Professional bull riders and steer wrestlers draw big crowds to the Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo, but the heart of the four-day Competencia de los Vaqueros at the Earl Warren Showgrounds is the display of equestrian skills by riders from the tri counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo. Cowboys from surrounding ranches showed their stuff at the earliest Fiestas, and a diversified generation of horsemen and women has brought the tradition into the 21st century.
One of the challenging contests that has evolved from the labors of ranching is team penning. Gillian Ireland, whose days are spent running her business — Chandler’s Hair Salon in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone — is heading up a team that will compete Sunday morning at the Showgrounds Main Arena.
Ireland is a former U.S. Team Penning Association national champion. She won the senior youth title as a 15-year-old in 2002 at Amarillo, Texas. But after graduating from high school, the San Diego County native took leave of the sport that had consumed her since she was 10.
“I took off about seven years,” she said. “I got burnt out on it. I was gone every weekend, traveling all over the country. I was ready to go to beauty school.” She moved to Pacific Beach, a location quite different from the 6½-acre ranch where she grew up among horses, cows, goats, pigs, turkeys, and chickens.
After cutting hair in San Diego for several years, Ireland migrated to Santa Barbara and bought Chandler’s, a go-to destination for men seeking custom haircuts. “I stuck to men so I wouldn’t have to deal with color and styling,” she said. “But guys are getting more trendy in their styles.”
Ireland sought relief from the pressure of running a business by engaging in an activity that brought her back to being a happy girl. “I ride my horse almost every other day up in the Santa Ynez Valley, in the morning before it gets hot,” she said. “Riding horses is like therapy.”
As this year’s Fiesta approached, her competitive instincts flared up. It’s one thing to ride a horse on a trail; it’s quite another to ride into an arena and chase a cow out of a herd in a race against the clock. “It’s almost addictive to be in the competitive end of it and get that adrenaline rush,” Ireland said. She’s back in the saddle of sport again.
A team penning round consists of three riders and 30 cows. As they enter the ring, the riders are given a number (0 to 9) that designates three cows that they are supposed to sort out and move across the arena into a pen, while keeping the rest of the herd from scattering.
“It’s fast,” Ireland said. “You have [a maximum of] a minute and 15 seconds. It’s exciting to see a horse go down and cut a cow really good. It’s a group effort. You have one rider that turns back the herd.” The goal is to put up the fastest time to drive the three cows into the pen.
Ireland’s teammates will be Mary Dosek of Santa Ynez and Christina Maggio of Ojai — the Three Amigas of a sort. They have never competed or even practiced together as a team. “We’re just going for it,” Ireland said. “We all have done it in our own way.”
“It’s fun to be part of the Fiesta ambience,” said Dosek, a longtime horse trainer. She has two entries in the stock horse show competition. In team penning, she will ride Ireland’s 9-year-old mare, Dori, a newcomer to the sport. “As long as she keeps her brain where her body is and stays calm, we’ll be okay,” Dosek said. “If she gets jumpy, we’re in trouble.” Ireland has reason to be confident with her mount, Foxy. “She’s my old horse,” she said. “She’s 23. I’ve ridden her since I was 11 or 12.”
Team penning takes place each morning, Friday-Sunday, at the Showgrounds. The teams are assigned by random draw.
The cows are usually young and fresh, Ireland said. It is a less stressful gig for them than roping or wrestling. “You’re herding and chasing them,” she said. “You’re not roughing them up, throwing them on the ground, and tying their legs together and everything.”
When it comes to the bruising business of steer wrestling, the most decorated cowboy hails from the county. Luke Branquinho, a Los Alamos resident and Santa Ynez High graduate, is a four-time world champion in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) that will be performing Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.
A different skill will be on display every afternoon during the competencia — wild cow milking.
Wranglers in the Pink
The Earl Warren Showgrounds rodeo arena will be awash in the color of a bright western sunset on Friday, August 2. For the first time, the Fiesta Stock Horse Show and Rodeo will participate in the Wranglers Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, a fundraiser for breast cancer research.
All contestants, staff, and spectators are encouraged to wear pink at the day’s events, which include with the opening night of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) competition. Judges will be on the lookout for the “best dressed” in pink attire and award them tickets to the National Finals Rodeo.
Funds raised will stay in the community, benefitting the Clinical Research Program of the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara.
For more information, call 688-5093 or visit sbfiestarodeo.com.