It was the allure of rodeo life that drew Ken Etchieson to the sport. “I started out just like anybody else. I always had a […]
ProFile with the Snake River Stampeders
Written by: Lily Landreth< Back to Articles
The velvet darkness of the Thomas & Mack arena in Las Vegas, Nev., has been lit up five times by the Snake River Stampeders, a precision drill team of 16 riders galloping in the cover of darkness, each one glowing in the outline of nearly 200 lights. The only drill team invited to perform at the WNFR, the Snake River Stampeders also performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the 2002 Copenhagen Cup Finale held in Texas, and were even approached by America’s Got Talent, who is considering adding outdoor related talent to the show. But the Stampeders’ trademark is their hometown rodeo in Nampa, Idaho.
The Snake River Stampede moved from its well loved outdoor rodeo grounds to the indoor arena of the Ford Idaho Center in 1997, but Stampede fans were loathe to give up the old arena. “I wanted to think of something we could do to dress up the rodeo in the new place – something we couldn’t have done in the outdoor arena,” says Jimmie Hurley, the Stampede’s executive secretary. Brainstorming with her longtime friend Shawn Davis, the general manager of the WNFR, Jimmie’s solution didn’t come until Shawn’s wife recalled the opening of a rodeo she had seen with pretty girls on fast horses. It seemed the perfect complement to the Stampede’s claim as the wildest, fastest show on earth, but Jimmie wanted to add one more element – the pretty girls and their fast horses would perform in the dark.
Jimmie set to work appointing a drill instructor and holding tryouts, which were well attended by horsewomen curious to ride in a drill team unlike any other. The riders wore all black clothing and hats, with yellow Christmas lights safety-pinned on to their clothes and tack. It was wryly observed by one of the volunteers that even D-Day hadn’t required so much planning. The hours of practice and planning were an instantaneous hit, however, and the cheers of the 1997 rodeo audience confirmed what Jimmie hoped was true – the Snake River Stampeders were ready for Las Vegas. They performed that very December at the WNFR and returned again in 2001, riding in red, white, and blue lights, to “Proud to Be an American”, sending out a lone Stampeder with a flag made of lights to start the drill, an especially moving performance just months after 9/11.
Horsewomen all, the team is largely made up of wives, mothers, rodeo queens, and drill instructors, all hailing from the Treasure Valley in Idaho. Coached by Paula Vanhoozer, a seasoned drill team judge and rider, the Stampeders practice once a week over the course of three months, members chosen each year after a challenging night of tryouts in the spring. Of the 30 – 40 women who audition, only 19 are chosen – 16 regular team members and three alternates.
“I enjoy practice!” says Brandi Krajnik, a seven year member of the team. “Paula writes such good drills, and adding that mixed element of danger turning the lights off is a challenge.” Another member, Heather Miner, adds, “You have to have a horse and rider that are willing to push the boundaries of what common sense says is okay, and have a little fun with some adrenaline.” Heather has ridden with the Stampeders the last four years and coaches another drill team, the EhCapa Bareback Riders, with Brandi. “Stampeders is challenging horsemanship wise. It takes a rider who can push through fear, and a horse that has some go but that also stays under control, which is kind of a rare combination.”
Since its creation 18 years ago, the Snake River Stampeders have changed very little beyond team members and drill instructors coming and going. The team switched to L.E.D lights in 2010, which was brought about by Randi Wood, the assistant drill instructor, light coordinator, and rodeo board liaison. The new, brighter lights snake over the riders’ sleeves and up to their glowing hats with the help of extension cords. “Once your lights are fastened on, you’re pretty well staying put in the saddle,” says Randi.
By the time the Snake River Stampede week arrives in July, the Stampeders’ drill – written anew each year by Paula – is second nature. Once the arena is set up, they have just three practices in the dark before launching into their six performances during the Stampede. Though seldom, when the lights do fail, charged by 45 pound battery packs on the saddles, the Stampeders never fail to care for one another, especially during the accidents that inevitably occur. Even performing to music so loud they can feel it in their horses’ hooves, the team manages to communicate with one another during what one Stampeder described as a four minute barrel race in the dark with 16 horses.
“I think proof of how good we are is that we have the fastest riding, in the dark, with some of the best riders practicing in the least amount of time,” Heather Miner describes, “and there’s no way you can do that without amazing horses and riders.”
Snake river stampede
Celebrates 100 years
Potatoes immediately spring to mind when the state of Idaho is mentioned. But among PRCA cowboys and cowgirls, the pistol shaped state hosts one of the West’s top rodeos to compete in during July. And while Idaho produces more than 13 billion pounds of spuds every year, the Snake River Stampede boasts a $400,000 payout, placing it in the top ten of the PRCA’s regular season rodeos.
The Snake River Stampede, which lands in the middle of Cowboy Christmas, celebrates 100 years this month, a historic milestone coming just after the rodeo was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2014. The legendary barrel man and rodeo clown, Leon Coffee, is coming out of retirement to be the man in the can during the rodeo, while the rodeo’s trademark drill team, the Snake River Stampeders, are performing their dark defying routine with a surprise twist at the opening. They’ll ride in green and yellow lights – the colors of the original Stampede arena.
Originally an offshoot of the Nampa Harvest Festival, which began in 1911, the Snake River Stampede started as a bucking contest in a roped-off block in town. The event became official in 1915, the first year admission was charged, and soon took place in a ball field. Other events were added, and the buck show, still nameless, grew in popularity.
The year of 1937 proved pivotal when the buck show was christened the Snake River Stampede by rodeo director Ike Corlett, and joined the Rodeo Cowboys Association. The bucking stock, which was originally herded to Nampa from a ranch near Horseshoe Bend, some 50 miles away, was later provided by Leo Cramer, a Montana stock contractor who brought the stock by train. The rodeo was changed to a nighttime show when lights were installed, and President Franklin Roosevelt opened the new rodeo from his home in Hyde Park, New York, where he pressed a golden telegraph key that turned on the lights of the rodeo grounds 2,000 miles away. In 1950, a new arena was built, seating 10,000 in its horseshoe shaped stadium. Gene Autry was the Snake River Stampede’s first star, followed by entertainers including Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and later, Reba McEntire, and Glen Campbell. The Snake River Stampede moved indoors in 1997 to what is now the Ford Idaho Center, pulling spectators in from the heat and closer to the thrills and spills of the wildest, fastest show on earth.
“I’ve been working here since 1977, and the rodeo is part of my family,” says the Snake River Stampede’s executive secretary, Jimmie Hurley. “I love the rodeo’s heritage, and the fact that the committees have toughed it out through the good and bad years and didn’t let the rodeo go. We strive to have the best announcers, stock, bullfighters, clowns, and specialty acts – and to pay out a lot of money – which of course attracts the best cowboys and barrel racers. It’s an honor for us to be one of the top ten (PRCA) rodeos!”