Sparse patches of brush and dry grass dot the nearly featureless horizon of Sterling, where a hint of the Old West remains untainted from decades of development and technological progression. It may not seem like the ideal place to find a modern, world-class athlete, but rodeo man Binion Cervi would disagree.
Binion, along with his brother Chase Cervi and cousin Scotty Cervi, manages the family-owned Cervi Ranch, which provides renowned bucking horses and bulls to the Evergreen Rodeo. Their horses have been genetically engineered through years of selective breeding for a single purpose: hard bucking.
“It’s bred in them,” Binion said. “That’s what they’re raised to do, nothing else. … Just like basketball players — their fathers and sons are athletes, just like these horses are athletes.”
He can’t explain why some horses are prone to bucking, but it’s a trait he says has been passed down through generations of stallions and mares.
“Some horses will take a little bit of a run before they go out and buck,” he said. “Ninety percent of the time, those mares will pass that genetic trait on to their colts. You see similarities in the mothers and daughters and the fathers and (sons).”
Binion manages the genetic aspects of his family’s operation, which means he breeds for desired traits and makes sure a horse’s family tree has enough branches.
“It means, make sure you don’t put a brother with a sister, or that you don’t inbreed them.
You kind of mix genetics,” he said. “We’re trying to keep variety in it.”
His horses live well, to say the least, he said. Though they are trucked to rodeos around the country, each horse performs for mere seconds on rodeo days.
“No horse bucks twice in a day,” said Scotty, the ranch’s flank man and feed manager.
Cervi horses spend the majority of their lives scheduled for rodeo circuits, though the time they actually spend bucking amounts to minutes each year.
“On average, they perform up to 18 to 20 years,” Binion said. “And a horse lives into its early 20s. Thirty is very old for a horse.”
Binion, speaking softly and adorned in a crisp Western shirt with diamond snaps, demonstrated a typical day as a genetic specialist.
The quiet lull of the Sterling prairie was interrupted as a dust cloud appeared on the range, followed by the soft rhythm of hooves slamming dirt. The Cervis, each atop a saddled and well-kept horse, corralled a horde of muscular equines, a stock scene from a old Western film. Contained within an iron gate, the horses waited to be identified and sorted, as Binion made checks on a clipboard and decided who might breed with whom. Young stallions and fillies trotted close to their watchful mothers, and the gentle stream of neighing was occasionally broken by a gray mare who frantically kicked at her tightly packed neighbors.
“They’re multiplying as we speak, but normally we average about 600,” Binion said. “By the end of the summer, we’ll have 700, because there’s going to be over 100 babies.”
Horses are bred and raised at the Cervi Ranch, though they are later shipped to Wyoming, where they are given time to mature.
“Here, where they’re raised, it’s 54,000 acres,” Binion said. “When they’re old enough to be weaned from their mother … they go up to Wyoming.” Young horses are branded — their skin seared with the ranch’s trademark circle I — before they are sent away. “They stay up there till they’re 5, and then they’ll come out of Wyoming back to here, where they’ll perform in rodeos for the rest of their life, until they’re retired.”
The Cervis know their operation well. The ranch was been in family hands since its beginnings, and it is known as one of the most successful rodeo ranches in the country.
“About 130 years it’s been in our family,” Scotty said.
The ranch’s name changed over the years; it was known as the Reagan Ranch in its early years. Binion’s grandfather even operated the now defunct Cervi Journal.
“We didn’t follow in the newspaper business,” Binion says with a laugh.
Success in the rodeo world hasn’t made life perfect, though. The work is hard, and the days on the ranch are long. And questions over animal welfare can evoke ire.
“Basically, it’s a shock. But it’s a real minimal shock,” Binion said of the handheld prods cowboys sometimes use to get horses bucking. “People can use it on themselve(s). … It’s to keep the horse from hurting the cowboy. … It’s a safety factor for the cowboy and for the horse, too.”
Indian Hills resident Ann Swissdorf, an animal-rights activist, doesn’t see the use of bucking animals in rodeos quite the same way.
“Bulls have these straps put around their middles … and they’re electric prodded,” said Swissdorf, who has volunteered with the group Rocky Mountain Animal Defense at rodeo protests and in animal-rights education. “If people did these things to dogs, we’d be outraged. … How people see that as entertainment is beyond me.”
Sue Caicedo, secretary of the Evergreen Rodeo Association and self-described horse lover, is eager for this year’s rodeo, which will be in town June 19-21.
“They want to see that tradition,” Caicedo said of rodeo enthusiasts. “This is where it all started, was ranches like this.” Others, she said, come to experience the action of bucking events.
Regardless, the spirit of the Old West is a timeless draw.
“Most of us have that kind of heritage,” she said.