Damned Old Rodeo

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 rodeo in Alberta SouthWest.

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Despite country music's recurring lament of "damned old rodeo", the circuit attracts exceptional human and equestrian talent and enthusiastic, well-mannered fans who follow the professional circuit from early spring to late fall.

Local rodeos 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 neighbours 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 perimeter of an arena with one hand lightly on the reins and the other waving to an admiring crowd of family and friends.

Horses Show Sportsmanship

In quiet contrast to the behaviour of some urban sports crowds, rodeo spectators are a reserved and respectful community. The hats tell the story: Old-time ranchers in their straw summer Stetsons, townsfolk in baseball caps, and Hutterite colony girls in pioneer bonnets. The crowd 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. 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 simply enjoyed 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. Good sports, bucking broncs take great care to avoid stomping a tumbled adversary.

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.


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