Old Santa Ynez Days Rodeo 2024 | Photo: Emmy Pickett @emmylaine

I’ve fully embraced the country lifestyle since moving to Santa Ynez, so it bordered on embarrassing to admit I’d never actually attended a rodeo. I was determined to remedy that when Old Santa Ynez Days Rodeo was on the horizon this year and rallied a group of girlfriends to come up from Los Angeles for the weekend to partake in my adorable small town’s biggest celebration of the year.

While Old Santa Ynez Days weekend has been a community tradition for 60 years, the rodeo is a more recent addition to the event lineup. This was the fifth annual Old Santa Ynez Days Rodeo and the biggest yet. The rodeo was started by a local cowboy, Ralph Lausten, in 2018. He brought his friend Kevin Murphy, owner of KJ Murphy’s hat shop, into the fold, and Murphy now serves as president of the rodeo’s beneficiary nonprofit organization, Santa Ynez Valley Western Heritage Foundation (syvwhf.org).

Old Santa Ynez Days Rodeo 2024 | Photo: Shannon Brooks

“The mission of our foundation is to provide education for the youth here in the Santa Ynez Valley in relation to agriculture and ranching,” Murphy explained. The rodeo is the primary annual fundraiser that allows them to channel resources into Santa Ynez High School’s agriculture programs. As the rodeo has grown, the foundation has helped underwrite facility improvements, started an annual Ag Day, and supported field trips. “We provided a plan for the ag department and with our presence, they were able to get a third teacher for the 2023-2024 school year, enabling them to enroll [more] students,” Murphy shared. The foundation has also donated to childhood cancer initiatives.

Motivated by the positive impact the foundation has the potential to generate, its network of volunteers and sponsors pour their passion into producing a memorable rodeo. It might be a grassroots undertaking, but the caliber draws riders and ropers from across the country. Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) qualifying events place it on the pro circuit and attract competitors looking to earn points (and money) toward the National Finals Rodeo held every December in Las Vegas. “The cowboys come in, do their deal, and are off to the next state,” Murphy explained.

He pointed out that the quality of the animals and their high level of training is part of what makes this small local rodeo attractive to competitors. Lausten’s stock contracting business, Empire Rodeo, provides the horses for the saddle bronc and bareback riding competitions; the Gallego Brothers provide the bulls; and cattle are brought in from outside companies. The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians donates the land, allowing the rodeo to stage the events on their San Carlos property on the eastern edge of the Santa Ynez township. The picturesque setting surrounded by rolling hillsides dotted with oak trees and mountains in the distance lends a sense of place, and you can even see small airplanes landing at the nearby Santa Ynez Airport.

Old Santa Ynez Days Rodeo 2024 | Photo: Shannon Brooks

The two-day event is very family-oriented. “We try to be old-fashioned in our rodeo progression,” Murphy said. “We offer enough food and games for the kids without turning it into a carnival.” Local vendors and country western outfitters sell their wares and food and beverage tents and trucks serve tacos, hot dogs, and other refreshments. Both days open with a flyover and patriotic fanfare, and Saturday wraps up with live country music after the competition.

I attended the Sunday rodeo session on a steamy 94-degree afternoon. We were spoiled by my friend and neighbor Cheryl, who was volunteering at the rodeo and whisked us up the hill in her Rhino, sparing us a short but sweaty walk from our air-conditioned brunch at The Victor. We were also spoiled by VIP tickets that meant we could watch from great seats at an assigned table under the shade of a large tent. From the flyovers, fashion, and beautiful horses to the action in the arena and people-watching, I was entertained nonstop.

My friends had all been to rodeos growing up, so they clued me in to what was happening — the emcee’s punchy play-by-play narration also helped this first-timer catch on. Now I know the difference between bareback and saddle bronc riding and the object of team roping and steer wrestling. I was captivated by the trio of young women trick-riders and held my breath as they hung upside-down and defied gravity from every angle while their horses galloped around the arena. The final competition, the bull riding, was another nail-biter. We were so caught up in the rodeo spirit, we watched 8 Seconds later that night, and I’m already looking forward to attending next year and continuing my western cultural education!

Check syvrodeo.com and follow @syvrodeo for 2025 event announcements.

Old Santa Ynez Days Rodeo 2024 | Photo: Emmy Pickett @emmylaine

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