became the basis for the competitive sport we know today.

Modern professional rodeos combine timed speed events with ‘rough stock’ events. Common categories are:

- Team roping - Steer wrestling - Saddle-bronc and bareback bronc riding - Bull riding - Barrel racing

While some events, such as team roping, are derived from original ranch practices, others like barrel racing and bull riding are modern additions that have no link to traditional ranch practices.

At The Ranch at Rock Creek’s rodeos, events such as dummy roping and ‘goat-tail tying’ for the little ones, get the audience participating in the fun, before guests and cowboys enjoy a well-deserved barbeque.

Barn Manager Joe DeMers (pictured above) produces the rodeo with the support of Ranch staff, family, local ranchers and, of course, rodeo athletes. Executive Chef Josh Drage, whose ranch cuisine and cooking philosophy is featured in the October 2015 issue of Cowboys & Indians, rallies his culinary team to create the memorable open-air dining experience. Tuesday nights are favorites with guests of all ages, because they get to experience an authentic ranch rodeo and meal – similar to what goes on in small communities around Montana.

Barrel Racing Barrel racing is a timed rodeo event where riders must complete a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels and generally only women participate.

In professional rodeos, if a rider knocks over a barrel during her performance, she is penalized with a five-second addition to her score time. If a rider misses a barrel or deviates from the pattern she is disqualified.

Team Roping Team roping is a timed rodeo event where two riders must successfully rope the head and two hind feet of a steer, known as ‘heading and heeling’.

The steer exits a chute located between two equal starting positions of the riders and it’s at this point the timing begins. The header must catch the steer, dally and turn left to allow the second roper to catch the hind feet. If the heeler only catches one heel, there is a five-second penalty. If the header or heeler misses, the team does not receive a qualified time.

Rough Stock Events Contrary to popular myth, modern broncs used for rodeo sports are not actually wild horses. They are specifically bred or chosen for their innate ability to perform. All rough stock events use at least two ‘pick-up’ riders on well-trained saddle horses, whose purpose is to facilitate the safe dismount of the rough stock rider. The Ranch at Rock Creek features saddle-bronc riding and bull riding, and riders must stay mounted for a full eight seconds to achieve an eligible score!

In professional rodeos, points are awarded to both rider and horse. How secure the rider remains in the saddle and how well the animal bucks determines scores. For example, a rider who is on a very difficult horse will earn a higher score than a rider whose horse doesn’t buck as hard.

Breakaway Roping Breakaway roping is a timed rodeo event that is a variation of calf roping, where a calf is roped, but not thrown and tied. The rope has a small flag attached to its tail and is tied to the saddle horn with a string.

This event features one calf and one mounted rider. The steer exits a chute adjacent to the rider’s start position and the rider attempts to rope the calf as quickly as possible. Once the rope is around the calf’s neck, the roper signals the horse to stop immediately.

When the calf hits the end of the rope, the rope is pulled tight and the breaking of the string marks the end of the run – the fastest time wins!

Goat Tying Goat tying is a timed event where riders must tie three feet of a goat as quickly as possible. Riders race to a small goat staked at the end of an arena with a 10-foot rope. Contestants then dismount their horses and must secure the feet of the animal with a four-foot rope. Once the rider has completed their knot, they signal the end of their run by throwing their hands in the air.

In professional rodeos, the goat must remain tied for six seconds otherwise the rider is disqualified. At The Ranch at Rock Creek, this event is usually adjusted for younger contestants, allowing them to run from a starting point, tie a ribbon on a goat’s tail and raise their hands to signal the end of the run. We’re always impressed by how quickly the Little Grizzlies pick up this tradition and enjoy their turn!

Capturing A Ranch Rodeo, by Robert A. Cole

I’ve shot a wide variety of subjects, including sports, but never rodeos before I arrived at The Ranch at Rock Creek. It is an entirely new experience for me especially coming from South Lake Tahoe, California, and it took a few times shooting one before I knew exactly where to be and where NOT to be!

I generally prefer to shoot without a telephoto lens in order to be close to what I’m shooting however, with rodeos, if that bull is close enough to fill the lens, there’s not a lot of room for error.

Newton’s second law states: “Mass times acceleration equals force” and the average weight of a rodeo bull is 2,000 pounds. A bull can exert more force than some cowboys can endure and it’s amazing how well that comes through in some images. There are some that dare to say that bull riding is not a ‘real’ sport, but I dare anyone who thinks so to hop on one!

The primary lenses I’ve been using for capturing the rodeo are my Canon 16-35mm 2.8/f Wide Angle and my Canon 50mm 1.2/f Prime. These offer amazing detail of both the main subject and the surroundings. Despite the dangers, shooting a rodeo offers an abundance of photographic opportunities and provides for very powerful images, allowing you to capture nature, action, culture and history. The cowboys, bulls and horses are being pushed to their limits.

Quite a few rodeo photographers shoot with the main goal of capturing the action of the event, which is totally correct during such a fast-paced sport. However, this can sometimes leave you with some awkward framing due to cropping, or poor lighting due to poor arena lights. My desire as a photographer is to capture the beauty as a whole.

The Ranch at Rock Creek’s natural setting is much more visually pleasing than professional rodeo arenas filled with metal structures. The Ranch’s fully wooden corral, historic ranch buildings, narrow valley and big sky serve as a natural frame. At the same time, this antique-looking structure is still sturdy enough to hold back a full-size rodeo bull.

The weekly rodeo takes place at 5pm, offering ideal lighting. It’s both beautiful with the clouds in the sky and offers bright enough lighting for an extremely fast shutter speed to better capture the action.

Rodeos have an amazing history here in Montana, as well as many other western states. I enjoy thinking about how many of the rodeo events were (and still are) based on real life tasks required by cattle ranchers. The Ranch at Rock Creek has retained the historical vibe of their rodeo whilst keeping it very family friendly and fun.

See more pictures of this season’s rodeo on Instagram. Other summer highlights from the Ranch include the Barn Dance, Summer Friday Breakfast Ride and stagecoach rides.

Also, take a look at more of Robert’s work at Robert A. Cole Photography

For more details and bookings, visit

Photography by Robert A. Cole

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