The origins of this annual roping event in Three Rivers, CA go all the way back to the annual spring picnics of the 1880s. In those pioneer days, local ranchers, residents, and cattlemen would gather at or near the present-day Lions Roping Arena each year for horseshoe throwing, baseball, food, and foot races. By the fall of 1890, the Kaweah Colony had established their Advance Camp at a site nearby and even though the Colony disbanded in 1892, many colonists stayed on and with their neighbors continued the tradition of spring picnics. By the 1920s, the event had grown to become the annual May Day Picnic, held the first Sunday of May. With so many ranchers and cattlemen in the area, it was realized that a proper arena was needed to hold equestrian competitions.
In 1937, local rancher Lee Maloy built a roping arena at the end of what was then called Jefferson Davis Field (the old airport where all the horse trailers park on Roping weekend). Local residents Forrest Homer, John and Dick Britten, Earl McKee, Sr., Kelley Ogilvie, Skinny Kirk, Jim Kindred, Ted Bartlett, and Joe Carmichael all had a hand in constructing the arena and made regular use of it through the decades.
After the annual May Day festivities of the 1940s, folks would mosey over to the arena to witness equestrian events.
In 1947, the Three Rivers Lions Club was organized, with Lee Maloy and many of his riding and roping friends as charter members.
The current timed events like roping and branding are variations of the work these men and others like them did from the saddle on a daily basis. With their experience in and passion for roping, it was only a matter of a few years before the Three Rivers Lions Club took the reins to stage the first roping event, on April 15, 1950. Admission was 50 cents and entertainment consisted of quarter horse racing and team roping. Later events included riding a bucking horse, seeing who had the best bridle horse by putting each mount through figure eights, slides, and backing the horse up and turning him around. The winner of the stake race was whoever could ride through the stakes the fastest. The proceeds from the first roping event went to defray the medical expenses of a local teenager badly burned in a tragic automobile accident.
Today's team roping events utilize the handicap system to pair up competitors based on a rider's skill level to balance out the contests. The American Cowboys Team Roping Association (ACTRA) devised the system in the 1980s, and it has been credited with bringing about a resurgence in the popularity of the sport. Events include One-Over-40 Roping, Open Roping, Century Roping, Mixed Roping, Craig Thorn III Memorial Calf Branding, 3-Steer Roping, Junior Barrell Race, Pee Wee Roping, Cowboy Church, 6-Steer Championship, Pig Scramble, Open Barrell Race, and Pee Wee Barrell Race.
In 1982, when the Three Rivers Lions Club was looking for a unique buckle to award to the overall champion header and heeler at their annual team roping event, they contacted Robert Yellowhair, a Navajo Indian and near world champion team roper. Robert was also a renowned artist and buckle-maker, and he designed a beautiful buckle for the Club. The design is coveted by all ropers and has been the pride of the Three Rivers Lions Club Team Roping ever since. Robert, his wife Louise, and their eight children, have all had a hand in making Yellowhair buckles over the years and a few years ago, Lorien Yellowhair purchased his father's business. In addition to making trophy buckles, "Yellowhair Buckles" crafts custom pieces for George Strait, Tanya Tucker, James Garner and Sally Field. They welcome special orders from anyone. Robert and Louise are now making custom and collectible saddles with their daughter Carol and Robert continues to paint his beautiful Native American oils.