Don King Days: Capturing equestrian heritage | TSLN.com

Don King Days: Capturing equestrian heritage

Rebecca Colnar
for Tri-State Livestock News

Where can you see polo, bronc riding, steer "tripping," and cowboy polo all on the open grass with no arena fences? Throw in the World Championship Blacksmith's Horseshoeing Contest to further add interest and you've got Don King Days at the Big Horn Equestrian Center near Sheridan, Wyoming held Sunday and Monday of Labor Day weekend.

The Don King Days event started in 1989 when local ranchers came up with a unique combination of equestrian events. When it came time to choose a name for the event, the organizers agreed that one man embodied what they wanted to celebrate–Don King.

King was a cowboy, horse trainer, roper, world renowned saddle, rope and tool maker, artist, craftsman, entrepreneur, husband, father, grandfather, gentleman and friend to all. For all these things he was revered, respected and admired. Don King passed away in 2007, but the King family remains active in the planning of the event.

The purpose of the event is to celebrate the traditions unique to the Sheridan area and to symbolize the diversity of the equestrian activities that are a part of the area heritage. It truly captures the spirit and traditions of the west and the open-air, unconfined and unhurried atmosphere of rodeos past.  For the first year, it was Don King Day – which was only one day.  After that, due to its popularity, it expanded to two days. More than a thousand spectators head to Big Horn see this as the grand finale of summer fun.

Although the mainstay of DKD is polo, bronc riding and roping, years past saw steeplechasing (horse racing over jumps), wild cow milking and even Indian Relay Races.

DKD officially begins with Sunday morning's polo match when runner-up teams compete in the Henry Burgess Memorial Cup. The winning team members each receive a beautiful Tom Balding bit. The two teams who were victorious over other teams in "play-off" games during the previous week have the privilege of playing in the Don King Days Polo Tournament to win the coveted buckle.

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"Many ranch families raised—and some still raise—polo ponies in the Sheridan area. Even Don King played some polo," noted Perk Connell, former Big Horn Polo Club president who is still actively involved in keeping the Big Horn Polo Club running. "When the DKD founders were mulling over which events to have in this celebration of equine activities, it was a natural to have polo included in the Don King Days festival."

Between the third and fourth chukker (periods) of the polo match, the crowd enjoys watching the spirited game of "cowboy polo." This sport, less refined than its English-based counterpart, features three cowboys on each team riding in stock saddles and wielding duct-taped whisk broom as "mallets." The target is a kick ball that is pitched in between the two teams after each contestant simultaneously chugs a beer. This year, the HF Bar wranglers soundly defeated the WYO Rodeo team.

The steer roping—one roper must throw a loop around the steer's horns and "trip" him–tests the skills of ropers from several states. This year, Wade Shoemaker won the event, the only contestant to rope all four steers during the weekend competition.

During each day of the event, three cowboys try riding a bucking horse on the polo field. This is done the old-fashioned way. Cowboys carefully climb from the pickup rider's horse onto the back of the blindfolded bucking horse. The blind is raised and the show begins. If the cowboy doesn't get tossed—or the bucking horse doesn't run into the crowd and he makes it to the 8-second mark—he is retreived by the pickup men. This year, Blaze Hamaker captured the honor.

The 2017 Don King Days came close to breaking a record attendance Sunday despite the smoky skies and hot weather. "We had second largest gate take in the history of Don King Days," noted Big Horn Equestrian Center Director Jill Moriarty, referencing the $10 gate fee. "This event certainly celebrates what is unique to Sheridan. It's a wonderful way to showcase a variety of equine events in a beautiful setting."

The World Championship Blacksmith Contest

This was the fifth year for the World Championship Blacksmith Contest at Don King Days. The event is Saturday through Monday as part of Don King Days.

“The idea to have a shoeing competition at Don Kings Days first came about when, several years ago, Troy Ehrmantraut, a Sheridan area farrier, (and King relative through marriage) held a contest during Don King Days on a smaller scale. It was a huge time commitment. Then Troy got the idea to bring the World Championship here five years ago,” explains Sheridan area shoer, Adam Gable. “Troy asked if I’d be interested in helping, and we worked on bringing it to Sheridan. “Since then, the Wyoming Professional Farriers’ Association has spearheaded it. But it was Troy who started it and a group of us who got it together.”

Gable says the competition truly is worldwide. “Our 92 contestants this year came from all over the world. This time we had farriers from England, New Zealand and Canada, plus we had 20 states represented, if not more. They come from the east to west coasts.”

Farriers first are judged with a time limit to make a shoe. During another segment, they look at a specimen shoe and are judged on how well they created it–the width, length, the nail hole location, and how well they added any other accessories like clips or toe bars or heel caulks. “There are a lot of little things the judges look for,” Gable adds.

On Monday, the top 40 contestants get to shoe horses which quietly stand under the tent for the intense finale. This year Tom Petersen from Bozeman captured first place.

Each year the large tent with burning forges and clanking steel lures Don King Days attendees over to see what the noise is all about. “When you tell people you’re having a horse shoe competition, they think it’s pitching horse shoes at a peg,” Gable chuckles. “Then they see the size and the fire and the anvils and teamwork. It’s pure competition. Because of the television show Forged By Fire, we’ve had more people tell us this year their kids loved it. This weekend was the biggest positive reception we’ve had from the public yet. I keep getting messages about it. The mainstream media influenced it, as well.”

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