The airport at Williams Lake is the sort that apologises for being there. It’s a straightforward, humble affair with a waiting room the size of a doctor’s surgery and a runway reached by sole of foot on tarmac.
It’s humble perhaps because it knows that passengers have just had the flight of their lives, soaring over the snow-crusted ravines and plunging deep green of the British Columbia highway that runs from Vancouver to here along the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast.
The Williams Lake Stampede, BC
Across the road from the airport, a giant welcome sign stands in the shape of an enormous hat.
A plastic hat.
A cowboy hat. Perched at a cheery, jaunty angle.
Moments later, a different hat slides into view. It bears the same shape but is substantially smaller and sits atop a crown of brilliantly buoyant red hair.
This hat belongs to Patti, my “interpreter” for the next few days.
MY FIRST RODEO
I don’t know how I should phrase the opposite of “this ain’t my first rodeo.” My blunt British accent sounds ridiculous with any kind of drawl.
But it is my first time. And the hat is my first real surprise of the many that would follow as I entered this athletic, disciplined, principled world.
MORNING AT THE STAMPEDE
Patti drives me past the bleachers, pulling in to a grass car park filled with trailers and caravans larger than the brick and mortar place I call home.
The snuffle and scuffling sound of horses fills the air, floating with the fizz and sizzle of a Canadian pancake breakfast and the expectant taste of syrup. Sweet, slick-flowing maple syrup. The syrup that makes getting up in the morning more than worthwhile.
Denim jeans and plaid shirts swarm around as we pick up our programmes.
From the top of the bleachers, the view is of hats.
For we are in Williams Lake. And the Stampede is in town.
Until today, all I knew of rodeo came from a hazy memory of Brokeback Mountain, a point I rather wish I’d kept to myself.
It’s not often (alright, not that often) I find myself in a situation where I have so little idea of what is going on. Despite the many shared characteristics between Canada and Britain overall, without Patti, I’d be lost.
The bell rings, the gate slams open and we’re off.
The bell rings, the gate slams open and we’re off.
Dust, sweat and incredible courage fire out into the stands as horses buck, lassos swirl, bulls charge and grown men fly through the air like projectile rag dolls.
I have, quite literally, quite staggeringly, never seen anything like it before.
From time to time, something more elegant appears. A pause, a glance, a glide between the raw, rugged mayhem. But whatever it is, it doesn’t last long.
At least, that was my first impression.
And it was completely and utterly wrong.
Rodeos are strictly timed, strictly regulated procedures, consisting of a fixed pattern of events that must be completed within a regulated timeframe.
This should, I suppose, come as no surprise, but it does. Rugby matches have rules and fixed times. So, too, do boxing rings.
I think it’s because I’d fallen into the trap of seeing the rodeo as something of a circus stunt or a battle for survival rather than the athletic endeavour that it actually truly is.
The Bucking Bronco
For example, on the bucking bronco, the idea isn’t simply to stay on the horse. The idea is to move in time with the horse, while it bucks in the buckiest way possible.
There’s half a mark for the rider; half for the horse.
And there’s no special prize for still being on when that buzzer sounds: it’s essential, an entry requirement not the final flourish of a job well done.
The cowboys speak slow but move fast and it’s not just their conduct towards their colleagues that the judges are watching.
One harsh move towards an animal, and the athlete is banned, full stop.
Bronc Riders at the Rodeo: Scroll on Down for a Transcript of this Video
To be fair, I hadn’t heard many of these before I arrived. Once I started tweeting, I heard them thick and fast.
- Animals are beaten to perform
- Bulls have barbed wire tied around their balls
- Animals die here as a matter of routine
So let’s clear a few things up: those are all completely false.
Behind the Scenes at the Canada Rodeo
I took the chance to go on a behind the scenes tour (which most rodeos offer) where you can see the animals and their handlers up close and feel the equipment they use in the palm of your own hands. Blunt metal skims across skin and spongy white fleece feels soft to the touch.
I also went a stage or two further and interviewed different athletes, handlers, volunteers and stock contractors. You can see a sample of these chats peppered throughout this piece.
These are not just farm animals rounded up on the day. They are bred to buck. Or bred to be fast.
And most interesting of all, the animal’s owner only makes money when the animal competes; the industry is rigged to make sure that it’s in the owner’s financial interests for the animals to live long, healthy and productive lives.
If only our human businesses could be designed that way.
CANADA RODEO: AN INTRODUCTION TO STEER WRESTLING
Scroll down for a transcript
What’s more, rodeo rules insist that vets check the animals frequently throughout the event to ensure they are not distressed.
There is no such provision for the athletes.
So does that mean that I have no animal rights concerns?
Not entirely. You know me. Think too long about anything (as I usually do) and I can see more sides, issues and counter-arguments than a kaleidoscope spinning with speed.
I eat meat. I wear leather. I drink milk (well, at least I did until I got sick.)
These rodeo animals live far better lives than those that went into my dinner. And, I’d wager, a great deal better than many humans get, including those in our armed and emergency services. These events, apart from the bull riding, give an insight into how we all once depended on this blend of courage and craziness to survive – and in many instances, still do.
So. It leaves me thinking.
And remembering that these are some of the most polite, kind and welcoming people I’ve met on earth.
Canada Rodeo: Team Spirit
There’s a core team spirit here, and given the stakes, there has to be. The rodeo clown and bullfighters keep the athletes safe. The pick-up cowboys (true expression) pick up cowboys on horseback at the end of each round. Volunteers help man the chutes. Vets check the animals.
And, because this is Canada, many hands make maple syrup and pancakes.
Because the rodeo is in town.
[thrive_custom_box title=”TRANSCRIPT FROM INTERVIEW WITH CLAYTON MOORE – STEER WRESTLER” style=”dark” type=”color” color=”#e0e0e0″ border=””]
Clayton Moore: I’m a steer wrestler and what that is, is there are two cowboys, two horses and one steer. I come out of the left hand box and my horse is trained to ride by the steer. I get off on to the steer, grab them by the horns and throw them down. Once all four feet are pointed in the same direction on the ground, the flagger drops the flag and that is your time.
Abigail King: So, is it correct to say that you throw yourself off a perfectly good horse at full speed?
Clayton Moore: Yep, a lot of people say it that way. Yep, you bet.
Abigail King: Does it hurt?
Clayton Moore: It can sometimes. I’ve had a lot of bumps and bruises. Tore a knee up and tore my pec off and lots of other smaller injuries.
Abigail King: So, why do you do it?
Clayton Moore: I grew up in a rodeo family. Love doing it and done it for my whole life and probably give another 3 or 4 more years.
Abigail King: How long does it take to train to do this?
Clayton Moore: I started steer wrestling when I was about sixteenbut some kids start little bit earlier. I grew up riding steers, junior bulls and roping. I used to rope calfs a lot but pretty much now it’s steer wrestling. Yea, I just kind of grown up around it and always been a part of it.
Abigail King: Think you can train me to do it?
Clayton Moore: I don’t know.
Abigail King: well, that’s a no isn’t it (laughter). That’s a very nice polite no. So, how did you get on today?
Clayton Moore: Well, I ended up 3rd today. I won a pretty good cheque and we just come up from Reno a couple days ago. We won a really good check down there.
Abigail King: You have a pretty busy schedule.
Clayton Moore: Yeah, I’ll be at a different rodeo every day. For almost the next thirty days, I think.
Abigail King: Wow, Thank you of your time.
Clayton Moore: Thank you.
[thrive_custom_box title=”Transcript from the Interview with Sam Kelts – Bronc Rider” style=”dark” type=”color” color=”#efefef” border=””]
Sam Kelts: I’m Sam Kelts, I’m a professional saddle bronc rider and we’re in Williams Lake, B.C. here. It’s one of the big fourth of July rodeos for Cowboy Christmas.
This time of year is very busy for us. We’ll be doing at least one rodeo a day sometimes two. We’ll travel anywhere from south Texas to northern Alberta.
The basics of bronc riding is you spring your horse out and you’re driving your feet up off it’s neck which gives the horse an advantage at the start. And then staying on and making the best spur ride you can. Half the mark comes from your horse. So, fifty points on how hard your horse bucks and 50 points on how well you ride your horse
You call the bronc riding a classic event of rodeo because its kind of how rodeo started. It was the ranch cowboys braking colts and it turned into a contest from there.
Abigail King: What’s the best part?
Laughs. Beats having a real job.
Abigail King: What’s the worst part?
Sam Kelts: Oh , probably all the driving. We spend… we go to hundred or a little more than hundred rodeos a year. Usually driving hundred thousand miles a year or so.
This is my bronc saddle. It’s very similar to a regular saddle but the main difference is there is no horn – for safety reasons! Instead of stirrups hanging straight down they are tied up so that helps keep stirrups up. Next big piece of equipment is a bronc rein, it’s just a braided rein. You tie it to the halter and put out on the head of your horse and this is what we hang on with. The bronc riding boots are basically just regular cowboy boot. Shortest spur in bronc riding than a lot of the other events, just a dull round spur. These things here are chaps, just for protecting our legs in the chutes and against the saddle. A protective vest. It’s just got some dense foam in it. It’s not bullet proof by any means but it helps save maybe some broken ribs and scrapes and scuffs. It’s a rough event and a guy usually gets in a ruck or two every year but hopefully not too often.
[thrive_custom_box title=”Transcript from the Introduction to Rodeo Video” style=”dark” type=”color” color=”#d8d8d8″ border=””]
Roy Call, Stock Contractor: The way the rough stock events work is the horse or the bull are worth 50 percent of the hundred points. So each judge has 50 points. So 25 points are for the horse and 25 points are for the rider.
Basically, we’re looking for horses in the bronc riding that are going to kick over their head and really buck hard and give the cowboy a chance to spur and compose themselves and try to show how good they are under control. He cannot touch his horse, he cannot touch his rigging. He cannot touch himself, that is a disqualification.
The bull riding is the same as horse riding, fifty percent of the score out of the hundred. We are not looking for timing or procedure with them. We are looking for real challenging, buck hard, change directions, and be hard to ride. We are looking for bulls who spin, bulls that jump out and go back the other way and that is what we are looking for.
Mars & Venus
The way we like to see it is that horses and bulls are two very different types of animals. Horses are smart, social animals and I like to think of them as more the feminine female type. Bulls are not so social, not so smart. They’re basically teenage boys that think about a couple of things at a time…very few of them are productive and they’re hard to be around.
There’s no real fancy stuff, there’s not a lot of tricks to it. You have to be able to work in rain and hundred degrees and so it has to be simple.
Basically, the halter that we use on the broncs goes across the horse’s head and is adjustable around the back. A lot are adjustable under the nose to cover the nose band. As you can see the nose band is covered with sheep skin and it is so soft so it won’t hurt them across the nose.
The other one you are going to hear lots about is the horse flank. We put it on the horse, it goes just behind the curve of its belly and in front of its back legs. Others actually have a better name for it: they call it the kicker. If you don’t put a kicker on a horse, the horse is still going to buck but he’s going to kick towards the front where he can feel the contestant’s spurs or front cinch. So putting a flank on the horses back end, you encourage the horse to kick backwards opposed to forwards and makes better timing. It is sheep skinned lined, it moves side to side and the sheep skin moves all over the place it is not stuck into the body because it slows them down. You want just to tickle them and make them stretch out.
Abigail King: How long would I last on a bull?
Roy Call: Oh, I don’t think you last very long on a bull. You’d look great for a while and maybe get your picture taken and get off before the gate opens. It’s really tough on the body.
Disclosure: I visited Williams Lake as a guest of Destination BC and Destination Canada as part of the Must Love Festivals project that seeks and scours out unusual festivals around the world. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, there’s just no point in this fine world of ours.
More on Travel in Canada
Check out this article on cool and unusual things to do in Vancouver here.