The spirit of the Old West was alive on the first day of the Pendleton Round-Up, but only the audience that stayed behind for the post-rodeo barbecue got to see some mounted shooting.
A dozen members of the First Infantry Division Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard lingered just outside a west-end gate into the arena, catching glimpses of the tail-end of the rodeo before several trucks drove on the field to begin setting up the barbecue.
As guests received their dinner and began settling into the tables, the color guard strode out onto the arena on horseback, shaking each others hands and exchanging high fives.
It wasn’t long before the color guard members and their horses were jumping barriers, often brandishing a saber or revolver to pop balloons that had been attached to poles or the ground.
As diners swarmed the soldiers after the show finished, it was hard to believe that some of the men who had just conducted target practice on top of a moving animal had as little as six months of experience on horseback.
Horsemanship is not a requirement to join the Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard, formed in 1992 and based in Fort Riley, Kansas.
First Sgt. Jason Therkelsen explained how the infantrymen and engineers and other disparate Army positions who have already served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan sign up for a two-year tour on horseback.
Color guard members go through 30 days of horse training, including 40 hours on bareback before traveling to rodeos and horse shows across the country.
While every member of the color guard looked skilled behind the reins, Sgt. Cecil Sanderson stood out during his portion of the presentation.
The color guard’s senior rider, Sanderson was the only member who wielded a shotgun for the first half of the course, eviscerating his targets with crowd-safe ammunition, then switching to a revolver and continuing to drop targets.
Sanderson’s talents were reflective of a childhood spent around his horse-training father and as a competitor in mounted shooting competitions.
After joining the Army and serving in Afghanistan, Sanderson was a natural fit for the mounted color guard.
“If I can be in the Army and ride horses, that’s two of my favorite things,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum was Specialist Connor Boyer, who had zero horseback experience despite growing up around cattle.
Boyer said “everyone has their falls” during training, which was met with some razzing from his fellow color guard members, who said Boyer took more than a few. The mounted color guard will make the most of their trip to Pendleton, making additional appearances at Wednesday’s Happy Canyon Night Show and Friday’s Westward Ho! Parade.
Following last year’s visit from the U.S. Marine Corps. mounted color guard, Round-Up General Manager Casey Beard wants to make the military a permanent presence at the Round-Up.
“Patriotism and militarism are in our charter,” he said.
The Round-Up history with the military stretches back all the way to the early years of the rodeo According to Beard, Round-Up champions Lee Caldwell and Dell Blancett formed Company D as a patriotic response to the U.S. entry into World War I, which marks its 100th anniversary this year.
The mounted troop was sworn in at Happy Canyon and trained at the Round-Up Grounds, but were converted to artillery when they arrived in Germany.
Still, the members of Troop D wrote “Let ’Er Buck” on their cannons and were noted in media reports for their resiliency.
The military remains involved with the Round-Up in other ways.
The Oregon Air National Guard will perform a flyover for Saturday’s championship round during the grand entry, Round-Up publicity director Randy Thomas said.
Throughout the week, the Round-Up has also received a helping hand from the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion, better known as the Seabees.
Based out of the Boardman Bombing Range, Jesse Canisalez, a second class equipment operator, said up to seven members of the Seabees have been helping with the hay and barns volunteer group.
Volunteering to take care of livestock is a part of a broader effort from the bombing range to do more community outreach, Canisalez said.
While many of their efforts have been focused on Hermiston, Canisalez said the goal is to continue volunteering at Round-Up in the future.
Contact Antonio Sierra at email@example.com or 541-966-0836.