Rodeo Legends: Montana Cowboys

Cowboys who participate in rodeos personify the mythical idea of the Wild West

Thank you Penny Tranchilla, my friends and the owner and Editor-in-Chief of Vero Beach Portfolio Magazine, for featuring my rodeo and ranch photographs.  I wanted to take a moment to express my heartfelt gratitude for featuring my rodeo photographs in your publication. It was an honor and a joy to see my work showcased in such a prestigious platform.

Photographing rodeos has been a deeply personal project of mine, and I have poured my heart and soul into capturing the essence and heritage of the West, particularly the vibrant culture of Montana. Seeing my black and white images presented as a photo essay was a dream come true. I am truly humbled by the opportunity to share my perspective on this rich tradition with a wider audience.

Moreover, I am grateful to have a photo of mine on the cover of Portfolio Magazine and for the chance to write the accompanying story. It allowed me to provide context and share the stories behind the images, adding an extra layer of depth to the visual narrative. Your trust in my work and your willingness to give me this creative freedom means the world to me.  Being able to photograph these great athletes who personify the image of the Wild West is always exciting to me.  Every single cowboy and cowgirl that I have ever met has always been welcoming, gracious and respectful.  They let me snap their photos behind the chutes, before or after they compete and have never said no to a request.  Well that isn’t completely true, two pick-up men, who happen to be brothers, suggested that my friend Elizabeth Jobe and I interview and photograph the other pick up man.  Shortly after they directed us to a different trailer they walked up to us and said “Our mother said we have to have our photographs taken.”  They are grown men, giants in their sport, and notion that they still respectfully listen to their mother is indicative of the culture that I cherish and want to preserve.  When I walk into a rodeo my heart starts to pound, I look around and find the perspectives I want to shoot and settle into place.  During the different events I move about from one shoot to another so I can get the best angle.  This year I have gone to 12 different rodeos throughout the state and can’t wait to continue to capture images next season.  

Your support and encouragement have inspired me to continue exploring and documenting the captivating world of rodeos and Western heritage through my lens. This experience has not only been a milestone in my photography journey but also a source of immense personal satisfaction.

Once again, thank you for believing in my work and for featuring it in your publication. Your dedication to showcasing diverse perspectives and preserving the heritage of the West is truly commendable. 

XO Melanie 

Here is a link to the whole publication, I encourage you to flip through the magazine and to purchase a hard copy.

Digital Issue of Portfolio Magazine

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Artist Gallery of Rodeo Prints For Sale

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Rodeo Legends: Capturing the True Grit of American Cowboys in the West

For over 30 years, I have focused on capturing the essence of rodeo life through my camera lens. Steeped in tradition and inspired by the real-life cowboys who worked tirelessly in adverse conditions on ranches, rodeos have evolved into a unique sport that encapsulates the spirit of the American West. It is one of the most dangerous sports athletes compete in, many of the events include unpredictable and incredibly dangerous animals. Rodeo has experienced exponential growth over the last five years, partly because of the popularity of the Yellowstone series and with the advent of The Cowboy Channel, which started airing live rodeos in 2019.  

It is an honor to see the western way of life in front of my eyes, photographing rodeos is my way of preserving the historical significance of the sport and lifestyle. While living in Montana, I’ve run my own cows, and have helped gather and brand more cows than I can count. It’s a way of life that was once foreign to me, but now is in my soul and moves me back in time. 

These cowboys and cowgirls frequently come from families who have run cows on ranches or ridden the rodeo circuit for generations. They often start riding horses before they can walk and talk; it is a way of life and part of their genetic makeup. Being able to capture and bear witness to the tenacity, bravery, and joy that riders experience is one of the most important ways for me to preserve the history that I revere.

The roots of rodeos can be traced back to cowboys who tamed the wild frontiers of the American West, Mexico and Spain. These skilled horsemen spent their days herding cattle, breaking untamed wild horses, and demonstrating their prowess in various ranch-related tasks. It emerged as a way to break the boredom of ranch life, showcase their talents, compete and celebrate their skills, and foster community.  Rodeo spectators are invited to participate in this mythical lifestyle for a few hours, and it is always a wild and unpredictable ride.

Rodeos open with a prayer and our National Anthem. Watching every cowboy and spectator place their hat or hand over their heart is a communal ritual that once was common, and now is a rarity at sporting events. Being surrounded by hundreds of people saying a prayer and singing our National Anthem is moving, it transports you to a simpler place and time; it sets the tone for the rodeo. The moment the last word is sung, the crowd cheers, hats are placed back on heads, and the focus of the crowd moves to the chutes under the announcer’s box. “Roughies” are cowboys who make their living 8-seconds at a time, are rustling behind the chutes. The bronc riders travel light with their custom-made chaps and supplies all organized in a carry-on rolling bag, along with a one-of-a-kind saddle hoisted over their shoulder as they walk into the arena. The riders are focused, busily fastening their chaps, pouring baby powder in their boots, wrapping old injuries, and mentally preparing for the opportunity to ride 8-seconds atop a wild bucking bronc. The horses are carefully arranged in each chute as the cowboy readies himself for his ride. His friends and the chute boss make certain that he is safe before his ride begins. The tension is palpable, everyone is keenly aware that no matter how well prepared you are, once the gate opens there is no guarantee that he will walk out. With the nod of his head, the gate opens, and the horse explodes into the arena. During the following few seconds his skill, mental focus, and physical aptitude are tested. Although he may know the personalities of the broncs he drew, no ride is ever the same. With nothing but a saddle and a rope to hold onto, the rider must stay centered and balanced, anticipating every move of the bronc. The dangers are real; a mistimed dismount or a moment of hesitation can lead to severe injuries. It is unlike any other sport, it isn’t played with a ball, instead it has a rider pitted against specially bred horses that buck a lot. It is this adrenaline-charged dance with danger that makes bronc riding both exhilarating and awe-inspiring. The story is similar for cowboys who ride bulls, but as a National Cutting Horse Champion friend of mine once told me, “Broncs are dangerous, bulls want to kill you.”

Montana Rodeo Cowboys:

Rodeo is a competition of athletes that ride on the backs of animals that weigh between 900 and 2,200 pounds. Some are bred to be wild, and others have bloodlines that make them fast, but all of them can be very unpredictable. The ropers, wrestlers and barrel racers ride quick and agile horses that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Steer wrestlers and ropers sit on the backs of their incredibly trained horses inside the roping box preparing to race against the clock. The anticipation is palpable: adrenaline is racing through the veins of both horse and rider. The horse literally jumps at the start, hoping not to break the barrier. The cowboy or cowgirl can’t have the neck of the horse hit the rope that closes the box before the chute door opens for the steer. It takes countless hours of training for a horse and rider to compete well together. Roping and wrestling are timed events. Barrel racers ride horses that almost fly through the arena and turn on a dime around barrels. It’s like racing a Bugatti! Running into the arena at a full gallop, and racing around three barrels always makes the crowds cheer!  

Cowboys ride in rodeos not merely for fame and fortune, but for the love of the sport, the history of their families, and the unyielding passion for horsemanship. It’s a calling that runs deep in their veins, as they strive to test their skill, strength, agility and mental fortitude against the untamed spirit of broncs, steers, and bulls. The adrenaline rush and the sense of accomplishment they experience while riding these magnificent beasts drives them to push the boundaries of their abilities. When cowboys get hurt, they often ignore the doctor’s advice to take time off from the circuit, often riding with severe injuries.  

The western way of life is far from glamorous. It’s a rugged and demanding lifestyle that requires resilience, discipline and unwavering determination. On the rodeo circuit, competitors form a close-knit community, bonded by their shared passion and the challenges they face. Often competitors will ride in a rodeo, pack their roll bags or horses immediately after their ride and head on down the road to the next rodeo with two or three of their friends in the same pick up. Driving sixteen hours through the night to the next competition is common, sleeping isn’t. Despite being rivals in the arena, there is a powerful camaraderie among them, where the spirit of sportsmanship prevails, and lifelong friendships are forged.

Each and every time a crowd hears the announcer say, “All this cowboy is going home with tonight is your applause!” The people cheer and the fallen cowboy walks through the dirt in the arena towards the chutes knowing that he will have another go at it at the next rodeo. 


Saddle broncs are bred to buck in rodeos.  The flank strap, which is tightened around the horse or bulls abdomen encourages them to buck more.   It causes no physical harm to the animals and is immediately released on the broncs by the pickup men as soon as the ride is over.



Brand J. Morgan, a cowboy from Montana,  rode this bucking bronc at The World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale.  His facial expression epitomizes why cowboys love riding bucking horses in rodeos.

Bucking bronc, black and white, montana rodeo cowboy, saddle bronc rider

The power and unpredictability of rodeo rough stock is captured at this precise moment when various parts of the horse and Cowboy are being thrown in all directions.  While riding broncs the cowboy can only use one hand to hold the rope and receive points on his ride.  Points are awarded for his spurring action which is shown in perfect form here.  His toes are pointed out and sitting on the horse’s withers.  Riding the rodeo circuit is a grueling career for cowboys.


Breakaway roping is fast paced timed event for Cowgirls where they have to lasso a calf’s head as quickly as possible.  Once the calf is caught, the roper her horse as quickly as possible.  Once the rope is pulled tight, a small string is broken off from the saddle horn. 


american flag, young cowboys, cowboy hats, rodeo arena, national anthem, black and white photography

Two young cowboys watch in awe as the Rodeo Queen finishes her lap around the arena as the National Anthem is about to start.  Every rodeo starts with a singer in the arena and the crowd singing the National Anthem.  

barrell racing, black and white photography, horse, cowgirl, montana

Quarter horses, the horse of choice for barrel racers in rodeos, take explosive starts around each barrel they turn around.  They are faster sprinters than thoroughbreds.

Indian Cowboy Rodeo, crow fair, Montana, calcutta


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Rodeo Article


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The Cover of Portfolio Magazine – My second ever…..

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Sometimes cowboys look like they are dancing in mid air. The horses hooves are digging into the dirt to stop shortly, while the cowboy takes advantage of every second to start tying the steer.with the piggin string that is held in his mouth while riding.


cows, cattle, clack and white photography, ranch

American Flag, cowgirl, horse, rodeo, montana

The Rodeo Queen carries the American flag around the arena at the start of every rodeo just before the National Anthem is sung. Women compete for the coveted title throughout the year and acts as an ambassador of the sport throughout the year.


Roping cowboy, rodeo, black and white photography, montana

A steer wrestler and his horse are bursting out of the roping chute. The rope barrier in front of the horse is just about to be ‘broken’ as the horse passes through it. Riders receive a 10 second penalty if they break the barrier before the calf has left its chute.


bareback rider, saddle bronc rider, pick up men, rodeo

Both riders and roughstock receive a score between 1-25 by two judges at every rodeo. The top athletes and stock get to participate in the NFR in Las Vegas.


barell racing, cowgirl, horse, rodeo, montana

Barrel Racers ride horses that can sprint up to 55 MPH in 90 to 105 feet between barrels. The horse and rider then take a screeching turn around each of the three barrels in the course.


bull rider, montana rodeo, cowboy

Riding atop a 2,200 pound bull is one of the most dangerous sports in the world. According to Dale Butterwick, a sports epidemiologist at the University of Calgary, 20 out of every 100,000 rodeo contestants will suffer some sort of catastrophic injury. The cowboy in the background expresses the danger inherent in the sport.


bull rider, rank, big timber rodeo, montana, cowboy,

Cowboys who ride bulls want to “Ride Rank” referencing the tenacity of the bull. The more ‘rank’ a bull is, the more likely a rider is to score more points.


cowboys, rodeo life, national anthem, United States flag, USA, black and white photography, montana

Two young cowboys watch in awe as the Rodeo Queen finishes her laps around the arena as the National Anthem is about to start.


Indian Cowboy rodeo, Crow Fair rodeo, calcutta

Moments before the INFR rodeo begins each of the riders are introduced to the crowd in the stands.


branding, montana, ranch life, cow dog, branding iron

The traditional way of heating brands is in an open fire, it’s quieter and less stressful to the calves than using a propane torch to heat them. Jonathan Foote is an acclaimed architect who fled the high society of the East Coast to live in Montana, and become a cowboy. He’s a National Horse Cutting Champion and was inducted into The National Cutting Horse Hall of Fame.


corrals, paradise valley, montana ross peak

You can imagine the cowboys moving cows and calves in the remains of an old paddock in Paradise Valley with Ross Peak in the background.


roping cowboy, riding for the brand, cattle ranch, montana

Cowboys often have to lasso a calf or cow while working. It is one of the skills that is used in the rodeo for tie down roping, team roping and steer roping. Roping events are dangerous as their digits sometimes get caught between the lasso and the horn of the saddle.


cattle, cows, horse, cowboy, open range, montana landscape

Cowboys live a solitary and simple life, riding the open range is where they feel at home.


spurs, cowboy boots, black and white photography

Spurs are often customized and are used while riding to encourage a horse to move the way the rider wants them to. Unlike these, spurs used in the rodeo must be dull and the rowels must turn freely. Kathy Foote, a fifth generation Montanan, is a national Cutting Horse Champion and uses her skills to cut out calves from cows in the corrals in Western Montana. Kathy and her brothers also competed in rodeos in Montana.