Calgary's Stampede may be the biggest cowboy show on earth, but if you want to really see, hear and share in the West's attachment to the extraordinary quarter horse, its gracious ranching society, and its young people's raw athletic courage, try to catch a local professional rodeo.
Rodeos are controversial for their treatment of animals even in the ranching and farming communities where they are woven tightly into the social and economic fabric. Opinions range from uncritical love of the celebration of cowboy skills to dismissal of rodeo as disrespectful for animal life and dangerous for all participants, man as well as beast. Nuanced points of view tend to accept horse-back events but reject steer wrestling (a purely rodeo event unrelated to real-life ranching) and calf roping as abusive to docile and defensive young creatures.
Witnessing a rodeo close up, and talking with the riders and stockmen, is perhaps the best way to shape an informed understanding. One fact that becomes quickly obvious is that the men and women competitors place themselves at substantially more personal risk than they ask of their animals.
Local rodeos, such as Pincher Creek, Alberta’s mid-August event where the accompanying images were captured, match local ranch men and women against stars of the professional rodeo circuit. A handsome local Blackfoot man might not be quite as adept at upending a young steer as the touring pros, but he earns the warmest applause from his neighbors nonetheless.
And Miss Rodeo is no beauty-contest bimbo. She is necessarily a highly accomplished equestrian who can power a half-ton horse at high speed around the perimiter of an arena with one hand lightly on the reins and the other waving to an admiring crowd of family and friends.
In quiet contrast to the behaviour of some urban sports crowds, rodeo spectators are a well-mannered community. The hats tell the story: Old-time ranchers in their summer straw Stetsons, townsfolk in baseball caps, and Hutterite colony girls in pioneer bonnets. The crowd even occasionally manages a polite laugh at the corny jokes of the event announcer and the antics of the rodeo clown.
Horse lovers will marvel at the power, agility, intelligence and fine temperament of the show's greatest stars, the precisely trained and pampered cowboy quarter horses. These animals are treated with the utmost care and pride, without the physical and pharmaceutical stresses routinely endured by racehorses. Rodeo horses often continue to perform at their peak well into their twenties, twice the maximum for racehorses.
Bucking broncs are not at all wild and rebellious stallions. They are often former saddle horses who learned to like tossing their riders and might otherwise be marked for slaughter. These reprieved saddle horses find new and long careers being well fed and pastured for doing what they seem to enjoy, with excellent prospects of coming out the winner. Bucking broncs take great care to avoid stomping a tumbled adversary.
Some animal welfare advocates do object to the cinching of bucking straps around the horses abdomen to encourage high-kicks. These inducements are immediately removed by the skillful mounted "pick-up men" who dismount riders and guide the broncs out of the arena.
More contentious are the events involving the riding, roping or wrestling of young steers—banned by some states but common elsewhere. Injuries to the animals are infrequent but do occur. Unlike the victims of bullfighting, rodeo steers survive to scrap another day with the horses and cowboys. Most work a full season before joining the food chain.
Rodeo is a complex and enduring fact of Western life that deserves serious ethical thought, by all sides. Attending at least one small-town event, with a critical but open mind, may help contribute to an eventual reconciliation of legitimate and honourable cowboy culture with broad social concern for animal welfare.
Professional rodeos in the greater Crown of the Continent region take place in Alberta (Lethbridge, Crowsnest Pass, Stavely, High River, Pincher Creek, and Okotoks), in British Columbia (Cranbrook), and Montana (Great Falls, Polson, Augusta, Helena, Libby, Kalispell).