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Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo rides for its 20th year

Brent Freese herds calves into a weighing scale at Rancho Mission Viejo's Cow Camp in San Juan Capistrano.
Brent Freese, Rancho Mission Viejo ranch manager, herds 28 female calves into a weighing scale at Rancho Mission Viejo’s Cow Camp on Aug. 17 in San Juan Capistrano.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

This weekend won’t be Rancho Mission Viejo’s first rodeo — it will be its 20th.

Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park in San Juan Capistrano has made a commitment to preserving the cowboy way of life by hosting Orange County’s only rodeo each year, bringing the top 30 rodeo contestants to compete for a purse totaling more than $300,000.

But the land’s ties to the art of saddle bronc riding and tie-down roping go back even further.

“Our family has owned this ranch since 1882,” said Tony Moiso, Mission Viejo Ranch chairman and chief executive officer. “At one time it was 52,400 acres.”

Rancho Mission Viejo was originally part of the land holding known as Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. It was purchased along with the adjoining Rancho Mission Viejo and Rancho Trabuco by Irish immigrants Richard O’Neill Sr. and James Flood, who found their fortune and forged a friendship in San Francisco. The land stretched from Aliso Creek to Oceanside.

Today the ranch’s footprint is 23,000 acres, a smaller size than when executive vice president of ranch operations, Gilbert Aguirre, came to the ranch in 1967.

“We used to run 4,500 cows, plus the fact that we had almost 500 acres of citrus,” Aguirre recalled.

The ranch still has a couple hundred cows, six horses, about 300 acres of citrus and 100 acres of avocados.

Gilbert Aguirre, left, Mission Viejo Ranch executive VP, and Tony Moiso, Mission Viejo Ranch CEO.
Gilbert Aguirre, left, Mission Viejo Ranch executive vice president, and Tony Moiso, Mission Viejo Ranch chairman and CEO, stand together at Rancho Mission Viejo’s Cow Camp on Aug. 17.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo began in 2001 when the O’Neill/Moiso/Avery family took on the responsibility of carrying on the tradition.

“The whole reason for the rodeo was here was a famous rancho from the old days, and the western way of life and heritage was just disappearing. I mean, no one knows anything about it,” said Aguirre.

The rodeo was a way to share the hard work and traditions of a working ranch with the public.

“Everything you see at rodeo is what goes on at a ranch on a daily basis. Everything happens on a ranch at sometime, whether you’re riding bronc or roping calves,” said Aguirre.

The rodeo features seven events with the best rodeo athletes in the world competing and draws nearly 9,000 visitors each year.

“You are only competing against 29 other people in each event,” said Aguirre.

And the competition is stiff.

“We take the top 30 money winners, as of Aug. 1, in each event,” said Aguirre. “We get the best cowboys coming to this rodeo.”

Brent Freese, Rancho Mission Viejo ranch manager, releases calves from a weighing scale.
Brent Freese, Rancho Mission Viejo ranch manager, releases calves from a weighing scale at Rancho Mission Viejo’s Cow Camp.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The gates open at 1 p.m. on Saturday with opening ceremonies beginning at 3:45 p.m. Vendors and a variety of family-friendly activities, like a trackless train, jump house and face painting will be available. The seven rodeo events (saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, team roping and breakaway roping) begin at 4 p.m.

“Tie-down roping is just one man and one horse, and those calves that you see out there are the ones they’ll rope,” said Aguirre, motioning to a nearby field.

For tie-down roping, the calf is given a head start, and the mounted cowboy gives chase, ropes the calf and jumps off his horse and ties any three of the animal’s legs together.

“There is a lot of timing involved,” Aguirre said. “It usually happens in anywhere from eight seconds to 12 seconds.”

The first day closes with a dance and concert performance by Nashville-based country singer and Moiso’s granddaughter, Daisy Sellas.

The celebration continues on Sunday with gates opening at 11:30 a.m. and rodeo events starting at 1:30 p.m.

All proceeds from the rodeo benefit local San Juan Capistrano charities, like the Shea Therapeutic Riding Center, CHOC at Mission Hospital and the San Juan Capistrano Boys & Girls Club.

Female calves consume feed at Rancho Mission Viejo's Cow Camp in San Juan Capistrano.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“This special event has raised an incredible amount of funds for local charities, and we look forward to continuing to give back to our wonderful community,” said Moiso. “We’ve come up with the idea to give them enough money to do something. We pride ourselves on that.”

To date, the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo has raised more than $2.6 million for local charities.

Sharing the traditions of the American West while giving back, are the families’ main motivators, said Aguirre.

“The reason we do it is because we can,” said Aguirre. “And we are doing it not for ourselves, but for the community. We are giving back to the community.”

“And,” Moiso adds, “it’s a lot of fun.”

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