“HE’S got 1700lb of angry black bull under him and he don’t like riders much…” As if he understood the words reverberating around the showground the angry black bull flexed his back, kicked up his rear legs and another dishevelled cowboy found himself face down in the Albertan dust.
The Calgary Stampede may be the most famous rodeo in Canada, but it isn’t the only one. Every weekend during the summer, any number of small towns in the Prairie provinces will be hosting their own rodeo for cowboys and wannabe cowboys to show off their skills.
This particular summer weekend we were in Olds, a small town a few miles off the highway linking Edmonton and Calgary.
The Stampede may be the more dazzling spectacle, but the Mountain View County Fair and Rodeo – “The Biggest Little Fair in the West” – let us get closer to the action. We may not have tried our hands (or backsides) at riding a bucking bronco, but we got within touching distance of those who did.
Having wandered around the showground we found seats in the spectator stands. With the food tents, trade displays and craft exhibitions, the fair reminded me of an agricultural show in Britain. However, instead of the Pony Club Fancy Dress, the rodeo offered us the 1700lb angry black bull and his equally disgruntled cousins, and chuck-wagon racing in place of show-jumping.
Even from a distance, and despite my own discomfort over stories about horses being goaded into bucking by burrs under their saddles, it was hard not to get excited as a cowboy – punching the air – tried to stay on his bronco as it bucked around the arena. Steer roping, in which mounted cowboys pursued calves, lassoed them and brought them down, then dismounted and restrained the calves by wrapping the rope around their feet, was less exciting, but still entertaining.
By the time the bull riding started we had made our way to the edge of the arena. The only protection we had from the huge animals thundering towards us, having just hurled their would-be riders to the ground, was an eight-foot tall fence of metal tubing and chain link.
We strolled around the perimeter of the rink; no one tried to stop us as we went behind the commentary box and into the area where the cowboys and their ‘mounts’ awaited their turns. The massive bulls, spotlessly clean – as if they had been thoroughly groomed for the occasion – paced around small enclosures, their ample muscles rippling beneath their hides. Nearby, the cowboys shifted around in a similar fashion. Some were wrapping surgical tape around their fingers; all wore body protection vests under their homespun-looking waistcoats. Having watched countless Westerns with my John Wayne-fan grandfather, I was surprised to see just how slight some of these cowboys were, and how few were taller than my own 5ft 8in.
The bulls were led from their enclosures and into individual pens – each just big enough for one bull – adjoining the ring. We stood on a platform that ran immediately along the back of the pens, and looked down on the cowboys as they climbed the fences around the pens and lowered themselves onto the backs of their ‘rides’. Each kept a firm hold on the top rail of the pen on each side of them, as this offered their best hope of staying put should the bull become too restless.
We watched one cowboy settle himself on the back of a bull as it displayed its displeasure by kicking the back of the pen. The commentator enthused about the cowboy’s impressive successes at other rodeos and how he would be a tough act for the others to follow. The cowboy gave the signal, the gate of the pen was drawn back and he and the bull burst into the ring.
And in fewer than five seconds, the rider was sprawled on the floor and another cowboy, on a compliant horse, was guiding the bull from the arena.