Pretty girls don’t fit the stereotype of rodeo, a world that pits cowboys against twisting, bucking beasts.
So when an announcer calls the girls to bring their horses into the arena, many observers are surprised by their complex series of precision patterns on horses galloping so hard that with one misstep, 2,000 pounds of muscle and speed could collide.
Few would expect a 13-year-old, not even 5 feet tall, to nail a crossover or pinwheel, much less for pretty girls to command an arena. But they do. And they have for 60 years.
For six decades, the Pikes Peak Rangerettes have performed in rodeos across Colorado, promoting the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo and ensuring that their western heritage is not forgotten. The girls, ages 12 to 20, comprise an 18-member team that defies expectations.
They’ll be a key feature of the 77th Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo during its four-day run this week. And they got some live rodeo practice last month for that big event.
On a mild Saturday in June at the Top of the World Rodeo in Cripple Creek, the silver gates swing open, and Dean Brody’s voice floods the speakers.
Team Capt. Caitlin McLellan and Co-Capt. Jenna Petrohoy lead two lines of Rangerettes to opposite sides of the arena.
They’re smiling and glittering under the sun. Then the horses begin to really run.
“Hey, I want you girl,” Brody sings through the speakers. “You make my heart, heart flutter like a Tilt-a-Whirl.”
The girls run their first pattern, the crossover. McLellan and Petrohoy take off from opposite sides of the arena, their horses running toward the center. They’re sure to collide. But with inches to spare, McLellan speeds up. The other girls follow, and soon the two lines are weaving and circling. The crowd roars.
“It’s getting freaky on the floor, feel that rumbling sound,” Brody croons.
Before anyone can blink, the girls meet in the center and form a pinwheel with each arm of horses facing the opposite direction. For 3½ minutes, the crowd is spellbound.
Then, as quickly as they began, the girls race out, kicking up a cloud of dust that swallows them whole.
Preserving Western ways
“How pretty,” one woman says, turning her son toward the girls. “See? Pretty girls.”
The boy’s short, not quite to the girls’ belt buckles. He squints up at them, smiles and dives into his mom’s legs, burying his face.
It’s hard to blame him. The Rangerettes look glamorous and fierce as they dole out fliers to promote the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo.
Their outfits match, up to their silver belly chrome felt cowboy hats, their never-fading smiles outlined in Maybelline 545, Sweet Nectar.
Uniformity is law for the Rangerettes. Before performances, they pass around a tube of lipstick and check to make sure their hair is done just so.
Each girl has four pairs of riding pants, at least 15 shirts, two hats and two pairs of boots, McLellan says.
“We want everything to be eye-catching,” she says. “You want people to look at you and say, ‘Who are they?'”
While sharp dress and razor precision are their trademarks, the Rangerettes focus on strong character and excellent horsemanship.
To join the team, a girl must attend five practices, pass a written exam and ace a riding test. Much is expected of them; they have to know how to use a soup spoon and which glass to drink from at a multi-course dinner.
“We’re supposed to be an example for everyone,” McLellan says, leading her team down Tejon Street. “Sometimes in public it’s hard, because we’re not allowed to run, we’re not allowed to chew gum and especially no boyfriends.”
“Or if they come,” says Brooke Sutton, 16, “they have to act like our brothers.”
The original Rangerettes
Jeanne Benning remembers when the rodeo brought in celebrities such as Dan Blocker and Lorne Greene, who played Hoss and Ben Cartwright on the television hit “Bonanza.”
Doc and Festus, from “Gunsmoke,” appeared several times at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo during the ’60s, and the Rangerettes always were part of the welcome.
“It was wonderful because they were so down to earth,” Benning said. “They weren’t like celebrities.”
Benning was inducted into the Rangerettes in 1960. Her father, Bob Waymire, was an original member of the Range Riders. And though she grew up in the city, she says she always felt at home on the team.
“My heart is in the country,” she says, tearing up when she recalls her quarter horse that had the demeanor of a puppy. “I’d like to get back to my roots.”
Donna Brock never strayed from her roots. At her western apparel shop on East Boulder Street, stacks of cowboy hats and fringe-tipped coats cover nearly every inch of open floor. Black-and-white photographs from the ’60s show the Rangerettes in green pants and a green vest. If you wanted to join, you just came to practice, Brock says.
She remembers when a bull broke into the arena during their performance. “The horses weren’t really sure what it was about, but we didn’t miss a step.”
She slept in her car beside the stables one night after her horse went lame. Brock says a teammate’s horse got its head stuck against a wall and would have suffocated if she hadn’t been there.
She said the Rangerettes solidified her love of western culture, so much so that she opened her shop, Donna’s Brok’n Spoke in 1964, and still runs it.
But things have changed. The West is not so wild, and some of its values and culture are relegated to museums.
A legacy begins
Sasha and her stepmother, Stacy Bandock, are the only recorded legacy family in Rangerette history. Sasha, 13, was inducted into the team one week before the Cripple Creek performance.
Stacy joined in 1989, at age 14. She rode her old ranch horse for five years and went on to become Girl of the West, an ambassador for the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo. Those years as a Rangerette and in 4-H set Stacy up for a career in agriculture.
“I truly think it was the foundation I got from Rangerettes.” Stacy said. “It built the passion, and I loved it.”
Beyond the technical skills, Stacy says, the girls learn important life lessons. They must take care of their horses and equipment, load the trailers and saddle the horses.
“It gives them a great skill set for life after Rangerettes,” Stacy says. “Now they are prepared; they know how to get themselves organized.”
At Diamond Bar X Ranch a few miles from the Bandock home, Stacy watches Sasha and her Palomino, Spice, gallop the length of the arena. With aplomb and pride, Sasha holds up a pole flying a curtain; her horse needs to get used to riding with a flag.
At least 26 more practices and performances would make up the 2017 season and hundreds more in the years to come. Stacy would be at them all if she could, standing in the crowd, watching and remembering.
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