Reflecting on Rodeo at the Calgary Stampede


My daughter and I had the opportunity last weekend to see the famous Calgary Stampede. We were here on professional business, had time off, and reckoned that if you're in Calgary during the Stampede, you'd regret it if you didn't see what is billed as "the greatest outdoor show on earth," and is widely recognized as one of the handful of greatest rodeos in North America.

We bought our tickets online, made our way to the stadium using public transport, and zipped through an electronic kiosk with the greatest of ease. The seats were well marked and comfortable, with good sight lines to the big arena. Because it was Canada, everyone behaved with a kind of civility we haven't seen in American life for decades. In the row behind us, a man and his young son had taken the wrong seats (wrong section). When this was politely pointed out to them by the rightful occupants, there was no dispute of any sort. Everyone apologized to everyone else for a while, all around, and then the father and son edged their way through twenty sitting patrons to the aisle without experiencing a single sigh or glare. Oh Canada.

The arena was flawlessly groomed, the shoots freshly painted in white, with red trim, all the signage professional and tasteful, and every reach of the entire facility, from the restrooms to the furthest reaches of the stands, spotlessly clean.

Calgary really knows how to host a show.

The Calgary Stampede is an invitation-only rodeo. That means that only the best riders in North America participate, which makes for breathtaking but rather predictable rides. The overwhelming majority of bareback and saddle bronc riders stayed on their horses, and well more than half of the bull riders held on for the full eight seconds. The lowest percentages we saw were in tie-down roping and steer wrestling. It's fun to watch that level of professional ability, and to speculate on what it takes for a 20-year-old kid to get that good at riding a large dangerous animal bent on throwing him to the ground and maybe stomping on him too. How many times have you been bucked off bulls in small rural arenas before you learn to stay on more than half the time?

The announcers, some of them famous on the rodeo circuit, kept us informed about who was coming off reconstruction knee surgery, who had to sit out last year after three consecutive concussions, and who got "all tore up" in Las Vegas last year when the clown and bullfighters could not distract some legendary bull from his wrath. The winning barrel racer explained that she now wears a helmet after a fall that required five reconstructive facial surgeries. About one out of four bronc riders lurch-limped out of the arena in excruciating pain, not because they were hurt in today's ride, but because they got "stove up" a week ago somewhere else and determined not to let that slow them down. When the announcers cheerfully explain each rider's recent chapter of grave injuries, from dislocated shoulders to groin pulls, it makes you wonder if these are heroes of the Old West or people lacking in the most rudimentary good sense.

Rodeo had its origins in actual ranch life, often during the spring or fall roundup, when the gathered cowboys would take turns during leisure hours trying to ride unbroken horses or show off their roping and tying skills. That's what I like most about rodeo. It develops and showcases skills that were once, and to a certain extent still are, essential in ranch life. From up in the stands, it is easy to take the skill level for granted, especially in an all-star rodeo like the Calgary Stampede where North American champions make everything look so easy. But when you get down to arena level and observe the actual relationships between man or woman and horse more closely, you begin to feel how the strange, powerful, almost mystical connection works. It is a cliché to call a great rodeo rider a "centaur," the half man, half horse figure from Greek mythology, but there is something to it. The horses are magnificent to watch in action, backing gracefully to their marks, responding to the slightest nudge of a knee, stopping on a dime to let the cowboy jump down to tie three legs of a terrified, squalling calf, or leaning almost prone to the ground around a barrel with only a few inches to spare.

The minute you spend time at a rodeo you realize what a remarkable subculture it is. I generalize but this is what you tend to find: seriously Christian, intensely patriotic, grounded in the best rural values of decency, discipline, hard work, neighborliness, and grit. Country music in every boom box and ear bud. Corny but generous announcers who specialize in "western grammar," who tend at some point during the rodeo edge up towards a hint of sexual or racial stereotyping, but who console the losers and remind the winners that just a week ago in Saskatoon they were thrown headlong into the dust.

My daughter and I drove through the rodeo grounds at Bowman, ND, in early June during the state high school rodeo competition. We threaded our puny Honda civic through a sea of fifth wheel horse-campers the size of Rhode Island, pulled by pickups that you have to use a ladder to get in. Each one had a couple of beautiful horses tied up by its side. There were patios and pullouts and giant gas grills and flags of every sort and tiki lights and deck chairs and racks of cowboy boots and hats that made it feel like an outdoor sales event. It is not an exaggeration to say that some of these rodeo families have more invested in their rodeo rigs than I have in my home, and these are just the amateurs, ranch families working to provide their kids with wholesome recreational opportunities and hold up one of America's great traditions.

We loved the Calgary Stampede, but the truth is that three weeks ago we went to a small rural rodeo in the boondocks of North Dakota, ($6 bucks, "no returns"), and had a much better time. The riders fell off well more than half the time. Almost no team managed to rope a calf at both ends successfully. The announcer dreamed of being famous but he's not likely to quit his day job anytime soon. In the uncomfortable bleachers (no luxury boxes, no jumbotron) neighbors chatted in that familiar friendly way and shred out food. There were no urban wannabees in gleaming new cowboy hats and worn-for-the-first-time cowboy boots scouring their official programs trying to figure out the rules.

The Cowboy Prayer chokes me up every time because it is so perfectly corny, so steeped in romance and faith and Americana. The Calgary Stampede is too slick, professional, efficient to be an authentic expression of rural life, the riders are too masterful, and there aren't enough pint-sized kids bouncing around the arena on giant horses. The rodeo queen and princesses at the Calgary Stampede seem to come from central casting, not last year's prom.

What makes rural culture great is its earnest amateurism, real people doing remarkable things with heart and cheerful imperfection. It has to be just a little clunky to be fully life affirming, and fully authentic. That's what makes you smile and believe again.