Snake River Stampeders Dazzle in the Dark

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By Lillian Landreth 

The lights go out in the Ford Idaho Center arena as hundreds of spectators at the Snake River Stampede in Nampa, Idaho, let their eyes adjust to the sudden darkness. Anticipation builds. Sixteen horsewomen flick their lights on and burst forth into the arena, and music pounds loud enough to shake the dirt they are riding on.

Snake River Stampeders dazzling in the dark.

Photo credit: Shauna Rae’s Photography

Each rider, outlined by nearly 200 lights on their clothing and horse tack, gallops in precise drill maneuvers, crossing through one another, circling in pinwheels, and snaking around the arena in a kaleidoscope of colored lights. This is the vision of Jimmie Hurley, executive rodeo secretary of the Snake River Stampede for 41 years, who dreamed up the night light drill team in 1997 when the Stampede rodeo grounds moved from its longtime outdoor arena to a new indoor arena. Many rodeo fans were reluctant to give up the beloved old rodeo grounds, and Hurley wanted to dress up the new arena with something different—something that couldn’t be done at the old rodeo grounds. Her brainchild was an instant hit, and the Stampeders were invited to perform at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas that same year.

I became a Snake River Stampeder in 2017, much to my shock and amazement. Although I considered myself a fairly experienced rider in drill team, I didn’t think I could attain the level of horsemanship and sheer gutsiness I saw in the women who rode with Stampeders. But I couldn’t resist the draw of being part of the unique drill team and set out with my Arabian gelding, Brego, to prepare for tryouts in the spring of 2015. The team holds tryouts each year attended by 30–40 horsewomen from around southwestern Idaho. Of those, 18 will make the team—16 main riders and 2 alternates. Each person rides their horse in a short pattern that shows their control, speed, and precision, followed by group work. It is imperative the horses get along with one another and the riders know how to judge their spacing and speed.

Snake River Stampeders dazzling in the dark.

Photo credit: Shauna Rae’s Photography

I didn’t make the team my first year. Or the next. Always close, but not close enough in a very talented group of women. But a friend convinced me to try one more time, and knowing part of my difficulty was getting out of my own way during tryouts, I studied Mind Gym by Gary Mack and mentally trained myself. My 2017 tryout was strong, and I watched my email inbox with bated breath. When the news came that I’d made the team, it was better than Christmas.

Being a Stampeder was every bit as challenging as I thought it would be. Though we started slow to learn the drill pattern, it progressed quickly, and we rode at speeds that leave you little time to think. One of my friends described it well as a four-minute barrel race in the dark with 16 horses. And I was addicted.

I’ve ridden on the team ever since, and even seasoned a younger horse for it in 2019, a bay mare named Sugar. The Snake River Stampede, always held the third week of July, is our team’s favorite week of the year. Many of the riders use vacation time so they can keep up with the rigors of rehearsals and performances. We only have three days to practice in the dark before we perform. Our husbands or boyfriends, parents and friends, come help on the light crew, or keep the home fires burning and take care of their kids.

We apply lights to our tack, hats, and black shirts and pants, all run off of extension cords and battery packs. All of the plug-ins are taped securely once you’re on your horse, so there’s no getting off to tighter a cinch or grab water, all things our light crew does instead. After lights are checked, we warm up and walk through our drill, talking through maneuvers, followed by a group prayer. This year we had the honor of tie-down roper Tuf Cooper coming to pray with us before he competed.

After a year of no Snake River Stampede in 2020, the excitement in the air this year as we rode down the alleyway was as electric as our LED lights. Coming out of the 95-plus degree heat of the week, the air-conditioned arena felt so cold it froze the sweat on our backs. A large door rolls down behind us to block out the daylight, the lights go out, and in the shadows, so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face, we wait for the gates to open, fingers ever ready on our light switches. Our horses dance with anticipation, hearts beating so hard you can feel it through your saddle cinch. And on cue, we explode into the arena.

Snake River Stampeders dazzling in the dark.

Photo credit: Shauna Rae’s Photography

Quick thinking, focus, and many hours of practice help us find our way in the dark as we perform, shouting encouragement or information to one another to be heard over the music. The crowd in the dark above us is bespeckled with kids waving light-up wands and sabers. Halfway through the performance, which is a little over three minutes, I start to settle in and lose my initial nerves, though it’s always a shot of adrenaline if you happen to lose your stirrups or someone’s lights go out. But we take care of each other and exit the arena into the bright daylight with our ecstatic screaming and the cheers of the audience ringing in our ears. A thrill like none other.

In 2018, we had the distinction of being invited to perform at the WNFR in Las Vegas for the sixth time. The Stampeders also performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the 2002 Copenhagen Cup Finale in Texas, and were even approached by the TV show
America’s Got Talent when they were considering adding outdoor talent to the show. But our greatest joy comes from performing for our hometown audience. And as our team’s founder and greatest cheerleader, Jimmie Hurley, reminds us, once a Stampeder, always a Stampeder. If I can ride in the dark, I feel I can conquer anything. But the arena lights going off and the Stampeder lights coming on will always be my favorite.

About the Author

Lily Landreth and Sugar at the Snake River Stampede.
Lily Landreth and Sugar

Lillian Landreth is a freelance writer and editor. She particularly enjoys writing about rodeo and the extraordinary people and animals who make the lifestyle fascinating. The author of more than 1,000 stories, her writing has appeared in the Rodeo News; The Ketchpen, published by the Rodeo Historical Society and National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum; and local newspapers. She is also working on her first novel. When she’s not writing, Lily enjoys riding with the Snake River Stampeders night light drill team, coaching the EhCapa Bareback Riders, a PRCA specialty act, and teaching horseback riding lessons. She makes her home in Southwest Idaho with her entrepreneurial husband, their dog, horse, and cows.

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