Behind the Scenes of a Rodeo and What Makes Canadian Cowboys Tick

Whoop Up Days rodeo - man on bucking horse

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?

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.

Cowboys getting their saddles ready for a rodeo
Three cowboys ready their chaps and saddles with resin before the saddle bronc event

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? Why would anyone want to tangle with this beast?

Cowboy working on his reigns for a rodeo
A bull rider applies resin to his rope before the night’s show

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, this is cowboy country, the region is filled with working ranches and farms. Rodeo is more than a sport; it’s a way of life.

Canadian Rodeo is one of the human sides of a region travelers mostly visit for its topography.

Horse at at the Lethbridge Whoop Up Days rodeo
A handsome grey I befriended. One of the bucking broncos used for the bareback competition

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. Cash prizes total $80,000 CAD (~$60,000 USAD).

Cowboy prays before a rodeo
One of the cowboys takes a moment to pray before the show begins

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.

Cowboys taping up their bodies before a rodeo
The cowboys tape up before they ride to protect previous injuries and lessen the wear and tear on their bodies from the ride

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.”

Cowboys fixing stirrups on their broncos before the rodeo
Cowboys lay across the top of the bucking chutes to tack up their horses

“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.

Gate opening at a rodeo with cowboy and bucking bronco passing through
Chase Erickson as his horse Daily Special charges out of the chute

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.

Bucking bronco and cowboy at a radio
Chase Erickson rides Daily Special to an 85 score to win the bareback event

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 hands 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 figure out whether his chaps will grip the saddle properly.

Who knew?

Cowboy falling off a bucking bronco
A saddle bronc rider gets bucked off his horse

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.

Man runs from bucking bronco at a rodeo
One of the rodeo judges ducks out-of-the-way of a bucking bronco

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.

Bull rider and bucking bull in the ring at a rodeo
A bull rider starts his ride.

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. 

Check out this link for the schedule of rodeos in Alberta.

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Behind the Scenes of a Rodeo and What Makes Cowboys Tick --Backstage at the Lethbridge Bucking and Barrels Rodeo in the Canadian Badlands, Cowboys tell me about the dangers, the highs, and why they love it.

51 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes of a Rodeo and What Makes Canadian Cowboys Tick

  1. PuiuMihailSorin says:

    Nice pics. My father used to like cowboy movies. I’m sure he was pleased to see these if he was alive.

  2. Olivia says:

    This is a great read! I lived out in Alberta for a while and saw a couple of rodeos. I was able to connect with a couple of female bull riders and it was a whole new side to the story. So interesting!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you so much!

      Female bull riders. I would love to meet one. You’re right, that would be an extraordinary new side of the story.

  3. Matt McCarthy says:

    Susan: These shots tell a great story. The photo with the three young cowboys readying their saddles and gear reminds me of Sam Abell’s photographs of his western series: Low angle shots w heads mostly above the horizon. Nicely done. And the bull rider applying resin: his eyes are hidden from us but the intensity of his chin/mouth tells it all. Lastly, I can appreciate the quite moment the cowboy is having as he prays. Well done! And thank you for sharing.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Dear Matt –

      Thank you very very much for your thoughtful commentary and kind words and for taking the time to really look at the photos. I couldn’t ask for more.

  4. Angelyn says:

    Super photographs, as always! Love the article too! I have been to several rodeos and those riders are amazing! I wonder what the average age of a bull
    rider is? Now, I think I’ll go listen to Garth sing about the rodeo….

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you so much. I really appreciate the kind words.

      It’s a really unique experience. I was at a smaller rodeo earlier in the week but I didn’t have access to the cowboys. I’d like to spend some quality time in the future. 🙂

  5. Chris Riley says:

    Like K M Sutton, I think I too have been inspired to attend my first rodeo when next I come across one. That was such an exciting read. Oh and $2000 for 8 seconds work – I think he well and truly earned it…..

  6. Kiki says:

    Love the perspective in pic 3 and the ducking judge one! I was wondering, though – none of those cowboys are wearing those butt hugging jeans that they’re portrayed as wearing in cowboy romance novels 😂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hahaha! I think from a riding perspective they’d like to make sure they can have children afterward! I’m sure they put those tight jeans when they go out. 😉

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