by Erin Di Paolo

Horses, cattle, lambs, goats, hogs, llamas, and yaks... cowboys, rodeos, bull-riders and Wild West shows ...dust, food, music, adults, and children - are all part of Denver’s big annual National Western Stock Show, Rodeo, and Horse Show held every January. This year, it will celebrate its 103rd season!

Even though the show has been around for a century and is huge in its scope - it is the world's fifth-richest regular season professional rodeo, largest horse show, and Colorado's largest tradeshow - its beginnings were rather humble and a stark contrast to today's show. And although its mission continues to be to preserve the western lifestyle by providing a showcase for the agricultural industry through its emphasis on education, genetic development, innovative technology and offering the world's largest agricultural marketing opportunities, so many other things have evolved over the years.

The 2009 show, which runs from January 10 - 25, was first held on January 29, 1906. The first show ran for only six days and had only 336 entries. Initially, the date of the show was chosen because it appealed to the farm and ranch community while providing post-Christmas blah relief for the show's Denver boosters. At the time, The Denver Union Stock Yards Company operated a year-round business, but made room in its pens for the Stock Show; the result was that pen and carload cattle shows became highlights of the January event.

In the show's infancy cattle were limited to just four breeds -- Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, and Galloway. The first three breeds dominated the show for six decades, but today there are 19 different breeds on display at the show. Early on, the show was open only to entries from west of the 99th meridian, but in 1910, everyone was welcome, thus making the show truly National Western in its reach.

The show was held at the yards until the meatpacking industry changed in the 1960s. By the mid-1970s the complex was virtually deserted so the National Western began to purchase fence-studded acres.

As the years have gone by, more and more events have been added. A horse show was added in 1907 and Society Night was a highlight for decades. Breed-specific shows began with Palominos in 1938 and the long-running Quarter Horse show was initiated in 1944. The show now features Quarter Horses, Paints, hunters and jumpers, draft horses, and mules.

It was not until 1931 that the National Western added the rodeo to the mix. At that time about 100 cowboys came together to compete in saddle and bareback bronc riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, and bull riding. The pay was as little as $35, but the cowboys risked life and limb anyway. During the Depression there was an increase in entries and in 1939 the rodeo joined a five-city western circuit. By 1955, 350 cowboys began their prize-money journey at the National Western. Now over 700 cowboys and cowgirls travel to Denver to compete in the five original events, plus team roping and barrel racing, helping to make the rodeo events some of the most popular of attractions at the event, drawing over 100,000 spectators each season.

In 1952 it was time for a new home for the increasingly-popular rodeo and horse events, so the Denver Coliseum arrived on the scene, built from the contributions of Denver taxpayers, area businesses, Stock Show boosters, and livestock interests. So the rodeo and horse shows moved into their new home, where they remain today, while cattle shows took over the Stadium Arena. In 1995 yet another venue was opened - The Events Center -- to accommodate the expanding number of entrants and spectators. Today the horse shows are held there.

After the rodeo, next in popularity are the Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza, Freestyle Reining, and Grand Prix. All three events always sell out and the annual attendance for the three is about 17,000, 4,500, and 4,500, respectively. The Super Dogs event is gaining popularity as well.

In addition to ticketed events, a large portion of the show's attendance comes from individuals who buy general admission tickets to stroll the grounds, shop at the tradeshow, look at the animals, and take part in the children's activities and free entertainment.

The National Western, in keeping with its tradition of constant growth and change, created its first youth divisions in 1919. Entries swelled during the Depression as 4-H Boys and Girls Clubs began showing steers, lambs, and hogs in great numbers. The popular 4-H Catch-A-Calf contest was added in 1935 when it was a boys-only affair; girls were allowed to participate starting in 1974.

Today the division is still wildly popular among young people, with hundreds of youth from ages 9 to 19 entering their animals in the junior livestock show. Contestants are permitted to keep 75 percent of the proceeds from their critters, with a champion animal earning enough to pay for a college education!

The remaining 25 percent of award money goes to the National Western Scholarship Trust, along with money from the Citizen of the West Award dinner, the Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale, the Boots and Business luncheon, and individual memorials and contributions to fund scholarships for college students. Launched in 1983 with three $1,000 scholarships, The National Western Scholarship Trust awarded 65 scholarships for the 2006-07 school year totaling over $200,000. The grants range from $2,500 to $6,000, and are presented to students who study agriculture and practice medicine in rural areas at colleges and universities in Colorado and Wyoming.

Over the years the variety and number of animals have increased as well. More than 15,000 head of horses, cattle, sheep, swine, goats, llamas, bison, yak, poultry, and rabbits step foot on the grounds of the National Western Stock Show each year. The show is known for hosting the world's only carload and pen cattle show, held in the historic Denver Union Stockyards.

Along with everything else at the show, attendance has grown over the years as well. In 2006 attendance reached 726,972, which was a new record. The previous attendance record was set in 2003 with 641,033 people visiting the show. This year, more than 600,000 visitors are expected to attend the more than 40- ticketed rodeos, horse shows, and other entertainment, and for those who are hungry or want to shop, more than 375 vendors will fill the 100-acre show grounds.

For more information or for tickets, call 1-888-551-5004
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