The sky was dark, the floodlights were bright and Taylor van Zyl was ready.
Sporting a long braid, cowgirl hat, colorful paisley shirt and a smile, the 27-year-old Aspen native and her horse, Reba, trotted into the muddy Snowmass Rodeo arena to take on the night’s barrel race competition.
As the team started facing away from the three white plastic barrels placed in a T-shape, gleaming beneath the stadium lights, the rodeo announcer briefed the crowd on the feat at hand. A few women had competed before van Zyl and Reba, so they needed to weave through the barrels in less than 17 seconds to take home the first-place title.
And with a quick a face up and explosive shot forward, van Zyl and Reba did just that.
“While racing you’re just in the moment trying to remember a million things at once,” van Zyl said of her recent win at the Snowmass Rodeo. “But after, I felt like things were finally starting to come together. … Hard work pays off.”
Van Zyl isn’t new to rodeo. She grew up working with horses, started barrel racing when she was a freshman at Aspen High School, and went on to compete in rodeo for two years at Colorado State University.
After graduating college with an equine science degree and minor in agriculture business, van Zyl started two businesses: VZ Performance Horses, where she helps train and raise horses; and most recently Pair A Dice Carriages, where she showcases horse teams at weddings, private events and during carriage tours up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.
“It’s my whole world,” van Zyl said of working with horses either professionally through her work or competitively through the rodeo. “I have no idea what I’d do otherwise. It’s helped me be responsible, motivated and a self-starter.”
According to van Zyl, this summer competing in the Snowmass Rodeo and others in the area has been a test run. Based on her race times and finishes, she plans on taking her rodeo game to the next level in summer 2020 by competing in larger, professional rodeos across the state.
But despite her big-time aspirations, for van Zyl, the Snowmass Rodeo is special. It’s her hometown arena and full of competitors she grew up with.
“There’s a special camaraderie here. It’s like one big family,” van Zyl said before the Aug. 7 rodeo, pointing out women she’s been riding with and competing against since she was in high school. “It’s a cool atmosphere and fun to put on a show for the locals.”
At the Aug. 7 rodeo, that family atmosphere was palpable from start to finish. The weekly Wednesday summer event kicked off with a family style barbeque, featured traditional bull and bronco riding events alongside kids’ mutton bustin’ and calf scramble competitions, and ended with s’mores around a fire pit.
For more than 46 years the Snowmass Rodeo has aimed to engage local and visiting families in this fashion and introduce them to a lifestyle they may be unfamiliar with.
“A lot of the people who show up have never been to a rodeo before,” said Jim Snyder, president of the nonprofit behind the local rodeo, the Snowmass Western Heritage Association. “It’s one thing Snowmass has that Aspen doesn’t, … and when people come, they always come back.”
Snyder has been working on the Snowmass rodeo grounds for more than 26 years. He feels the summer cowboy and cowgirl competition series is reflective of the strong ranching and farming community that once inhabited the Snowmass area, which development has greatly diminished.
“It’s been a big part of my life and an important part of our community,” Snyder said of the rodeo. “And this year has been a record-breaking season with record crowds, more than we’ve ever had before.”
Darce Vold, executive director of the Snowmass Rodeo, has been working with the local rodeo for over 30 years as its stock contributor — meaning the buckin’ bulls and broncos are hers.
Like Snyder, she’s seen the rodeo evolve into a much smaller venture over the years but also into a tighter knit family and sought after event, especially over the past year. Many of the rodeo’s original founders and competitors are still involved somehow, Snyder and Vold said.
“We want to continue to make the rodeo better, which doesn’t necessarily mean bigger,” Vold said. “People enjoy it, it’s something fun to do, it’s affordable and it provides wholesome family entertainment.”
From a small area between the rodeo arena floor and the announcer’s box, Vold stood and watched the competitions Aug. 7. She’d blow kisses and gesture at her bulls to get out of the arena after they bucked off their riders, predict how cowboys would fare against her broncos with James Bond-inspired names, and light up when the young people and families joined in on the fun.
All of Vold’s brothers and sisters are in a similar position as she is, raising and managing rodeo stock animals. Her whole summer from March to late August is spent here, in Snowmass, and her Wednesday nights in here, on the rodeo grounds.
At the end of the most recent rodeo, families made their way to their vehicles, the Town Park bus stop or the fire pit for s’mores.
Vold made her way to the gated area behind the arena, where she set her broncos free into the nearby pasture, counting each one as it ran past. In a week, she’d be back here, running through a similar set of motions and working to put on a great family rodeo for all attendees alongside the people who’ve helped keep it going for decades — and hope to see it continue for decades more.
“We just do what we do best and the people come,” Vold said.