Steamboat’s Legendary Cowboy Downhill
Martin Luther King Day welcomes one of Steamboat Resort’s signature events, the Bud Light Cowboy Downhill. Since 1974, professional rodeo cowboys have been competing in the most unique ski rodeo in the country. As the 48th annual Cowboy Downhill kicks off Monday, Steamboat’s western heritage is highlighted in one of the season’s most anticipated events.
From the start, Steamboat’s Cowboy Downhill “has been the perfect fit for the western image and hospitality” that the resort offers, according to Barb Shipley, who has been involved in the event since the very beginning as one of Steamboat’s first Ski Ambassadors. In 1974, world champion skier and Steamboat’s director of skiing, Billy Kidd, teamed up with Larry Mahan, a six-time world champion cowboy, to invite Pro Rodeo stars to Steamboat for a day of skiing. The cowboys had so much fun that the country’s first and most successful ski rodeo was born. Since January of 1974, the Cowboy Downhill has taken place every year except for 2021 (due to COVID) and has progressed in to quite an impressive spectacle that keeps cowboys and spectators coming back, year after year.
In the beginning, Frontier Airlines, once the official airline of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), flew cowboys from Denver to Hayden to compete in the Cowboy Downhill. Most cowboys had never been on skis before, but it was thought that a cowboy’s athleticism, balance and fearlessness would transition well to the slopes. As the cowboys arrived in Steamboat, they quickly traded their cowboy boots for ski boots and hit the slopes. In the morning, ski lessons were given by Lois Werner and other female instructors, and by the afternoon, cowboys were competing on a dual slalom course against each other. In the early days, prizes included a jar of fresh horse manure for the worst wreckage on course or a bottle of tequila for the fastest time. Steamboat’s ski legend Jim “Moose” Barrows was the Director of Special Events at the time, bringing a world-class skiing perspective to the Cowboy Downhill.
In order to qualify for the Cowboy Downhill, you must be competing in the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado. That’s it. From there, whether you know how to ski or not is beside the point. Two events, the timed dual slalom and the free-for-all stampede, make up the competitive portions of the Cowboy Downhill. Along with navigating gates on the dual slalom course, cowboys must also hit a table-top style jump, grab a rope to lasso a hostess and saddle a horse before crossing the finish line. The stampede event is a free-for-all from the start to the finish with a jump as the only obstacle. As you can imagine, these two events are wildly entertaining and exceptionally fun. For most of the year, professional rodeo cowboys are traveling around the country competing, so Steamboat’s Cowboy Downhill is a nice little break where memories are made, and ski rodeo traditions prevail.
These days, there is a separate Legends and Founders Division for the retired cowboys who still want to participate in the event. While they are still welcome to compete, they cannot take all the Cowboy Downhill glory; that is left for the cowboys actively competing at the National Western Stock Show. One such cowboy named Jed Moore competed in his first Cowboy Downhill in 1999 and has not missed one since. Jed has won six times in the Cowboy Downhill, split evenly between the dual slalom and the stampede events. Today he attends the event as a VIP and has a great time competing in the Legends and Founders Division. To him, the value of the event is incredible and never worth missing as Steamboat Resort is an exceptional host to an exceptional ski rodeo.
The Cowboy Downhill has certainly grown and become more polished since 1974, but some things remain the same. Bob Feist, legendary professional rodeo announcer, has been announcing the Cowboy Downhill since the beginning. His co-announcer, John Shipley of Steamboat Pro Rodeo fame, has been co-announcing the event alongside Feist since 1989. John’s wife, Barb Shipley, has been an integral part of the Cowboy Downhill since the very first cowboys stepped off that Frontier Airlines flight en route to the country’s first ski rodeo in 1974. There is a committee of Steamboat locals who remain involved in this event as it “keeps the heart and soul of Steamboat’s western heritage alive,” according to Barb Shipley. And even today, invitations to come to the Cowboy Downhill are still handed out in person at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Although more polished, prevailing traditions and invested people with a lot of heart and passion make Steamboat’s Cowboy Downhill one of the best events of the year in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
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