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Historic Jeffco: Roundup Riders of the Rockies

Every July since 1948, a group of men and their horses have gathered for a ride through Colorado’s high country. They are the Roundup Riders of the Rockies, an organization “Dedicated to the perpetuation of the Western Tradition associated with the relationship between the American cowboy and his horse.”


In the early years, many of the men were inexperienced in trail riding, conditions were more primitive and few amenities were available.


When the first 18 men began a five-day ride in 1948, they turned back, exhausted after three days!


In July, 1994, the group will enjoy their 46th trail ride with 150 members from nineteen states, along with about 30 forest service professionals, physicians, veterinarians, cooks, wranglers, and other support personnel. The group will spend a week riding on some of Colorado’s most beautiful mountain trails. Each evening the weary riders will find tents set up, wranglers to care for the horses, a catered dinner, and semi-trucks equipped for showers, toilets, and water purification systems, including one with a fold-down stage for the evening’s entertainment. In all, some 30 rigs will be in use at the camp.


The Roundup Riders were centered around Paradise Hills and the Mt. Vernon Canyon for many years.


One of the founders was Joe Dekker, co-owner of the Paradise Hills Horse Ranch (now Paradise Hills, Genesee Point, and Riva Chase). The other founder was Rick Ricketson, a Denverite who, like Dekker, was in the movie industry. These two men wanted to share their enjoyment of trail riding with a group of friends, and as Dekker stated in the first RRR historical sketch: “How better can we advertise the tourist attractions of Colorado than by organizing a horseback ride through the forests near tourist centers.”


Although many of the original members were friends in the entertainment business, local ranchers and land owners such as Fred Craig of the Cold Spring Ranch and Howard Lamb (Dekker’s partner in the Paradise Hills Horse Ranch). Some prominent Denver businessmen were also involved in the beginning. Soon to join were a number of men who moved into the foothills as it became developed.


After the first two rides, it became apparent that some of the men needed instruction on horsemanship and trail riding. In 1950, Lt. Gen. Wayne O. (Sage) Kester, Chief of the Air Force Veterinary Corps at the Pentagon, was asked to set up a program for teaching those skills to the riders. General Kester came to Colorado to assess the program, joined the group, and is about to enjoy his 44th ride. When he retired in 1958, Kester and his first wife (who later died) built a home in Paradise Hills.


Using Kester’s method for improving horsemanship, the Roundup Riders began to develop one of the most successful and prestigious groups of western trail riders. His program is now the standard for most western trail rides in the United States.


It was the connection to the entertainment world, as well as the desire to promote Colorado, that gave the early days of the rides a colorful panache. The first 15 rides included parades and rodeos in Denver, Boulder, Central City, and other resort towns. They were joined by horse shows, Indian dancing, and entertainment by well known singers and Hollywood celebrities at Red Rocks Amphitheater. July was a popular tourist time, and these exciting events were good public relations for Colorado as well as great fun for locals.


During the early years when the group assembled around Paradise Hills, they would ride into Central City as a gala parade and attend the opera or have lunch at the Teller House. Ricketson’s fame and fortune came from inventing the “bank night at the movies,” and he was also at that time President of the Central City Opera. Paradise Hills resident Bob Brown was manager of the opera, and Ricketson would arrange for 40-50 of the best seats in the Opera House to be held for the riders on a specific day.


Kester remembers that Brown wasn’t happy with the men smelling less than sweet from days of travel without conveniences, and some were so exhausted they snored through the performance. The riders put Brown to the test one year when they stopped at the Teller House for lunch and tied the horses to a rope between poles to keep the horses off the sidewalk. Brown said, “It didn’t, it didn’t … still had horse @#*& on the sidewalk. I swept it off as best I could.” Later that same day, Brown was escorting Mrs. Van Schaack, a financial supporter of the opera, into the theater. She asked him about that stuff in the cracks on the boardwalk. Thinking fast, Brown told her it was a new sidewalk dressing.


The days of parades and colorful shows gradually ended, but for some years Ricketson arranged to have several Central City performers flown in by helicopter to the campsite.


As years passed, the ever increasing group became more diverse in profession and men with ties to the entertainment world dropped out. Wilderness areas became off-limits for such a large group, so more careful routing was necessary. By the mid 1960s a catering service from Texas was secured, and they no longer had to depend upon dude ranches or food service from small towns. Today, even with limiting the number to 150 riders plus the 30 additional support group, a lasting impression is made on the trail, and cooperation with the Forest Service is necessary.


The Roundup Rider’s board of directors, officers, and committees now make the arrangements for the support services and route far in advance. The trail is worked out with the Forest Service, necessary repairs are paid for, and trail checks are made several times before the big ride. Even this doesn’t prevent a late snow or unexpected new beaver dam from developing, and such surprises make for interesting conversation around the camp fire.


The week-long ride begins and ends on a Saturday. Everyone is up at 5 a.m. to eat breakfast, help break camp, ride the trail until around 5 or 6 p.m. Evenings are for showers, good food, entertainment, and conversation. Camp is moved every day except Wednesday, when they stay for campsite activities such as gymkhana (horsemanship exhibitions), trap shooting, and fishing. Awards for the week’s contests and competitions are given at the Friday night banquet, then they load up and go home on Saturday.


To join the annual ride, one must be asked by a man who had ridden with the group at least ten times before being granted membership. There are several categories one must go through before advancing into membership, and a newcomer is on “probation” for the first few years.


Although many riders still live in the Colorado foothills, most of them come from other parts of the country. They represent a variety of professions, backgrounds, and ages.


Enjoyment of trail ride, horsemanship and camaraderie continues to bring these men eagerly together each July to saddle up and head for the Colorado high country.


In July 2007, the secretive fraternity of 150 wealthy horsemen rode through the Spanish Peaks, a designated wilderness area in southern Colorado. The Roundup Riders paid the U.S. Forest Service $15,000 to cover any damage. The elaborate campsites (heated tents, evening entertainment, and elaborate food service) were on private land within the forest. Environmentalist groups spoke up against this because the federal “25 heartbeat” policy was set aside for this politically connected group.


— by Dorothy Reed, photos provided by “Sage” Kester


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