On January 7th, 2023 the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado opened its doors to welcome visitors for the 117th year running. This marks the start of “the best 16 days in January” when an estimated 600,000 Western enthusiasts and city slickers alike will attend this annual event.
If you aren’t from America, or perhaps even the western United States, you may be wondering what exactly a stock show is; imagine 16 days of rodeos, livestock auctions, showjumping events, petting zoos, a trade show with more than 300 vendors, and so much more.
The Stock Show is unique for its location as it sits in the heart of Denver, a city of nearly three million people which surrounds the Stock Show and absorbs the life that it breathes into the city for those few weeks.
Every Stock Show starts the same way: with a massive parade through the streets of Denver which showcases every aspect of western life that will be on display at the Stock Show, including the rare metropolitan sight of over 30 longhorn cattle being herded down 17th Street.
The parade is an exciting start to the event as it gives visitors an up-close-and-personal view of many of the people and animals that will be exhibited over the next few weeks.
There is so much to see at the show, so let’s break down the different events and opportunities that visitors have the chance to see over the 16 days of events.
One of the main attractions at the Stock Show is the many shows, exhibitions, and other competitions that are open for the public to come watch. These competitions are often ticketed and can be fairly expensive depending on the popularity of the show. Despite this, they are an interesting and fun way for people to learn more about more niche topics they may not know about
One of the most popular shows is the Xtreme Dogs Show which showcases the many talented dogs and owners who perform in agility competitions or show off their tricks.
Another well-loved competition is the Draft Horse Show. Draft horses are a large and sturdy breed of horse bred to pull heavy loads, such as carriages. At the Stock Show, these physical attributes are put to the test as teams compete in categories that range from pulling competitions where competitors encourage their horses to pull as heavy a load as possible, to eight-horse hitch classes where teams are judged on synchrony and turnout.
Always a crowd favourite, the Westernaires make many appearances at shows and events across the Stock Show; made up solely of young people and their horses, the Westeranires perform death-defying stunts and drills with ease.
There are also a selection of shows and events that are free for the public to watch, such as the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Hunter/Jumper horse show.
This is held over five days and is full of exciting showjumping events as well as more classic Hunter events. Here, the competitors are most often not professionals and many arrive at the Stock Show as early as 4:00 am to compete and then leave by 9:00 am to go to work or school. Although comprised of amateurs, these shows are nonetheless a free and exciting experience for horse lovers.
The Grand Prix and Gamblers Choice
If professional riding is more your speed, there are also two nights of professional equestrian competition.
The Grand Prix is a traditional two-tiered riding competition that tests a horse and rider’s ability to navigate a pre-determined course of show jumps both quickly and without knocking any poles.
The jumps in a Grand Prix are 1.40m (4ft 6in), which is very high for even a professional horse and rider. If they are successful in the first round, they move on to a second round where the jumps are even higher and they are required to go even faster. This is a showcase of the best and bravest riders at the Stock Show.
The Gamblers Choice has a different atmosphere, with a rock and roll theme and a more relaxed set of rules. This competition tests a rider’s ability to think on their feet as they can choose their own path around the jumps during a set time limit.
Each jump is assigned a point value, and the goal is to accumulate the highest point value without knocking jumps. At the end of their allotted time, the rider can choose to jump the “Joker” jump, which is the tallest and most difficult jump with the highest point value.
Although most of Stock Show takes place indoors (as January temperatures in Colorado can reach as low as -22°C), it doesn’t stop them from putting on huge petting zoos for children and adults alike to enjoy.
The petting zoos are well stocked with friendly creatures looking for a snack and some pets such as goats, sheep, donkeys, llamas, and alpacas. Other less cuddly animals often make an appearance such as ducks, chickens, and pigs.
Like the petting zoo, the Stock Show also offers an opportunity to see baby animals at their nursery. The heated and warmly lit nursery area is full of piglets, calves, and many other newborn farm animals, which is advertised as a great way to learn about the early stages of animal life.
CSU Ag Adventure
Another hands-on aspect of the Sock Show is Colorado State University’s Ag Adventure zone; this area is constructed to teach city folk about life on the farm.
There are many exhibits that demonstrate the more technical aspects of raising livestock, farming, and everything it takes to get farm products out to the world.
The stock yards
Over the course of the Stock Show’s 16 days, more than 12,000 different animals will enter its doors to compete, be sold, and interact with visitors. This many animals in one place means that there needs to be somewhere for them to live, which is why the stock yards exist.
The yards take up over twenty acres of space in order to house all the cattle and farm animals that will arrive. Horses and more sensitive livestock such as sheered sheep and llamas/alpacas are housed indoors in heated stable blocks.
Both facilities are open to the public during visiting hours and can be a fun way for visitors to interact with competitors and learn more about the animals they are watching.
A rodeo is probably the most common event one would associate with a cowboy convention, and the Stock Show is in no short supply of them. With more than 30 rodeos over the course of 16 days, there are many opportunities to attend the legendary National Western rodeos.
The Stock Show boasts many themed rodeos, such as the Colorado vs. the World Rodeo, the Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza, and the MLK Jr. African-American Heritage Rodeo, which raise money for certain causes and showcase how rodeo culture differs between cultures.
Even alongside the daredevil bronc riders and fearless Westernaires, the crowd favourite at every rodeo is the mutton bustin’. This is an event specifically for small children and requires each child to cling onto the wool of a running sheep for as long as they can, in a “child safe” version of bull riding. The winner is rewarded with a massive trophy and the approval of the entire crowd.
Visiting the National Western Stock Show
The Stock Show is a unique cultural experience that gives one the opportunity to be immersed in the Western way of life and to learn more about a way of life most people who live in the city will never experience.
Although at the time of publishing the 2023 Stock Show will have ended, you can be sure that the planning of the next one is already well underway.
Featured image by National Western Stock Show volunteer photographer, as are all images credited as NWSSVP