In the practice paddock at the National Western Stock Show’s freestyle reining competition, a cowboy shouted good luck to the Night King while Elton John rode warm-up circles.
By the end of the night, they’d be the top three finishers of the 25th anniversary Ram Invitational Freestyle Reining. Elton John — a costumed Sharee Schwartzenberger, riding bridleless — took first place, followed by Dan James as the Night King from the hit series “Game of Thrones, and Sharee’s father, Steve Schwartzenberger, took third as a cowboy, plain and simple.
Two hours before her winning ride, 32-year-old Sharee Schwartzenberger was on her knees, slathering her horse’s tail with sparkles.
“When you’re Elton John, you glitter,” she said.
She’s been riding in the freestyle reining event at the stock show since 1999, when she was 11. Her father and a few others launched the competition in 1996 and hoped then that the creative, off-beat event would introduce new people to the sport of reining.
“The biggest thing was it was different,” Steve Schwartzenberger said. “It had a lot of crowd appeal. Most horse events are a little boring, to sit there and watch run after run after run. This helped showcase our horses, and people who didn’t know anything about the horses could watch and get a charge out of it.”
The 65-year-old veteran competitor saddled up once again after a few years off. He returned this year to the event he won four times, along with almost all of the previous champions to mark the 25th anniversary.
“Once I got started working on it, I got fired up again,” he told the crowd at 4,700-seat Cinch Arena, where empty seats were hard to spot on Jan. 12.
The arena wasn’t as full the first couple of years, said Marvin Witt, an event founder and who retired as vice president of operations for the stock show in 2014. Back then, the invitational pretty much took any rider it could get.
“I twisted their arms to ride 25 years ago,” Witt chuckled.
But now, the invitational is one of the most competitive and prestigious freestyle reining events in the country.
“That place gets to rocking,” Steve Schwartzenberger said. “And you turn out the lights and put a spotlight on and it’s pretty darn exciting. Even for me doing it (so long), it gets you pumped up.”
Fog machines belched white clouds into the arena before Sharee Schwartzenberger’s ride; she emerged in a sparkly orange jumpsuit, wearing orange sunglasses with bright wings strapped to her back.
The wings lost a few feathers as she nailed her routine, despite a little trouble seeing through the fog, which settled in the middle of the arena.
“When I was going through the middle, I couldn’t see where the judges were,” she said with a laugh.
The competition wasn’t always such a production. In the early years, there might be a spotlight and not much else, she said. This year’s routine was a late change — Sharee landed on the song and picked out a costume just a week-and-a-half ago. The wings arrived in the mail on Jan. 11 and were still being assembled the next morning.
But after finishing in second place four times over the years, securing a win seemed like a near impossible task and Sharee just wanted to have fun and entertain the crowd.
That crowd cheered and applauded every maneuver, rewarding the displays of horsemanship and skill.
Sometimes, when Steve Schwartzenberger is out and about in Longmont — where he, Sharee and the family run Schwartzenberger Equine — someone will approach him to ask why he hasn’t been competing, or to reminisce about past year’s freestyle reining competition.
For Steve Schwartzenberger, those moments show that the event has achieved what he and the other founders had hoped for more than two decades ago — it’s brought reining to a wider audience, and to new generations.
Twenty five years ago, he won the first competition. And on Jan. 12, he watched his daughter win.