THE four teams of horses – four thoroughbreds in each team – charge past, the light wagons they are pulling wheel to wheel as they come around the final bend and gallop, nostrils foaming, for the finish line. The drivers lash the reins, straining every muscle to bring their passion to their teams. Behind, another 16 riders urge their horses in a pack towards the line, as 18,000 screaming spectators get caught up in the spectacle.
No, it’s not the chariot race from Ben Hur, but Chuck Wagon racing at Calgary Stampede – with a cool $1million dollars on offer to the winner.
It’s odd to find this cowboy festival in Canada – one thinks more of snow and forest than prairie and campfires in this part of North America – but Alberta shares a border with Montana and has a rich cowboy history. Indeed, it has been the setting for various Westerns in recent years: Open Range, with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall, and Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven, which was credited with reviving the genre.
The Stampede is a celebration of the cowboy life and one of the few places in the world where an overweight, unfit accountant from the heart of the city can feel comfortable wearing a cowboy hat and jeans. Put on the boots, the big belt buckle and the bandana and you’ll fit right into the audience.
Then the real cowboys come on to do their stuff and you realise that playing games for a day or two is as close as you’ll ever get to the real thing. Galloping out of the stalls after a racing calf, they rope it, jump off their horse, upend the calf in the dirt and tie off its legs in a blink-and-you’ll-miss- it four seconds (the slow ones, that is). The bucking broncos come charging out with a cowboy up top being flung around like a rag doll. Get close enough and you’ll see the metal arm braces and the neck support. When a horse somersaults, its rider face-down in the dust, then regains its feet with the cowboy still in the saddle, you know that protection hasn’t done him much good. These men are hard as nails.
Behind the chutes, a cowboy stand quietly, preparing for action. He looks at the horse he has been given, drawn in a random lot, trying to take its measure. Will it win him a fortune (points are scored for the horse’s performance, as well as the riders)? Or kill or maim him? Only the top riders can make a living, touring the rodeos around North America. Many are working ranch-hands, just taking part in the sport they love best. A moment of prayer, the roar of the crowd as another rider bucks across the arena strangely muted. Then it’s on with the protective waistcoat, a pat of the horse’s neck before the explosive release of tension as the bronco bucks wildly into the arena in front of 18,000 cheering spectators.
If he can stay on for eight seconds, keep his hat on, one hand on the reins, the other off the horse, then get off with style and if his horse bucks stylishly enough, he will be in the points. All too often, it’s all over in a split-second and the cowboy, hand holding a sore arm, or staggering from a bronco’s kick, looks ruefully up at the slow-motion replay on the big screen to see what’s happened to him. The chance of glory and money has gone, and it’s back to lonely nights with only campfires and the starlit sky for company.
As if that’s not tough enough, the bullriders sit on top of an enraged 2,000lb bull. A bronco will run off if it unseats its rider; the bulls attempt to stomp or gore them. For real bravery, watch the rodeo clowns who distract the bulls to let the riders recover their wits after a fall. The Pamplona Bull Run? That’s for wimps.
The clown’s absurd get-up is also proof that how you dress doesn’t make you a real cowboy.
■ I travelled with Canadian Affair: www.canadianaffair.com