Feature July 2, 2022

Blood, Sweat and Tears

The nitty, gritty history of rodeos in the Wood River Valley


As Sun Valley Resort’s first winter as America’s first destination ski resort drew to a close, Union Pacific Railroad earmarked more than $2.5 million to make the summer of 1937 in Sun Valley equally memorable.

It built a covered grandstand seating 18,400 at the Sun Valley Horseman’s Center. And it advertised a rodeo that would eclipse the best Cheyenne and Pendleton had ever staged.

“…the wildest horses ever roped, fighting broncs that pant, grunt, leap, and strain under the best saddle sitters of the age,” promised the Hailey Times.

Spectators arrayed in silk and satin cowboy and cowgirl outfits and Parisian fashions came from afar. Blaring trumpets and a cannon blast announced a parade that included a General Custer impersonator, Canadian Royal Northwest Mounted Police, Shoshone-Bannock Indian chiefs wearing war bonnets, Calvary horse riders, and covered wagons.

Rodeo legends showed up, including bronc buster Turk Greenough, who doubled for Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. One man rode two Irish Hunters over a burning automobile. Clowns did donkey tricks, and toga-clad contestants competed in chariot races. Others took part in boomerang throwing, fancy roping, and wild cow milking contests, while a red-haired woman was said to have ridden a bronc ride every bit as good as a man.

“It was a revelation to see the so-called fair and weaker sex perform so courageously and daringly,” wrote James Knipe, who was among the Pulitzer Prize winners and newsreel companies covering the action.

The effort paid off—the National Rodeo Association voted the Sun Valley Rodeo of 1937 the finest in the United States and Canada.

The rodeo prospered until Sun Valley Resort was turned into a Navy convalescent hospital during World War II. Union Pacific made a half-hearted attempt to revive it when the resort reopened in 1947. But restoration costs, rising insurance rates, and tired stock were too much, not to mention that the railroad spent a fortune wining and dining VIPs.

But, as the resort turned the grounds into a practice field for the Baltimore Colts, local cowboys formed the Sawtooth Rangers. They built a rodeo arena in 1948 and organized the Wood River Roundup. A smaller arena with more seating capacity was built in 2009 to house what is now known as the Hailey Days of the Old West Rodeo.

“It’s part of our history,” says Cheryl Bennett, a former rodeo competitor. “We’re a Western town, and people like the opportunity to dress up and put their boots on.”

One of the best to come out of this area was Bellevue’s Kelly Wardell, voted the 1997 Original Coors Fans’ Favorite Cowboy. Wardell won the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo in 1998 and rodeoed professionally for 30 years, qualifying for the National Finals rodeo four times in bareback riding. He even got a bronze medal and helped the United States to a team gold medal at the Olympic Command Performance Rodeo, held as part of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

Twenty-three-year-old Sarah Rau of Bellevue is riding the rodeo circuit now as a barrel racer. She fell in love with horses at 4-H club and dreamed of making the National Rodeo Finals. “You feel like you’re flying,” she says of her 14- to 17-minute ride around the barrels. “Even with the loud music and lights and people cheering, you don’t hear anything. It’s just you and your horse, in sync.”

Rau moved to Texas after graduating from Wood River High School in 2017 to put herself in the center of people who could help her achieve her goal. She won the 2020 Texas Circuit Rookie of the Year Award and finished second among Women’s Professional Rodeo Association’s rookies.

That year, she put 20,000 miles on her Ford F-450 pickup driving her three horses to nearly 80 rodeos. During Fourth of July, she did seven rodeos in four days in Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana.

No sooner than she finished her ride, she began loading up her horses and driving all night to the next rodeo venue. Upon arriving, she’d feed and water her quarter horses, put icy packs on their legs, massage them with a massage gun and cover them with magnetic blankets. Only then did she get to catch a couple hours of sleep in 12 feet of living quarters in the front of her trailer, which includes a couch, kitchen, and shower.

“I love the beautiful places in Montana and Wyoming that rodeoing takes me to,” Rau says. “And it’s the most incredible experience getting to do what I love.”

Rau’s top prize so far is $8,000 she won for first place at the San Antonio Rodeo. Entry fees cost between $75 and $350, and first-place results earn between $2,500 and $50,000, depending on the rodeo. Between her winnings and her work selling equipment like drilling fluids for oil companies, she was able to purchase a home this year in Stephenville, Texas, known as the Cowboy Capital of the World.

Competing in dusty, 110-degree temperatures or running into barrels, which counts against her score, sometimes brings Rau to her knees. “When they talk about blood, sweat and tears, they’re not lying,” she says. “Sometimes I just want to sit and cry. But, when I lose, it’s a learning experience that makes me better for the next rodeo. I figure I have five minutes to be down, then I have to tough it up. Each day is a mental game, and I need to be able to go in with confidence. And I want to be able to use my platform in rodeo to be a good role model for women.”

Hailey resident Chloe Deffe is one of three students in this year’s Wood River Rodeo Club. She started competing in high school rodeo in eighth grade after learning to ride horses in 4-H club. When her classmates are skiing, she’s working a horse that Amy Federko loaned her in Picabo. From early April to late May, she competes in barrel racing, rein cow horse and pole bending, in which horse and riders weave between poles set 21 feet apart.

“That’s not a big space—you and your horse have to be one,” Deffe says. “You have to have laser focus. You start out learning slow, and it becomes muscle memory. Then it’s trusting that your horse knows what to do.”

“You know that every kid there has worked hard to be there,” Deffe adds. “I like being surrounded by a bunch of good people who are there to compete and have fun.”

This article appears in the Summer 2022 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.