Modern times meet the Wild West thanks to the Westernaires.
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The Westernaires’ Horsecapades annual fundraising show will be Oct. 28-29 at the National Western Stock Show Event Center, 4655 Humboldt St., Denver. Shows are at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Oct. 28 and at 2 p.m. Oct. 29. Tickets are $12 and available at www.westernaires.org.
Youth from all over the metro area drive to Fort Westernaire next to the Jefferson County Fairgrounds to learn, ride, look after and perform on horses. Their performances tell stories spanning from the old West to Disney characters.
The nonprofit organization is all about horses and performing, and while that’s what the public sees, for the 850 participants between 9 and 19 years old and the 500 adult volunteers, it’s so much more.
What makes Westernaires special, according to Rhoda Schleicher, a longtime volunteer from Evergreen, is it provides participants with a sense of community, something alternative to do rather than regular sports and school activities, and for many families, it’s a generational tradition with parents and grandparents now watching younger family members in the organization.
Westernaires was formed in 1949, and participants train year-round at Fort Westernaire, which maintains three outdoor and three indoor arenas, as well as stables for the horses it owns and rents to members. Fort Westernaire also houses classrooms, a club store, museum and caretakers' quarters.
Schleicher said Westernaires has a $1 million budget, with 40% of that spent on hay. Participants pay a nominal fee to participate.
A July 16 show at the Evergreen rodeo grounds was an exercise in controlled chaos as teams moved from performance to performance and costume to costume. While performers joked and chatted between performances, they were all business as they maneuvered their horses into the arena.
“High speed, precision horsemanship in a dazzling array of costumes,” the Westernaires website said. “Rope tricks. Flaming batons. Historical battle reenactments. Astonishing trick riding. All performed by young people who have chosen the road less traveled. While others take up more common sports and activities, the youth of Westernaires work year-round at honing skills that represent the best traditions of the American West.”
Westernaires encourages self-respect, responsibility and leadership through horsemanship and family participation.
“Westernaires gives kids something to do, and it teaches them to be good citizens and gives them responsibilities," Schleicher said. "They are trained in caring for horses, and they work hard to be accepted onto teams and perform. (This organization) is very old school.”
Schleicher estimated that there were 10 girls for every one boy in Westernaires.
The Cook family in Evergreen is heavily involved in Westernaires. Isabella, 10, said she was afraid of horses as a youngster but that fear is long gone. She likes the opportunity to travel for performances and to be with her friends.
Isabella’s older brother, James Cook, said he’s made lifelong friends through Westernaires. In fact, half of his wedding party consisted of people he met through the organization.
Brother Lucas Cook said the best thing about Westernaires was being able to ride horses and connect with them. Lucas would like to be a bronc rider when he is older.
Josie Sandifer of Evergreen, who has been a member for 10 years, said Westernaires was a part of daily life for her and her family because it takes a lot of practice to perform routines correctly.
“It takes a lot of time and effort to be in Westernaires,” she said.
Jordan Slotterback of Fort Lupton does a lot of driving to get to Fort Westernaire, but it’s worth it, especially after making it to the Varsity Red Team — the top group in the organization.
Participants go through different levels, starting as Tenderfeet in the blue division, and as their skills progress, they move to the white division and then to the red division.
“My mom was in Westernaires,” Slotterback said. “We used to go to (Fort Westernaire) as kids.”
Logan Dunbar of Aurora will graduate from Westernaires at the stock show in January. He is planning to go into aerospace engineering, and while getting to spend time with the horses is the best part of Westernaires, he also has learned skills to help in college and beyond.
Grace McCormick, 19, who is in her last year of Westernaires, said the group is like a second family.
“When you have a hard day, it’s nice to come to the arena and be with the horses,” she said. “Horses are family, too.”
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