A bucking good time

Wayne Knight didn’t win the chuck wagon race at this year’s Calgary Stampede. In fact, he didn’t even make the cut for the final of the ‘half mile of hell’. But winning isn’t his main reason for racing: Wayne’s real passion is reserved for his horses. He has saved many of them from the knacker’s yard and patiently nursed them back to health, restoring their psychological equilibrium, which often results in a ‘second career’ as champions on the rodeo circuit.

We meet Wayne backstage at the 2009 Calgary Stampede as part of the Cowboy High-style tour package, which offers the ultimate behind-the-scenes experience of riders, performers and the army of volunteers who combine to create the biggest rodeo in the world. The Stampede originated with the informal races which ranchers used to hold on a Friday night, showing off their skills at bull riding, bareback riding and roping steers.

The chuck wagon racing began when the cooks who drove the provisions wagons held a competition to see who was fastest at packing camp, racing a wagon drawn by four horses, then setting up camp and getting a fire going at the next destination. Nowadays safety reigns supreme and the tent poles are plastic, as is the barrel which represents the stove. All items need to be thrown (accurately) into the wagon at the beginning of the race before the wagon, horses and four outriders charge off around the arena.

The Calgary Stampede is now a 10-day multi-media extravaganza offering thrills, spills, laughter, tears, shock and awe aplenty to daily crowds of more than 100,000 riders, dancers, cowboys, bachelorettes, mums, dads, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, waiters, stall holders, exhibitors, TV anchors and other attendees.

I could wax lyrical about the china blue July skies and late night Alberta sunshine, but why lie? This year is a wild, wet and windy affair, with sheets of rain dumping two-and-a-half inches of water on the main arena in just 45 minutes. The Stampede ‘royalty’ – various beauty queens and fundraisers from around the world – are invited to take the stage in this drenching downpour. Hairstyles disintegrate, mascara streams, but smiles are bravely fixed as a huge crowd cheers and whistles.

Nothing, but nothing, stops for the rain. Not the bull clown who perform handstands in rusty-coloured puddles, nor the bareback riders on horses slithering sideways, nor the bull riders clinging for dear life during the longest eight seconds in the world. Nor, indeed, the hundreds of volunteers checking, selling, stamping, shepherding, announcing, greeting, healing and consoling.

The show, it seems, will always go on.

Our Cowboy High-style pass allows holders access both to the chuck wagon stables and drivers and the bucking chutes. At the chutes, we share an insider’s view of the cowboys being placed on the bulls, before the gate is pulled open and the bull takes off into the main arena with one intention – to get that man off his back. The contrary aim of the cowboy is to stay on for the eight seconds. Performances are adjudicated by two judges who award points both for riding style and how ‘rank’ the bull is – the ranker the bull, the higher the potential points. Our knowledge of the finer details of this rough-and-ready skill has been gained during a visit to Joe Messina’s

Fantasy Adventure Bull Riding (FABR) ranch. Joe, originally from Burra, New South Wales, started bull riding at 15 before leaving home to try his hand at rodeos in America and Canada. After 16 years in the saddle, he decided that whilst bull riding is a younger man’s game, spectators deserve a chance to feel the adrenalin associated with this elite sport.

The fantasy experience includes a turn on the mechanical bull, but the true highlight is Joe’s careful explanation of the key techniques for staying on – before you are assisted into the chute and onto the back of one of his 900 kilogram animals. Mine is a fairly resigned beast, but a quick hop on and off still gives me bragging rights with my (yet-to-be-born) grandchildren that I have, indeed, ridden a bull. Others in our group are far braver, particularly Amy, whom Joe places on a ‘juiced up’ beast that bucks violently, requiring Amy’s immediate extrication!

There are six major events at the Calgary Stampede: bareback bull riding, barrel racing, saddle bronc, steer wrestling and tie-down roping. There are novice events for those who are less experienced, including the very junior competitors who show their courage in the wild pony racing.

Two days at the Stampede allow us to enjoy all these events as well as the fun of the fairground, agricultural show and Nashville North, a huge barn with a bar, live performers and hundreds of cowgirls and cowboys doffing hats and falling in love during the two-step.

The total prize purse for events held during the 10 days is a hefty CAN$2 million. There are winners and losers every day, but it really doesn’t seem to be about the money. For the 2000 volunteers, it’s a chance to leave their day jobs and join the biggest party in town, reconnecting with rural skills and activities which drive the nation. For the competitors, it’s an opportunity to compete with the best in the world, meet old friends and make some new ones.

And for seasoned chuck wagon hands like Wayne, it’s a way of life, an opportunity to hone his skills and, most of all, a reason to spend even more time around his beloved horses.

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Calgary Stampede accommodation books out early, so plan now for next year. The dates for 2010 are 9–18 July.
Web www.calgarystampede.com

At $3500 for the day, Cowboy High-style is a very ritzy way to enjoy the action. Price includes a white Smithbilt hat, Alberta boots, access to all the behind-the-scenes action and fabulous dining and premium seating in the Lazy S.
Ph 1800 2610 1010
Email {encode=”[email protected]” title=”[email protected]”}

Create your own tall tales to take home with a visit to Fantasy Adventure Bull Riding.
Web www.fantasyadventurebullriding.com

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