It’s June 15, and the Friday night rodeo is about to begin. A heavy downpour has turned the outdoor corral into slippery mud, but the competitors aren’t disheartened.
The fans that attend the Innisfail Pro Rodeo at the Daines Ranch are high-spirited and ready for action — small town rodeos are the place to be to get up close to the battle between beasts and men and women.
Seven professional and three novice events are lined up for this evening, including trick riders and stock from the Calgary Stampede and Outlaw Buckers Rodeo Corp.
Dana Daines Smith is a part of the Daines family and for her, their rodeo is a pinnacle event.
“The rodeo started 58 years ago with the Daines family of seven brothers. So they worked hard together to build the arena and then my uncle Jack started being the rodeo producer, and he did it up until 54 years [running] and then my cousins and I started working on it with our uncle,” Smith said.
Competition at the rodeo is high, because if a competitor doesn’t place, he or she doesn’t get paid.
“They put in all this time and effort, and money going down the road, and the only way they take a cheque home is if they win.”
Zeke Thurston is one of the competitors this weekend, participating in team roping and saddle bronc riding. He takes his time getting the bucking horse ready before competition. A large component of his points will come from how hard the horse bucks.
“Things are unpredictable or out of your control like weather, [or] the draw,” says Smith. “Luck of the draw is a big thing in rodeo, so what horse you get, what steers you get [and] what calves you rope.”
The announcers’ note how long Thurston is taking to prepare his horse. “That’s how a champion does it,” they say over the loudspeaker.
Thurston has eight seconds to ride Kesler Championship Rodeo’s 253 Sundance Kid, the horse that will either buck him off for no score or take him to the top. The show isn’t just to see the cowboys compete, but the stock as well.
The thick sludge isn’t stopping this horse from bucking either, and right out of the gate after Thurston nods his head, Sundance Kid is kicking wildly.
Thurston’s experience from countless competitions, including three Calgary Stampede championships and the 2016 National Finals Rodeo (NFR) title are truly showing in the mucky conditions.
He finishes with an 87.5, a score that holds throughout the entire weekend competition and ultimately lands him the victory
After competing, Thurston is back on the road for his next rodeo in Reno, Nevada. Most competitors this weekend will be making their way to other cities as well, generally competing in two or three events every week.
“I think the realism is, it’s a lot of work, it’s not easy going down the road. It’s not easy picking up your family and moving to a different location, or being away from your family,” said Smith.
Making it more difficult for competitors to travel every weekend is that the pay cheque only comes with a win.
“I’d say for me to go to just about a hundred rodeos a year, entry fees, fuel and equipment included, it cost me $55,000 probably. Somewhere around $50-$60,000, ballpark, but that is going to almost a hundred rodeos,” said Thurston.
A cost that’s well worth it to rodeo competitors, even if they do receive a no score after riding.
Cylas Bigchild is a bull rider that was part of the Saturday competition in Innisfail. Every rider was bucked off in his round, making the stock the winning competitors.
“You don’t feel down about it, because if you do you drag that to the next rodeo and then you repeat that so you just shake it off and think positive about it and go on to the next one,” said Bigchild.
Saturday featured better conditions for riding, but the bull riders weren’t holding on.
“I was getting mentally prepared before I got on, but after that gate opened, my mind went blank,” said Bigchild. “You can’t really explain how or what it feels like to get on a bull, but it gets your blood pumping definitely.”
Bigchild is one of the competitors who are staying around Saturday night, celebrating with other riders and friends during the rodeo dance.
“But it depends, if you have nothing else booked for the weekend then you’ll stick around and have a good time. If not, they’re on the road driving all night to the next one, it depends on the weekend.”
For him, rodeo is the only lifestyle. It’s his job, his life and the work he wants to be doing. Although outsiders may not understand it, the community built around rodeo culture is one to be a part of.
“Well they just think we’re all crazy dumb guys getting on and we just do it for shits and giggles, but during the week we actually work out like any other athlete would and you’ve got to prepare yourself mentally and physically before you get on,” said Bigchild. “That’s what most people don’t understand about us, it’s hard work and you’re really going for it with all our injuries.”
“I’d like to see rodeo recognized for the professional sport that it is. There’s a lot of time and effort put into it through sponsorship, through committees, through the rodeo athletes, both the cowboys/cowgirls, but also the stock and the animals,” said Smith.
Smith wants to make sure “there’s top conditions for them to perform their best” when competitors come to the Daines Ranch.
There are four rodeo performances throughout the weekend, including a sheep riding competition for kids as young as three.
Rodeo fan Fonda Devro’s niece, Darren Nelson, is a first-time sheep rider and got to compete today on her fourth birthday.
“We probably go to five rodeos here in central Alberta. The whole family goes, grandma and grandpa are here, mom and dad, and all the kids. It’s just a fun day to hang out with the whole family,” said Devro.
Devro competed herself in sheep riding when she was little, and although her family is from the city, they always find time to go to the smaller rodeos every year.
“The nice thing with rodeo is because it is such a family sport, that there is always new generations coming up in the rodeo. You get to see a lot of that component too,” said Smith.
Barb Hogeland and Sandy Baumgargt have been coming to this event for 34 years, and the Innisfail rodeo is the big hometown event for them.
“Its home, and it’s fabulous. You sit on the hill and look at the view, it’s amazing,” Hogeland said while sitting on the large hill that overlooks the corral and the sunset for the evening performances.
“[It] is our heritage, a way of life. A typical ranch rodeo is the real cowboy way of life,” said Baumgargt.
Most of the cowboys, like Thurston and Bigchild, trained at home on the ranch growing up. Their skills are used in competition and to work the ranches.
“They think it’s a show, city people, they do not exactly realize that it is a way of life. The city people think it’s cruel for the most part. Cruelty to animals all the time. It’s a different perspective,” said Baumgargt.
But for Brad Johnson and his group of friends that have been attending the Innisfail rodeo for 10 years, they know the animals are very well looked after.
“When the young grandkids help out, the animals realize what they have on their back, and recognize the lightness, the importance and the care of the child,” said Johnson.
Just as the riders train for competition, the bucking stock spend many years learning the proper technique and form.
“The bucking stock compete less than three minutes in their year of rodeo,” Johnson explained.
Whether it’s heavy rain or sunshine out in the small towns, the comradery of the competitors, and the closeness of the action, you’re not going to see this side of a rodeo at the Stampede.
“It’s a hell of a time and it’s a good way to make a living, but there’s very few of us so they say we’re a dying breed but that makes me feel a lot more special when they say that,” said Bigchild.
The cowboy market
When Chung Mah’s father opened Wei’s Western Wear Store 60 years ago, he saw an opportunity to reach an untapped market.
Wei Mah landed in Red Deer as a cobbler, and the rural farming town gave him the chance to create his own store.
“He thought that when he was repairing them that a lot of them didn’t look too great,” said Mah. “So he thought that there could be better value out there, and started with some boots.”
Taking over from his father, Mah now sells piles of different jeans, shirts and a number of cowboy boots.Their second location holds more tack options.
The family has been dressing the rural community and cowboys competitors for decades. Their main business is still from the rural and agricultural community, and local regulars are big supporters.
The store will also sponsor rodeo competitors. “We’ll do them, [when] we think that they’re kind of worthy and they’ll represent us well.”
But Mah noticed everyone was very brand loyal in what they wore.
“Everybody's got their own preferences. Whether its fit, style, or what not, so it’s like cars, whether you’re a Ford person or a Chevrolet person, whatever you think is right for you or looks good on you, or is reliable.”
The competitors he sees come in stick to what makes them feel comfortable and confident. Mah said he believes if you feel good, then you’ll perform better.
“Then you’ll feel more confident and that's the same for everybody. They like the fit and the way they’re looking, maybe the confident seeps into them.”
You can check out Wei’s store in at 5115 50th Ave. in Red Deer, or at www.weiswesternwear.com.
- By Casey Richardson