SPORTS

Rodeo’s adrenaline rush

Calgary’s Stampede preserves the spirit of the Wild West

MARY NEMETH July 24 1995
SPORTS

Rodeo’s adrenaline rush

Calgary’s Stampede preserves the spirit of the Wild West

MARY NEMETH July 24 1995

Rodeo’s adrenaline rush

SPORTS

MARY NEMETH

Calgary’s Stampede preserves the spirit of the Wild West

For 10 days in July, they are at the apex of the city’s social pyramid, at the very pinnacle of Western cool. All of Calgary, from schoolchildren to oil executives, gets dressed up to look like them. And the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede is designed to celebrate their culture. They are the rodeo riders, real cowboys who represent the last vestiges of the mythologized Wild West. In the course of their work, they are stomped on by wild bulls and knocked around by bucking broncos. They tear their biceps and wrench their knees. And although a fortunate, talented handful can make a handsome living on the rodeo circuit, many struggle to get by, riding, lassoing and hitting the dirt just for the adrenaline rush and the glory of being a cowboy. “Everybody wants that dream—to make a living at the rodeo,” j says Dennis Kesler, a 25-year-old bareback \ rider and truck driver from Airdrie, Alta., who {has suffered several injuries and earned 5 just $1,100 in 10 rodeo outings this year. “I’d

be happy to go to a hundred rodeos and just break even.”

The Calgary Stampede, which is expected to attract more than 250,000 visitors to the city of 730,000 by the time it closes on July 16, features an agricultural show, a midway with roller-coaster rides and a casino, much like summer fairs anywhere. It draws country music stars like Lisa Brokop and Patricia Con-

roy, and it spawns innumerable pancake breakfasts and barbecues around town. And the event, organizers claim, generates about $235 million for the city. But the rides and the gambling and the concerts are all just window dressing for what is, at heart, one of the oldest rodeos in North America.

The Calgary Stampede was founded in 1912, dreamed up by an American promoter named Guy Weadick who had toured the Wild West shows of his day, settled in Calgary and decided to create a spectacle bigger and better than all the others. Rodeo events originally grew out of ranch life: working cowboys had to lasso calves to catch them and they had to ride wild horses to break them. Over the years, cowboys invented other events, like riding on the backs of bulls, just for the challenge involved. Today, the Stampede’s long history, and nearly $600,000 in prize money, make it one of the two or three most prestigious rodeos in North America. Some 500 cowboys competed in the Stampede this year, including such top Canadians as saddle bronc rider Denny Hay, who earned over $100,000 in Canadian and U.S. rodeos last year, and Blaine Pederson, a steer wrestler who earned more than $140,000.

Along with growing popularity, rodeos are facing mounting criticism from animal rights activists. At the Calgary Stampede last week, three horses were injured and had to be killed,

one in a chuckwagon crash and two in horse riding events. Linda Badgley, a senior official of the Calgary Humane Society, praised Stampede staff for co-operating with the society, but added that her organization is opposed to the use of animals “in any form of entertainment that places them at risk.” Stampede spokesman Brian Ratcliffe said that having three horses die during the Stampede was unusual. “It’s not something that we like,” he added, insisting that the fatalities were “isolated incidents and freak accidents.”

Ryan Byrne is a respected rodeo performer from Prince Albert, Sask. His role is to dress like a clown for a deadly serious job— distracting angry, 1,500-lb. bulls long enough to let cowboys escape from the ring after their ride. Byrne is a true rodeo believer who confesses to a deep admiration for bulls and talks about the down-to-earth nature of the Wild West culture. “I wish I was born 100 years ago,” says Byrne, 32. The Stampede, he adds, “shows our heritage and history. It’s a way to not let the Old West die away.”

The bull riders had a tough time of it on an afternoon early last week, when only one of 10 riders managed to stay aboard their twisting, bucking bulls for the eight seconds required to qualify in the competition. Of the nine who were bucked off, one cowboy was stepped on by a bull, one was kicked in the head and another was bounced around after his hand got caught in the rope he used to hang onto the bull. But all three managed to walk out of the ring after Byrne and two other bullfighters darted in front of the animals, waiting until the last moment to dodge their dangerous horns while the cowboys scrambled out of the way. Byrne himself has not always been so lucky. A bull once stabbed him in his forehead with a horn, leaving a splinter close to his brain. Byrne underwent a successful operation to remove the fragment and he went back to bullfighting two months later. Says Byrne: ‘Things happen—you know you’re going to get hurt just like in any other professional sport”

While bull riding requires strength and a good sense of balance, barrel racing—the sole women’s-only event in rodeo—is a test of riding skills. Riders race their steeds around three barrels, making the tightest possible turns without overturning the barrels, and then make a dash across the finish line. Frances Church started barrel racing when she was 21 and continued to participate in local rodeos near her home in Brooks, Alta., while her two

children were growing up. Now they have both left home, and 51-year-old Church—who does some interior decorating on the side— has more time for serious rodeo. “It’s not a small-time sport any more,” says Church, after crossing the finish line in 16.59 seconds, fast enough to win the day.

Today, says Church, ladies’ barrel racing is increasingly being awarded the same prize money as the major male events at professional rodeos—although the Calgary Stampede still does not offer barrel racers the $50,000 bonus prize that goes to the top cowboys in each of the five major male rodeo events. “This is an

‘You know you’re going to get hurt, just like in any professional sport’

old boy’s club,” says Church. “But it’s changing —and I think barrel racing is more respected now by the cowboys.”

Other things have changed on the rodeo circuit over the years. It used to be that rodeo riders mostly got their start as children growing up on ranches. But Kesler, the bareback rider from Airdrie, was raised in small Alberta towns, and it was not until he went to high school in Claresholm, 110 km south of Calgary, that a friend got him interested in rodeos. “He’d tell stories about riding bulls and going off to places like El Paso, Tex.,” recalls Kesler. “I was a town kid and played hockey. But hearing him talking about rodeos, I decided it was something I wanted to try.”

Another young bareback rider, 23-year-old Jay Humphrey, grew up in Eastend, Sask., where his father runs a trucking firm. Humphrey’s rodeo-riding cousin talked him into trying the sport and he attended several rodeo schools—threeor four-day affairs that are usually run by professional rodeo stars.

Humphrey became good enough to win a twoyear rodeo scholarship to a college in Montana where he studied computer mechanics. This is his first year as a professional, and so far Humphrey has attended 25 rodeos in Canada and won close to $3,000. like other cowboys, Humphrey often drives more than 1,000 km to attend as many as four different rodeos in a single weekend. Usually, he travels with three or four fellow rodeo riders, he says, and often bunks at a buddy’s home. That way he can save money—and enjoy the camaraderie. And then there is the lure of earning several thousand dollars for eight seconds on the back of a bucking bronco at a big event Actually, riders have to do more than just stay on the horse—they are judged on the way they spur the horse, and the horse’s bucking movements. In the second round of competition last week, Humphrey stayed on his horse for eight seconds, but he was awarded only 74.5 points—a decent score, but not enough to earn any cash. The winner that day was a cowboy from Red Lodge, Mont., named Deb Greenough, who scored 82.5 on a horse named Yesterday’s Sun. After his ride, Greenough recalled his days as a rookie, hitching rides and looking for cheap meals on the rodeo circuit. It took two years of professional rodeo riding before he started to cover decent living expenses. He earned $40,483 _ in 1988. And it was another g four years before he won g enough to put money in the 2 bank at the end of the year. Now Greenough, 32, is one of the cowboy elite. In 1993, he won the world championship and $175,086 in prize money, a record for a bareback rider. He and his wife, Kim, have a 13month-old son, Quinn. And with Greenough’s earnings they have been able to buy a house in Red Lodge. “It lies in a valley, with a little creek running through it,” says Greenough. “It’s kind of a dream home.”

James Veitch took in the action from the stands last week, watching young riders like Humphrey and old hands like Greenough take their best shots at Stampede glory. A Calgary stockbroker and part-time cowboy, Veitch, 28, earned $12,875 and was ranked sixth among Canadian bull riders in 1994. But a bull smashed Veitch’s right leg with its hom last March and he is still on crutches. He has undergone three operations and faces a fourth. Veitch brushes off any suggestion that he might give up rodeo competition. “It’s a passion,” he insists. “And it’s not just the riding. It’s the sights, the sounds, the roar of the crowd. Everybody wants to be a bull rider.”D