THE bullriders at Calgary’s Stampede have just a few seconds to make their mark at the Canadian celebration of cowboy culture, where impressive feats of skill and bravery are a minimum entry requirement
The young man in front of us adjusts the straps on his chest guard, fiddles with his neck brace and checks his helmet is firmly fixed to his head. He straddles the fence between him and 1,700lbs of raging bull.
The animal, eyes gleaming, the muscles down its back rippling, snorts and moves. The cowboy is surrounded by handlers in the chute. He straddles the bull and binds one hand to the belt which goes around the bull’s immense girth. His arm braces, sinews popping, the other arm in the air. He takes a deep breath, nods to the handlers and the gate holding the bull opens.
His job is to hang on for eight seconds. If he does he might win CAN$5,000 (£2,590) for his trouble and go through to the grand finals at the weekend with a shot at $100,000 (£51,800). Fall off, with the risk of getting kicked, or gored (the points of the horns may be filed down but they still look like they could cause substantial damage) and it’s time to go home, with nothing but the modest appearance fee.
Our guide on the Chute Tour, a backstage peek into the workings of the rodeo, where cowboy hats are compulsory – for the benefit of the TV pictures – says bull riding is the most dangerous of all the rodeo disciplines, which include roping a calf, bareback riding and steer wrestling for the men and barrel racing – a high speed charge on a horse around a tight obstacle course of barrels – for the women.
“It’s a young man’s game,” he drawls. “Not many last more than three or four years on the circuit,” he says of the bullriders, the best of whom can win more than $200,000 a season.
Up close, the power of the bull is terrifying. It pitches and bucks, head shaking in rage. Our brave, or is that foolhardy, cowboy lasts less than three seconds. As soon as he hits the dirt of the arena, three men waiting at the apron jump in to keep the bull away and if necessary drag the cowboy into the wings. He is able to pick himself up and dash to safety, with only his pride bruised.
Once he is over the fence and the huge video screens have revisited his short moment in the sun, another gate opens, another bull charges and another kid from a ranch in Wyoming, Texas, Alberta or even Argentina takes their chances.
Welcome to Calgary’s Stampede, a 10 day celebration in July when the oil town in Alberta, Canada, reconnects with its cowboy heritage and parties – hard. In a city where it can dip below freezing anytime between September and May thanks to it being almost 3,500ft above sea level, the short glorious summer is to be seized and treasured.
Throughout the city every bar is dressed for Stampede. Bales of hay edge the pavement by one. Happy hour deals and live music at another. Stetsons and cowboy boots are worn throughout the city, not just at the huge showground where the event takes place. During Stampede, it is acceptable office attire.
At the purpose-built showground, there is much else besides the rodeo. A huge fun fair has set up camp. You can buy individual tickets for rides or a day pass for CAN$50 (£25.90), the latter something of an annual treat for the city’s teenagers. Alongside the shrieks of thrill seekers, wafts the scent of sickly sweet donuts, corndogs and deep fried everything from the food stalls. There is also an agricultural show, where prize livestock are displayed – Royal Highland Show-style – but instead of stands selling Barbours and tweed, Western apparel outfitters offer everything a cowboy or girl might want in jeans, check shirts and hats. Our white cowboy hats have a red string around the middle. A sign to all in the know that we are Stampede virgins.
From our seats in the huge grandstand, which has corporate boxes as well as vendors patrolling the aisles selling drinks and snacks, we watch the show. Calf roping, where the cowboy lassoes a calf from his horse, then flings it to the floor and secures its feet in a few seconds seems – at least to these urban Brits – pretty rough on the calf, but they all get up and trot off, or evade the lasso in the first place. The skills on display are impressive though, with the horses trained to stay still to prevent the calf getting any further away.
The bareback riding is spectacular. The horses, like the bulls, come from Stampede’s own 20,000 acre ranch. Bred for their bucking ability, they roam free for the rest of the year. The riders draw lots to see which horse they will be paired with. Points are awarded for the bucking of the horse and the style of the cowboy who must try to move in time with the animal beneath him. Too placid a horse and it and he won’t get enough points. Too wild and he will be pitched off before the time is up. Outriders are on hand and in the event of a fall, they swoop in to keep the horse and rodeo rider apart. If they stay on for the duration, the cowboy hops on to the back of an outrider’s horse to get away.
In between the main events, there are displays of junior rodeo, where teams of three or four children, some of whom don’t look much older than eight or nine, try to lasso and wrestle a calf to the floor. A girl of about five on a tiny pony successfully rounds up some sheep. The Calgary Stampede Showband, made up of young musicians from Alberta, plays. The adverts on the video screen tend to be for jeans or trucks and mainly the latter, for this is the land of the enormous 4x4. Petrol costs around 80 cents a litre (41p).
When the last horse has been ridden for the afternoon show, we exit the arena and go to the fairground and take a sky train – a cable car over the site – and find a corner for some food, a few fairground rides and a relax. We have a few hours before the evening Chuckwagon racing and the Grandstand Show.
It’s a fun, if slightly bewildering set of races, where lightweight wagons with four horses apiece race around a track, but not before an outrider has put a stove in the back and the wagon has gone round a set of barrels in a figure of eight. It is rooted in Canada’s pioneer days and represents the breaking up of a camp. There’s something of Ben Hur about it as they career around the track, dirt spraying. After the finish line, the judges add seconds for various infringements, which are impossible to work out to the untrained eye, and announce a winner.
The Grandstand Show marks the finalé of the day, a high budget song and dance event which has a lavish set, design and is as Canadian as maple syrup. It’s really a show celebrating Canada for Canadians, featuring elements such as a singalong to Stompin’ Tom Connors’ The Good Old Hockey Game, a sketch and song with children dressed as Mounties and even a family being granted Canadian citizenship, complete with town hall official overseeing the oath of allegiance. It concludes with a big fireworks display. At Stampede, they want the day to end not with a whimper, but a bang.
• Stampede 2016 runs 8-17 July (www.calgarystampede.com). Will Slater travelled with Canadian Affair (0141-223 7515, www.canadianaffair.com) the UK’s leading tour operator to Canada, specialising in tailor made holidays. Direct flights from Manchester and London Gatwick to Calgary with Air Transat operate from May to October. Direct flights are available from Glasgow to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Return flights to Calgary in early July cost £487pp. A double room at The Sofitel Hotel at London Gatwick costs from £111.20 per night with Airport Parking and Hotels (www.aph.com/hotels/gatwick_airport). Destination Canada (www.destinationcanada.com) and Travel Alberta (www.travelalberta.co.uk).