I don’t think much of him at first. He isn’t big or even that muscular. He just stares at the ground, swaying gently from side to side.
What’s so intimidating about that?
He looks up, and I make the mistake of holding his gaze. He doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like that one bit. Instantly, I feel a sense of unease. I look at Duane, who has a smirk on his face. One that says, I told you so.
Oh, man. Thank God he’s in a pen.
Lowering his head, he backs up as if he wants plenty of room to gather momentum. He starts to bellow—a strangled warning I imagine is filled with all kinds of animal expletives. He paws the ground, first with his left hoof, then his right, puffs of dirt flying into the air behind him.
Cowboys will tell you that horses will do anything NOT to step on you. Bulls, on the other hand, will run you down.
What are these guys thinking?
I’m at the Bucking & Barrels Rodeo Can-Am Pro Challenge in Lethbridge, southern Alberta, part of the annual Whoop-Up Days Family Festival. Rodeos, like dinosaurs, coulees and hoodoos, are synonymous with the Canadian Badlands which I’ve been exploring the last six days. Almost every small town I’ve driven through—Brooks, Patricia, Vulcan, Strathmore, Milk River—hosts its own rodeo in the summer. It’s not surprising, because the region is filled with working ranches and farms. Rodeo is more than a sport; it’s a way of life.
It’s one of the human sides that travelers mostly know for its topography.
I’m behind the chutes where the horses and bulls and their cowboy counterparts enter the arena for an eight-second battle of wills—the show’s backstage, so to speak. It’s an hour and a half before start time, and the cowboys are arriving in a slow trickle. They unpack their gear, leaving their bags, boots, chaps and saddles scattered on the ground in small piles like forgotten laundry. Men.
Tonight’s show is a 90-minute exhibition—the second day of three—focusing on bucking events and barrel racing (Lethbridge favorites), including a good-natured international competition between the lineups’ professional Canadian & professional American riders, plus cash prizes totaling $80,000 CAD.
Duane, who runs the third-generation, family-owned Kesler Championship Rodeo, is the show’s producer and stock contractor. His company is known across Canada and in the United States for supplying exceptional horses and bulls that buck high and kick hard. For Lethbridge, Duane also wrangled the cowboys.
For the riders, a show like this is a sweet deal with some caveats. The money is good, and they can stay in one place for a few days. That’s a real luxury. Normally, they hit the road as soon as they’re off their ride to make the next event, sometimes thousands of miles away. The downside: The cowboys are required to compete three days in a row. In a sport as physically challenging and dangerous as rodeo, the risk of being hurt or killed is a real one. Each man must decide if he wants to gamble on an event that doesn’t affect his professional ranking—though placing himself in jeopardy does seem to be part of the allure.
I ask every cowboy I talk to if he’s ever been injured, and without exception the answer is yes. Or more like, “Oh yeah [chuckle, chuckle, eye roll, big sigh]. DEFINITELY.” The mantra is, “If you rodeo, it’s not if you’ll get hurt but when.” The men rattle off body parts habitually on the mend: wrists, knees, ankles, legs, shoulders, back, groin. Chase Erickson, a veteran bareback rider with boy-next-door good looks, tells me after a perilous ride, his eye-socket had to be rebuilt.
Chase Brooks, a 22-year-old rising star on the pro circuit, wigs me out describing the time a horse stepped on the back of his elbow and folded it backward. “It was kind of gross. My arm was tingly so I just sort of walked out and when I set my arm down in my lap, I felt my bone slip back in. And then we had to pop the second one in, which took a lot of pulling.”
“That must have hurt,” I say through clenched teeth.
“Yeah, it wasn’t much fun. I had a purple arm for about a month.”
“Then what happens?” I ask the first Chase.
“You have to sit out a certain amount of time, but cowboys are famous for pushing the envelope,” he admits.
“Have you ever pushed the envelope?” I ask, knowing immediately what the answer would be.
“Oh, yeah, I push it all the time.”
Yep, I was right.
Why do they do it? In short, they’ve been ranching and rodeoing their whole life. It’s as much a part of their being as work, faith and family. Many of them have parents or siblings who rodeo. But more to the point, they love the challenge, the adrenaline rush, chasing the next great ride. It’s addictive. Justin Berg, a 27-year-old saddle bronc rider tells me, “I can’t describe a better feeling than getting one spurred out and staying on.”
As we near start time, the cowboys stretch against the pens while others sit in a line next to the chutes, taping their limbs and securing braces.
A cowboy is on the ground straddling his custom-made saddle as if he’s riding the dirt. He holds the fork—the front piece that connects the two bars of the saddle—with both ands and leans back as if the ground is rearing up, drawing the saddle tightly between his thighs. Then he leans forward, pushing down on the fork three times in rapid succession. Wham! Wham! Wham! He stops, feels his chaps in the spot where they touch the saddle and, apparently unsatisfied, does it all over again. He put resin on the leather to keep from sliding. (Bull riders use it on their ropes.) By mimicking the movement of the horse, this odd-looking routine helps him to figure out whether his chaps will grip the saddle properly.
It’s minutes to show time. The first horses are safely ensconced in their chutes. A curious grey sticks his head over the bars to get a better look at me, and I think, how sweet. On cue, he kicks out against the steel of the pen. Bam! Bam! He wants to get the party started.
The rodeo begins. There are team introductions, various announcements, cool trick riding, but it’s not long before the program gets down to business. Bareback is up first, followed by saddle broncs and then bull riding. The show closes with barrel racing.
Chase Erickson is third in the lineup riding Daily Special, a beautiful brown-and-white paint he’s never been on before, so I ask him how he plans to prepare. The answer is not much. “I’m approaching it jump for jump. I’m going strictly off reaction.”
Overthinking, apparently, is not a good idea. Animals are unpredictable; to lock oneself into a plan would likely prove counterproductive. You gotta roll with the punches—or bucks as it were.
The two men before Chase cover their eight seconds, and then he’s up. To win, he has to stay on, ride well and hope the horse is enough of a badass to impress the judges.
He gives the OK. The gate opens, instantly the horse launches into the air.
A good ride is when a horse jumps high and kicks hard and flashy, and I figure Chase is pleased. Daily Special is a gymnast, curling into a fetal position in midair then kicking out at a 45-degree angle. Chase’s hat flies off, and his face is in a frightful grimace, his left hand flailing high above his head. The time runs out, and the crowd cheers. He comes off the horse and looks straight at the replay. A huge grin crosses his face.
He scores an 85.
He wins the bareback competition and takes home $2,000 for the night.
Not bad for eight seconds of work.
Thank you to Canadian Badlands Tourism for making my trip possible. Words and sentiment are my own.