THE TRIO of steer and two horses explode out of the box at a hard gallop, throwing dust as they chase across the dirt arena. In an instant, the first cowboy has lassoed the steer’s head, then keeps tension on the rope so it is presented in proper position for his partner to lasso the back legs.
Casting a rope that will envelop both hind legs of a moving animal – there is a five-second time penalty for catching only one – does not look easy. It looks impossible. However, the majority of the cowboys and cowgirls – who compete in exactly the same events – manage it. The pair pull together and the steer is down, then quickly released as the mounted judge in the ring beside them raises a flag to stop the clock. The whole thing takes around eight seconds or less.
Jodie Yanke has driven almost three hours from Medicine Hat for the competition here in Claresholm, a small farming town 125 kilometers south of Calgary. She wears a shirt with pink detailing and her superbly muscled horse has pink protective boots to match.
I ask her what the difference is between the first event of the evening and the second, in which she is taking part. They look identical and I heard the announcer make no obvious distinction between them, merely carrying on calling out team numbers of those next up at the gate.
“That was a 12 and this is a 13,” she says. Realizing I do not know what she is talking about, she makes a polite attempt to hide her bemusement. “The points of the header and heeler have to add up to 13,” she says, as if that should explain it. It is easy enough to work out who the header and heeler are – even I know one end of a calf from the other – but the rest still leaves me baffled. “I am a four,” she offers as clarification. “Is that good?” “Higher points are better.”
In fact, the difference is easy to spot as the next pairs go into action. The action is crisper, the number of fails significantly lower – until a bad run sees four misses in a row. Most times it is the heeler, but once even the header misses his target as his rope bounces off the well-padded horns of the calf.
I look out the rule book later. “A #4 Roper is in the bottom 40 percent of amateur ropers,” it says. “Heelers catch about five out of ten; headers catch about seven out of 10.”
“You don’t get good at team roping,” says Travis Booth, who I met earlier in the Frontier Western Shop nearby that he helps run. “You just get better at it.” He has been doing this for 18 years, starting as a working cowboy. The main prize is a shiny cowboy buckle. “You don’t buy buckles around here,” he says, when I ask him where he got his. “You win them.”
A handful of spectators watch but most of those looking on are fellow competitors such as Travis, sitting on their horses. Their mounts are quiet, seeming impossible to spook as I move around among them. Everyone looks tall in the saddle and it is a shock when they descend to earth to buy a hamburger or check a score. On foot, they become mere mortals, some short or fat, others tall but stooped with age or mileage.
Claresholm is a gas and hamburger stop on Highway 2, in the heart of Alberta’s farming country. The road is called Deer Foot Trail as it leaves Calgary, when it is a busy freeway, but then quietens down as it winds through the rolling countryside. I pass groups of houses that seem scattered randomly, farm houses and barns surrounded by a clump of trees planted generations ago, children literally sheltered by their great-grandparents. What lives do they live, so far from the nearest neighbor?
The horse was once vital to connect them. Nowadays, it is easy to think the massive trucks driving frozen steaks to market along this highway and so many others in North America are the real modern cowboys. Place names such as Meadow Creek, Picture Butte and the Unesco site of Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, just south of Claresholm, hint at the frontier history of this vast plain. The jump has been used for nearly 6,000 years by the people of the Great Plains to drive buffalo to their deaths. It is an atmospheric and windswept place that my imagination yearns to fill with herds of buffalo. Instead, I am driven away by itchy clouds of mosquitoes.
AT FORT MACLEOD, a reconstruction of the original 19th century frontier fort is the main attraction. Students dressed in the red uniforms of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) put on a musical ride three times a day, drawing warm applause from the handful of visitors. The NWMP were the forerunners of the famous “Mounties” and first brought British law and order to the frontier.
“The NWMP were put into place to supervise relations with the First Nations and the settlers,” says Sergeant Morgan Gunderson, a working policeman who also oversees the ride. “There were Bluecoats – the US Army – across the border and the First Nations had a negative relation with them, so that was an issue at first with the Redcoats. But they developed a peaceful co-existence between both sides.
“The biggest problem back then was whisky trading and petty theft. We still deal with the same sort of things but the problems now are lots of domestics and traffic offenses. You want people to abide by the rules so everyone can function within the community.
“Growing up, it was the cool thing to be a fort rider. I used to come down as a four or five-year-old and watch in awe from beyond the fence. The fort is the epicenter of the community, so when you are riding around you feel like you are carrying on an important tradition. And you are paid for riding horses. Other people pay to ride horses.”
At the quaint Don’s Barber Shop a few blocks away, a sign on the wall says: “You don’t see much in a small town but what you hear makes up for it.” Roy Duff has been a barber for 51 years, 48 of them in Fort Macleod. I ask him for the name of the best diner in town. “There are two,” he says, with the manner of a man who has to be a natural diplomat.
Back in Claresholm, I call into the Frontier Western Shop to pick up a new cowboy shirt for the Calgary Stampede but am soon distracted by the hats. There are a bewildering variety of styles. “There have been looks and fashions in cowboy hats since the beginning of time,” says owner Stuart Derochie. “There was a fashion for low crowns and now we are going back to higher crowns. With felt hats, the finer hats are beaver fur, very velvety, then you get into rabbit, then down into lower priced wool – heavy, awful stuff. That’s the sort of hat they sell in the city or at the stampede. It has the same look, so they can sell it OK.”
With the stampede in full swing, the store is busy but he walks me around, happy to talk but having to sit at times to rest a back broken in his rodeo days. I am surprised at the variety of saddles but Stuart explains how each differs according to its use, whether for roping, when it has a specialist horn to throw a hitch around, or barrel racing, when it allows the rider to sit much deeper for the sharp turns.
“Every saddle is so specific from the tree upward,” he says. “We fit the saddle to the horse, then to the rider, to what he is doing. Many of the riders at the stampede will buy from us. We show them what they need to function best in their event. They will cost from $2,500 to $5,000, but that is something that will last you a lifetime.”
At the Calgary Stampede, I meet a man who probably thinks saddles are for wimps. Utah-based Caleb Bennett was the 2013 Calgary Stampede Champion Bareback Rider. He started riding at age four. ”My dad rodeoed for 25 years, riding bareback horses like I do, and I just picked it up from him,” he says. “I grew up at rodeos and on a farming ranch in Pueblo Colorado. Up till about five years ago, I was doing it for fun – weekend to weekend – but as I got more competitive it became a full-time job”.
I have to say, it is one of those jobs the careers desk at my school never mentioned to me – I can’t think why. “The most I have ever won was in the Wrangler National Finals in Las Vegas,” says Caleb. “It pays $19,000 each day to the winner and I left with $85,000 after ten days. That’s for eight seconds of competing a day, so I guess that’s not so much work.
“This is the biggest rodeo in North America. Every day it pays $55,000 and $100,000 if you win the whole thing. And it is invitation only, so it is very prestigious.
“Of course, there are expenses. I drive roughly 85,000 miles a year, for example, and I pay about $20,000 a year in entry fees. Add in my airplane, vehicle, fuel and hotel costs, and it probably costs me about $75,000 a year to rodeo. With coming to Calgary, I might win $150,000 a year tops, so I’m only making about $70,000 a year. I do it because I love it.”
Like Sergeant Gunderson in Fort Macleod, Caleb seems to still get a thrill out of being paid to ride.
THE HIGHLIGHT of the ten-day Calgary Stampede has to be the nightly chuckwagon race, which certainly attracts the biggest prize money: more than a million dollars. The ground shakes as four teams of four horses charge across the line, their wagon wheels nearly touching, chased by 16 outriders. The announcer adds to the drama with a refrain of: “You can’t beat ‘em if you can’t catch ‘em!” I am not sure what it even means but it certainly whips up the crowd, me included.
“The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth” is a chance for everyone to be a cowboy for a day or a whole week. Overweight bankers and retired human resources managers dress in jeans, cowboy boots and cowboy hats to shout “YAHOO!” – you can hear the capital letters – in the packed stands. “Yahoo!” is the Canadian version of “Yeehaw!”, serving to distinguish local cowboys and cowgirls from their cousins south of the (US) border. But with Montana only a seven-hour drive away, any other differences seem equally marginal.
In the arena, you know you are seeing the real thing. The skills involved in calf roping and barrel racing are impressive enough but the bull riders and bareback riders seem suicidal. ”The usual injuries are to elbows, shoulders and necks – well, everywhere,” says Caleb. “It’s basically just wear and tear on the body. But the protection now is night and day compared to when my dad was riding 20 years ago. The biggest change is the Kevlar body protector, which protects us inside the chutes. We are technically outnumbered. I weigh 150lbs and the horse weighs 1,500lbs.
“These horses are bred to buck, just like racehorses are bred to run. We help them out a bit with the flank strap, which is like a belt – when you slouch, it is real tight but when you straighten up, it loosens up and after eight seconds it falls off. They are well looked after and have a pretty good lifestyle. We all just love the bucking horses. The horse I was on today, I’ve seen numerous times since she was a baby. I’ve seen her grow up.”
Behind the chutes, I can feel the adrenalin in the air as competitors take a quiet moment before the insane burst of action to size up their mounts, wondering if they will win them a prize or cripple them. At the far side of the arena, the faces of the spectators seem tiny, and irrelevant.
Where there are cowboys, you have to have “Indians” – more properly known as the First Nations in Canada. They have been part of the stampede since the very first event in 1912, started by New York-born trick roper Guy Weadick. As I walk around the Indian Village, I can hear the public address system calling for names such as “Keith Left-Hand”, “Crocus Big Stoney” and “Fate Starlight”. They certainly have the cowboys beaten in the picturesque names category.
“The people in the village do it because we love our culture and enjoy broadcasting it,” says 2014 Indian Princess Carly Weasel Child. “They set up their tipis a few days before the stampede starts. I live in the Siksika Nation in a house, just like any other modern house. We have a pow wow every August that everyone attends. We have a strong sense of community. There is not a drastic difference between our reserve than a regular town, except that we have our traditional values. We try to keep our culture and language alive.”
After watching a dance in the Indian Village, I make my way back to the arena to watch its nightly transformation for the Grandstand Show. After the final chuckwagon race, a tractor slowly pulls a vast, wheeled stage into place in front of the stands, while a lighting rig and sound system bring the night alive. It has been a showcase for many headline names but its most unique feature is the talented, all-singing, all-dancing Young Canadians. These are local artists between the ages of seven and 19, who attend a school of performing arts on scholarships from the stampede.
“All you need to pay for is your shoes – and those last a while,” says Young Canadian senior dancer Parker Dennill. “Plus, we get a discount on them. It is an all-round training. I’ve done Bollywood and clogdancing, tap, ballet and more. We study every style and are really versatile. We perform in front of 20,000 people in the Grandstand Show. As teenage kids, there is nowhere else in the world where you get to do that.
“The stampede is a party for people of all ages.”