PONOKA, Alberta, Canada — There are likely few better places to say “This is my first rodeo” than in Ponoka, Alberta, in Canada a few days before the famous Calgary Stampede thrills rodeo-goers from around the world.
Journalists had a chance to start rodeo season in style at the 87th Ponoka Stampede in June. This rodeo welcomes many Calgary Stampede competitors days before the famous rodeo opens its two-week run July 5.
The rodeo visit was part of a tour held in conjunction with the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists World Congress in Canada this year.
“This is a real treat,” Tracey Feist, a rancher and long-time agricultural journalist, told the visitors.
“My dad was a cowboy,” says Feist.
Her grandfather, Johnny Monro, participated in the wild horse race at the Calgary Stampede in 1929 and is the arm-waving, horse-riding star of classic black and white rodeo photos of that era.
“Cowboys get excited about a good bucking horse,” she says.
To kick off this stampede, the Grand Entry Girls ride into the stadium waving flags while riding handsomely saddled horses. The crowd celebrates the 100th birthday of chuck wagon racing in Alberta and cheers the kids’ wild pony racing, Wild Rose trick riding, bucking broncs and bull riding escapades.
The field is competitive with big money offered here. Jim Harbridge, a Ponoka Stampede Association director and active in making the annual event happen, says this one seven-day event offers $1 million in prize money. There is so much money to win, some people call it “Cowboy Christmas,” he says.
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The stampede runs with the help of 800 volunteers and two paid employees, says Harbridge, one of those volunteers and one of the directors of the chuck wagon races as well.
During the week, this small community of about 7,000 welcomes nearly 1,000 competitors.
About 10 stock contractors provide bucking stock, including 250 horses.
The horses are athletes. They are raised to be ideal bucking stock and bred by stock contractors to give the rider “the best chance to win money,” Harbridge says. They are bred for specific kick motions that allow riders to get the most points.
The best rides win the most money, he says. He compares it to horse racing where breeding is also key.
“They nurture the young animals to be the best at what they do,” says Jim Lawrence, who knows about horses and bulls. He was inducted into the Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall in 2019 in honor of his 30-year career.
The Calgary Stampede has a ranch to raise its own bucking horses. He says he thinks if they weren’t bred, this kind of animal might become extinct.
As for bull riders, it is the luck — or not — of the draw all season long, but when it comes to the end of the season, the top riders get to choose the bull they expect they can get the most points riding.
“I can communicate with them — not like Dr. Doolittle,” Lawrence says, explaining why he excelled as a rider. “I rode bulls for 20 years and never broke a bone.”