New SBC Arena Ushers in Another New Tradition
by
Karen Brown

The San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo will enter a new era this year when it moves from its home at the Joe and Harry Freeman Coliseum into the recently completed SBC Center. It will be with mixed feelings that many of the long time participants and volunteers make this change. The Stock Show has been held at the Coliseum since 1950. It has become a familiar home to the thousands of people involved in making the San Antonio Livestock Exposition (S.A.L.E.) a success year after year.


For over 50 years the Rodeo has been honored with Grand Entry performances from one of the most beautiful riding groups in America, the Jack Sellers Bexar County Palomino Patrol. The Palomino Patrol has opened every Rodeo performance since 1951. Any Patrol member will tell you, it is always a thrill when the gate swings open and the bank starts playing. The horses know the music and the drill as well or even better than the riders and they know they are on parade.

Harry Freeman and his brother Joe were the driving force behind organizing the first rodeo and in the building of the original coliseum. The first San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo was held in the Freeman Coliseum in 1950. The grand entry consisted of cowboys riding working stock horses, straight off the ranch with not much concern about appearance of the cowboys or the horses. Harry Freeman wasn’t too excited about the haphazard grand entry so he approached a friend of his, Mr. Jack Sellers about a solution. Freeman wanted a grand entry with spectacular, one of a kind style.

Jack Sellers was born in the northeastern part of the United States around 1897. He grew up on a farm and had spent his share of time behind a plow staring at the rumps of horses. He took up a new calling with the aid of a New England land salesman. This gentleman sent Jack with trainloads of Yankees to the valley down around Brownsville to sell them the Promised Land. One fine February day Jack hauled a group of buyers out to the valley with the plan of showing them the balmy weather, but was met instead with a snowstorm that stranded the group for days. Soon after, Jack decided to search for a new career. Somewhere along his travels Jack came across Saddlebred horses and he fell in love with their proud carriage and high stepping gaits. He started breeding his own horses and combined his penchant for the palomino coloring with his choice of horse breeds.

At the time Harry Freeman approached Sellers about a new grand entry, Sellers was breeding his palomino Saddlebreds on a farm just south of San Antonio, the Wildcat Ranch. He showed these horses in horse shows all over the country and performed in rodeos with trick horses and longhorn steers. At Freeman’s request, Jack and his wife, Stella established a group of riders soon to be known as the Palomino Patrol. The 1951 rodeo opened with 18 riders on palomino horses riding into the arena and entertaining the audience with a parade style drill complete with a presentation of the Six Flags over Texas from galloping horses. Over the next five years the entire team bought silver parade saddles with all the accessories. These same saddles are used in today’s performances having been passed on to the newer members of the team. Some members of the Patrol try to purchase any silver saddles that become available so that equipment will be available for new Patrol riders.

Glitz and Glamour
During this first decade, standard dress uniforms were created for the rodeo performances. Many of these early uniforms were designed by Nudie of Hollywood, the same designer of show clothes worn by stars such as Elvis Presley. The wardrobe grew. One uniform became five with each one more glittery and expensive than the last. Over the years the patrol has be lauded across America as the most beautiful grand entry in rodeo.

Today’s patrol still has identical sets of uniforms. Currently the group has seven individual sets of uniforms. Most of them are made exclusively for the patrol. All are decorated with rhinestones and most have some fringe or glitter to catch the lights in the arena. The signature items of the patrol wardrobe are the white accessories: boots, hats with rhinestone hatbands, belts, and spur straps. Perhaps this tradition is a carryover from days of yore when only the good guys wore white.

All of the saddles currently used by the Patrol were manufactured by Ted Flowers of Indiana. His “signature” on the saddle is on top of the saddle horn—a hand engraved flower. The riggings consist of the saddle, tapaderos, bridle, breast collar, serapes and hip drops. The entire rigging weighs about 200 pounds. Each saddle is hand made and no two are exactly alike, although they are all very similar with the same silver “spots” and gold medallions. All of the large silver pieces are hand engraved. The average cost of a Flowers saddle is currently $5,000-$10,000, depending on the condition and the type of saddle. Mr. Flowers passed away about 20 years ago; Mel Bridgewater purchased the saddle maker’s shop but only ran the business for five years before retiring because of health problems. The stamps used to decorate the saddles and tack have been misplaced or lost since the closing of the business.

The Palomino Patrol has made a number of guest appearances in addition to their role in the Rodeo. They appeared in “Texas Justice”, a made-for-TV movie and “Selena”. They were presented to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip during the royal visit to San Antonio. The Patrol has ridden honor guard for President George Bush, two Vice Presidents and numerous Governors. Each year for the past 30 years, the group has had the honor of leading the Battle of Flowers parade in San Antonio. Twenty odd years ago, the Patrol riders performed in Mexico City as part of the Good Will Delegation at the “Fiesta de San Antonio en Mexico”, a celebration for the newly declared Sister Cities. The Patrol has been invited to participate in the Rose Parade in Pasadena but haven’t participated due to the closeness of the San Antonio Stock Show dates.

Old Tradition
Many of the members of the Patrol have been with the team for years. Kay Paletta, the longest active member, has been riding for 30 years. Fred and Sheri Petmecky have been mounting up for the past 27 years. Joining the Patrol is more than just joining a riding group. A member becomes a part of a family and an exclusive performance team. Membership carries a hefty responsibility. The Stock Show and Rodeo has expanded to 16 days and 21 performances. All riders are expected to be present and ride in each and every performance.

Practices for the rodeo begin months prior, in August or September and riders are expected to be at every practice. While each rodeo performance takes a matter of minutes, the preparation takes hours. Horses need to be exercised and groomed. Saddling takes several minutes for two saddlers to complete. Riders don the uniform of the night and mount up to get into formation 45 minutes prior to show time. Most of the riders take the two weeks off from work in order to be at the rodeo grounds hours ahead of the performances to prepare for the daily, and sometimes double, performances.

16 days of rodeo is tough. With 21 performances, grooming horses, feeding, saddling, and unsaddling, trying to continue life in the “real world” takes its toll on every member of the group. Saddling is an especially tough job for members who ride in the heavy silver saddles.

Many years ago a Patrol rider hired a neighborhood kid to take care of his horse and to do all the saddling for him. This idea took hold and now most of the riders have someone to help with the work. Most of the saddlers joined the group as middle or high school kids and have remained for years. They’ve grown up, married and are now raising the second generation of saddlers for future riders. These guys are very important to all the riders. They do much of the work to get the horses clean and ready for the show and then walk the parade route with the team to the arena and go into the staging chute to take care of any problems that might arise such as last minute tack adjustments, a dropped hat or any of a thousand other things. The presence of these men confers a sense of security to the riders. Knowing that help is just moments away if a problem arises during a performance imparts an added level of confidence to the riders. “These boys, now men, are like family to all of us. They work behind the scenes and are rarely in the public eye, but never forget, they are a very important and vital part of the presentation of the Palomino Patrol,” says Sheri Petmecky.

New Tradition
Last year, the Palomino Patrol began a new tradition of having all riders carry American flags in honor and participation in the swell of patriotic pride and unity after 9/11. Concurrent with this year’s change of venue will be the initiation of another new tradition. In conjunction with the opening of the SBC Center, the Palomino Patrol has expanded its ranks with a new division of riders called the Palomino Patrol Drill Team. This team will premier at Rodeo 2003. They will be carrying Texas flags along with flags representing the sponsors and stock show. While the Palomino Patrol provides the glitz and glitter of the Grand Entry, the Drill Team provides the guts and excitement of the routine.

Rigorous tryouts assisted the judging committee to select 23 lucky riders as members of the new Drill Team. All the riders are dedicated to organizing one of the finest riding groups in the USA. An entirely new routine has been choreographed. There will be constant action in the arena. Only 14 to 16 Drill Team members will ride per performance due to the size of the new arena. In this formative year any color of horse is allowed on the Drill Team but the goal is to have every member mounted on a Palomino by 2004.

Above and Beyond the Call
One new member of the Drill Team, Vivian Johnson of Spring Branch, has already proven her grit and determination. She has been battling cancer since last spring. Vivian is very excited about being selected as a member of this team. “As a kid it was always a dream to ride in the Coliseum,” she says. This is her first time participating in any kind of horse show event and she was determined not to let anything stand in her way. “I know how important it is to be here and do the drill over and over to get it right for the show.”

“It was fairly easy for me to get on the team with my prior riding experience. My challenge came with my illness. I sent to a doctor last April because of feeling bloated all the time and after a number of doctor visits, exams and tests, a tumor was found in my fallopian tube on July 22. This is a very aggressive type of cancer and it was already at Stage 4.”

Bound and determined not to let this affliction prevent her from riding with her new team, Vivian scheduled the surgery so she would miss the fewest practices. She went back to work in 10 days and was back in the saddle only 4 weeks and 2 days after having major surgery. She has been riding every weekend since.

Then she had 6 chemotherapy treatments to get through. Some of those fell on practice night; but she would still go to practice even if she didn’t feel well enough to ride. “I have the commitment to be at every practice. I have pain in my joints, I’m tired and achy, and I feel lousy. I’m going to feel like that no matter what, so I might as well be on my horse rather than on the couch.”

Vivian knows she is strong but she also appreciates the help she’s had during this time. “I’ve been so fortunate to have friends and family to pick up the slack, drive for me, help take care of my horse, and just be there for me if I need it, which has allowed me to keep riding. They know how important this is to me.”

“I have a strong will and it makes a difference. Look for solutions instead of excuses.”

Time Marches On
This writer was allowed the honor and pleasure to ride in last year’s final performance in the Coliseum. It was both exciting and nostalgic as each of the members silently reflected on the years spent waiting in the “tunnel” for the band to cue the entrance of the Patrol. It was with many mixed feelings that the team entered the Coliseum for the last time.
Barr put it this way, “It will be very sad to leave the Coliseum. The Patrol has performed there for 52 years and I’ve ridden there since 1987. I want it to work. It will be a challenge because we have a whole new drill team performing with the Patrol.”

Doris Dent is the President of the organization. She says, “The Palomino Patrol and Drill Team have been given a wonderful opportunity this year to provide a new and exciting Grand Entry presentation at the new SBC Center. To do this, every member of both the traditional patrol and the new drill team have worked exceedingly hard to prepare new horses, learn new drills, coordinate new uniforms and blend these uniquely different riding techniques into a seamless performance. We are all excited about this venture and believe this will allow us to initiate a new tradition to the San Antonio Rodeo that will be better every year.” Anyone interested in an application to join or for information on either group can email the president at: dorisd@stic.net.

Barr sums up a common feeling among the members of these riding groups. “Each rider is important to the success of the whole group. And when I say group I mean the whole Patrol Family, Drill Team as well. As Drill Captain, I try to be impartial, and I want each rider to feel free to come to me with both problems and suggestions. I don’t have all the answers but my decisions will always be made in the best interest of the group.”

Jack Sellers ran the Palomino Patrol until his death in 1994 at the age of 97. His widow, kept a close watch on the team for many years until her health declined. She passed away last year. It was the first time neither of the founders of the team were present for the Rodeo performance. Barr says, “The Patrol is very special to me and I will make every effort to carry on the tradition that Jack Sellers began so many years ago.”

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