Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Highlight Of US Route 6; The Wonderful Westernaires Learning Leadership and Responsibility on Horseback in Lakewood, CO

 I am often asked to give a one minute commentary on my 3,602 mile trip across country. Most people want to know  "What's the highlight?"  Well, there were many highlights - but the highest light came more than midway through my journey in a town outside of Denver, CO.  I wrote the following about this amazing youth group and hope everyone who reads this gets a chance to see The Westernaires in action:

Westernaires Practice At the Foot of the Rockies
Lakewood, CO

 If you happen to hit Lakewood, Colorado on a weekday evening around sunset, you must make time to watch The Westernaires practice precision riding at break-neck speeds. These impressive 9-19 year olds, will give you goose-bumps, get you teary-eyed and make you proud of our Country’s youth. 
Westernaires Tack Room
Lakewood, CO

The Westernaires, 15200 W. 6th Avenue, Lakewood, Colorado

Westernaires "Tenderfoot Board Meeting"
Lakewood, CO
(303) 279-3767 learn and practice drills at Fort Westernaire  -a complex of indoor and outdoor arenas (7 in all), classrooms, and a phenomenal museum – the Orrin C. Curtiss Westernaire Museum of Western and Riding History - that you can enter if you happen to come through on a Saturday (also a practice day throughout the year) between 10am and 2pm.  Based on the notion that “The Old West had values worth learning,” says The Westernaire’s director, Glenn Keller, “all Westernaires must visit the museum when they first sign up.”  Inside, there’s a library filled with Western and Colorado History books – among them an 1867 Revised Statues of Colorado.  The kids begin their training by first learning about the anatomy of the horse, the history of the region, including Native American History, the origins of the US Cavalry (the Westernaires portray this old branch of the military in shows), and the progression of the saddle. There are branding irons, various kinds of barbed wire, bits, bridles, stirrups and spurs and, incredibly, the carriage that brought Abraham Lincoln to the train in Springfield, IL as he set off for Washington DC to serve as US President.  This was the same carriage used by Buffalo Bill Cody in his Wild West Show, and its not by happenstance that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Westernaire’s Horsecapades  are so similar.  “We are the West Incarnate,” Keller says.

The Westernaires have had just two directors in the organization’s 62 years; E.E. Wyland who, in 1949 was asked by the Lakewood Youth Council to “start something for kids,” and Keller who, in 1983, grew the Westernaires into the 1,000-strong organization it is today. When Keller took over the reins, only 5% of the Westernaires went on to college.  Today, 95% do. Keller feels that for some of these kids who are at-risk and from broken homes, this program is so important they stay in school just so they can continue to be Westernaires (a requirement). Along with the obvious riding skills, kids learn perseverance, personal responsibility, leadership and respect for adults; all the ingredients of good citizenship.

Westernaires practice at sunset in the Rockies
Lakewood, CO
Children as young as nine years old start out in the “Tenderfoot” division and must learn the very basics even before getting on a horse.  After nine or ten years of practice, drills, diagramming, and bonding with their horse and like-minded colleagues, each Westernaire hopes to be called upon to join the elite Varsity Big Red Team, earning the coveted and prestigious “Red Sweater.”

Westernaires Varsity Big Red Team Member
wearing coveted red sweater
Lakewood, CO
“It’s a real family – you really get addicted,” says one parent/volunteer, Debbie Koop, who has two Westernaires daughters and is an instructor herself.  The program is so important to participants, many return as volunteers; there are 350 – 500 graduates and parents who just can’t let go and want to give back.  They sew the costumes, teach kids at all levels, and take care of the 30 acres of property. “We’re a totally self-supporting organization,” Keller explained. “We believe in doing for ourselves.” For the most part, the Westernaires are funded by ticket sales.  They put on a Wild West-like show – called Horsecapades - in Denver every year, selling over 42,000 tickets at $7 each. Participants in the program pay a nominal fee for training and costumes.  Excelling at precision riding, rough riding, authentic Cavalry Riding and Liberty Riding (no saddle or harness), the Westernaires are one of the best (if not the best) trick-riding teams in the United States, and merit the slogan “Best At Speed.”

It takes determination, tenacity, attention to detail and teamwork, plus lots of heart, sweat and tears to pull off effectively. If you hit it just right, watch a Westernaires drill against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and the setting sun, you will be touched.  Practice is most weekday evenings in the summer.


  1. Fascinating post. Iknow prcious little about horses or riding beyond hobby horses and rocking horses.

  2. Thanks for reading/posting, Versa. Well, now you know a bit more about riding, I hope!

  3. We fondly remember our time (late 1950s) in the club! Names we remember are Mr. Wyland, Shri and Gary Wagoner & Jim McCrumb -- others too numerous to mention.
    Jim and Linda Hamilton


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