Hippophiles will find much to love about the National Western Stock Show.

Those are horse lovers, and you can count on their attendance during the 16 days of the world’s largest stock show at Denver’s National Western Complex. It runs Saturday through Jan. 27.

The most popular horse competitions during the show are the Invitational Ranch Rodeo at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Invitational Freestyle Reining at 2 p.m. Sunday, Gambler’s Choice Jumper Stake at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 18 and the Grand Prix at 7 p.m. Jan. 21.

Competitions are no joke; they draw competitors from around the country for high-stakes jackpots. Eighteen teams of four will compete for $21,000 in the ranch rodeo on opening day. These are the real-deal ranchers — they must be working cowboys on a historical working ranch.

Fourteen riders will compete for the $20,000 prize in the freestyle reining contest, called one of the best freestyles in the country. This year, a youth competition has been added. Beginning about 40 minutes before the official competition, three youths will do a full freestyle routine, which means music, costumes, props and lighting.

“It’s freestyle. You can use anything to jazz it up,” said Kendra McConnell, horse show manager for the event. “It goes from funny — several years ago, someone was Donald Trump — to different things. It’s a fun event.”

The noncompetitive “An Evening of Dancing Horses” features music by the Denver School of the Arts orchestra.

“The vision is to bring in equestrian talent that you don’t see every day,” McConnell said. “Not a horse from out in the field. These are highly trained: some reining, some dressage, some horses trained like at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, a drill team and some liberty, which means horses are loose in the arena and somebody is standing there and can get them to do stuff.”

More than 700,000 people attended last year’s stock show, a celebration of the Western lifestyle featuring more than 15,000 head of livestock and horses, rodeos, livestock competitions, auctions, trade show and the Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale. A parade kicks off the festivities at noon Thursday along 17th Street in downtown Denver.

“If you’re native to Colorado, it’s inherent in us, but you may not live it every day,” said McConnell. “Maybe you live in the suburbs and remember when you used to go to your uncle’s cattle ranch. It’s a way to go back to that and learn about that and see that it’s still happening.”

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