A tradition 36 years strong celebrated its latest edition on Friday and Saturday at the 2017 Bartow County Saddle Club Championship Rodeo.
For two nights, the Saddle Club’s show ring in the middle of a muddy farm field was turned into a festival, with lights blazing from under the roof, horses and bulls whirling across the dirt, and hundreds of people from young to old enjoying the county fair atmosphere.
“I love to see the stands full, I love to see people meeting new people, elbow-to-elbow, getting close. I love the wild Western part of the rodeo,” Bartow County Saddle Club president Patrick Smith said.
On a beautiful Georgia night Saturday with the sun setting off to the west, all of the attention was from the packed bleachers was turned towards the ring, where cowboys and cowgirls competed in events like bronc and bull riding, calf roping and barrel racing.
The riders are all competitors on the Professional Cowboy Association circuit.
“They come from all over the Southeast and they’re some of the top in the world,” Smith said. “They take it very seriously. Most of these cowboys work all day, either on a ranch or at a full-time job, and then they load up as soon as they can get away and head to the rodeo.”
The rodeo hasn’t changed much from its beginnings in 1982. The Bartow County Saddle Club, the oldest of its kind in Georgia, still puts it on with the help of Phillips Championship Rodeo, as it has every year.
The two-night extravaganza is the biggest annual event put on by the saddle club, which counts around 100 families as members.
This year’s theme was “Tough Enough to Wear Pink,” meant to enhance breast cancer awareness, with most of the riders wearing pink shirts and children running through the crowd handing out pink feathers.
It made for an especially personal night for Bridgett Phillips, one half of the husband-and-wife team that runs Phillips Rodeo.
“I’m a breast cancer survivor,” Phillips said. “In 2008, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m a survivor, doing great, but we wanted to change the theme of the rodeo so that we could raise awareness for breast cancer.”
The large audience made sure that Phillips’ message was heard.
Even with rain threatening, the crowd packed the wooden bleachers under the roof at the show ring.
Children and teens ran around in packs, drawn at one minute by the $2 snow cones and at the next by the live giraffe Pettit Creek Farms brought for their petting zoo.
Saddle Club members caught up with old friends and watched some exceptional horsemanship. And with the fairground attractions on the midway surrounding the ring, there was enough fun for everyone, even those with no experience watching rodeos.
And, for those rodeo rookies, Phillips had one simple piece of advice.
“Just sit down and hold on,” Phillips said. “There will be action all night long.”