This is the Cheyenne Rodeo. It’s a rough and tumble world. The primordial battle of man and beast. At the heart of this masculine testing ground stands a woman whose business keeps those broncos bucking, no matter what. Her name? Kirsten Vold. And she’s the manager (and future owner) of the Harry Vold Rodeo Company. She loves the business, and she’s known across the west for supplying so-called "rough-stock," the bucking horses and bulls that the daredevil cowboys at rodeos like this one, love to ride.
“We raise bucking horses and we raise bucking bulls,” explains Vold during a break in the morning’s preparations for the nation’s largest rodeo. “We own and sub-contract the animals that the contestants need to compete on when they come here.”
These horses and bulls are not your typical farmyard animals. They’re known as “rough-stock” because they are, well, rough.
When things go well for Vold she knows it in her bones. “When you have a great performance, and, it was quick, it was snappy, it was fast, and there were no lulls... you come out of that and I mean, you're on an adrenaline rush.”
At the opening ceremony — which includes a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, horse drawn carriages, beauty queens and other notables — is Kirsten’s father, Harry Vold. He founded the business in 1948 with a few horses he borrowed from his father: “My father was an auctioneer and traded horses. And we had accumulated quite a few and got a little bit of rent by taking some of them to a rodeo show.”
Today, after more than 60 years in the livestock entertainment business, he’s gradually letting his youngest daughter, Kirsten take over.
Did he always expect one of his children to take over the business?
“Well, I was thinking that that should probably happen. And of course I had no idea that it would be the youngest one and a girl, as Kirsten has,” the elder Vold says.
It’s a viewpoint that his daughter has come to understand well. “My dad's 85-years-old. So in his era, women just didn't take over the business. I mean he's certainly changed a lot since then, but at the time he was starting his company, I can guarantee you that was not his plan.” the daughter says, laughing.
Some rodeo veterans, like Cheyenne chute-manager Bill Obermeier, who have worked for the Vold family for several decades, pay little attention to Kirsten’s gender.
"She's just one of the guys," says Obermeier. “You know. I mean she's grown up in this business. She's been around everybody you know all her life. She's accepted because she's who she is.”
Obermeier remembers however, that his point of view wasn’t always shared by everyone at the rodeo. “There was an old flank guy that said he wouldn't work for a woman and left," he says. "Just that simple”.
Kirsten remembers him well but he prefers not to make it an issue about gender.
“In my opinion,” She says, “that's your choice. I mean whether I'd been a man or a woman, it didn't mean they were gonna like being around me. The bottom line is, someone has to make the decisions and it’s not a decision that everybody agrees with. But I'm the one that has to make it and live with the results or the consequences. So if you have a problem with that, I don't know if that's a gender thing, but it could be.
"You know I'm in the position that I make these decisions you can either live with them or you can live without them ... You can either chose to work with me or you can choose to work for somebody else, and that's the great thing about this business, you don't have to work for me."
For Vold, being the youngest daughter in a rodeo family has made some things easier. But, that doesn’t mean it has been easy.
“I inherited. I got everything,” she says, laughing. “They just handed it to me. Now if you screw this up and lose it, then you're an idiot. But if you have to start from the beginning and you make it successful, then I mean, you're very smart, obviously. But it’s a lot harder to start something from scratch. And you know my Dad had to start this from scratch, twice he started it from scratch."
The first time she took over the job at Cheyenne, she was very nervous, she says “because I knew there were a lot of skeptics. They knew I got the job because of who I was related to. And so yeah, I mean I didn't sleep a lot because I just wanted no room for error."
Perhaps the hardest part of taking over a family business, beyond gender, beyond age, and beyond credibility, may be the task of finding a way to comfortably pass the torch from one generation to the next.
“It was a struggle, a power struggle along the way," she admits. “For both of us. Him, having a hard time giving power up. And me taking more than I probably needed at the time. But you know, it built character for both of us, I'd say."
When she’s asked what it was like the first time she went up to her father and had to tell him, "Dad, I know how to do this better than you do?” She quickly gulps for air and laughs uncomfortably as she answers “Oh, I have yet to make that statement. I don't ever see myself making that statement. He's a little bit older than me, but I'd say he probably can still take a whippin' belt down with me if I really were to make a statement of that nature. I never would want to say I could do it better than him. I guess the goal that I would want to set for myself is a career path. If I could ever just do it as good as he did, then I would be happy.”
Is Harry surprised that it’s now his daughter who's running the company day to day? And is he surprised how well she's doing?
"I guess I was a bit surprised to begin with, but I'm not now. I feel totally confident that she makes the right decisions. And there are many, many decisions here to be made. And she handles it.
“As far as I'm concerned she's all the cowgirl I need.”
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