“The horn, and they’rrrre off!” The voice of the track announcer booms as four teams of horses, wagons, and cowboys weave a figure-eight through their barrels and accelerate onto the race track. Wagons weave and fishtail in the mud, trying to emerge from the bottleneck with the inside lane. Wheel to wheel, nose to nose, the four drivers whip the reins, bouncing on the precipice of disaster, perched on their wooden benches, screaming like banshees to incite their teams. The race is a half mile of thundering hooves and flying mud, a little over a minute of heart pounding, lightning fast, old west excitement.
The Calgary Stampede is a 10-day celebration of the heritage that built Western Canada. In the 97 years since it began, much about “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” has changed. The fair ground attracts millions of visitors looking to sample the famous mini donuts, touch the sky in the Ejection Seat, win a prize at any of the hundreds of game booths, get hypnotized live on stage, or party the night away at the massive live stage/ beer tent, Nashville North. The city becomes a metropolitan corporate sponsor. Companies host swanky private parties or down home stampede breakfasts, complete with live country music and all the pancakes and sausage links you can eat. The most cosmopolitan Calgarians become cowboys for 10 days, whether they splurge on a $300 dollar cowboy hat or opt for a free straw hat handed out on the grounds, at the airport, and around the city.
The one constant at the centre of the Stampede since 1912 is the world’s richest rodeo. Each day, cowboys from the surrounding area, and from as far away as Brazil and Australia compete against animals and each other for a cut of the nearly $3 million in prize money. On top of receiving day money for the best performances of each day, the overall winner of each event on the final day is rewarded with $100,o00. The prize money has grown over the years to become the biggest purse in rodeo. The world’s best steer wrestlers, barrel racers, calf ropers, saddle bronc, bareback, and bull riders, and chuckwagon racers put their bodies on the line to win the big one in front of a frenzied crowd of incredulous onlookers.
With all the modern glitz that goes into hosting the Calgary Stampede, it can be difficult to truly experience the cowboy culture that is being celebrated. This city and it’s surrounding area were built by western pioneers arriving in the area by wagon, and later by train, and establishing farms and ranches. While Calgary has grown to more than 1 million people, ranching and farming remain a way of life in rural Alberta. Spectators are brought back to the 1880s as they watch a bull toss a man 15 feet into the air or as a chuckwagon team comes from behind to steal a race at the wire.
Chuckwagon racing today is the same as it was in the early 20th Century, and is modeled after settlers breaking camp and racing across the prairies to beat the competition to a plot of land. Each wagon team consists of a driver, four horses pulling the wagon, and four outriders who ride their own horses behind the wagons. While one outrider keeps the team of wagon horses stable, the horn sounds. The team takes off towards the first barrel and the other outriders load a stove and tent poles into the back of the wagon. The start of the race can be a chaotic affair with dozens of cowboys and thoroughbreds whirling around the barrels. Pity the outrider who incurs a penalty for knocking over a barrel, having the pegs or stove come out the back of the wagon, or for finishing the race too far behind their team’s wagon. Drivers who have fallen victim to time penalties dished out by the judges can be unforgiving. With money on the line in every race, every second counts.
Every driver who competes in the Calgary Stampede has his eyes set on the top prize. They return year after year, charging hard, looking to subsidize their farms and ranches for another year. Although bad blood can rise in the heat of competition, chuckwagon racing is a family affair. The teams travel together all summer, and outriders can ride for several different outfits in the same tournament. After the race, the barns where the horses and wagons are kept turn into one big barbeque. The teams and their families mingle over burgers and beers, inviting strangers, rivals, and friends to join the party. Kids who travel the circuit with their fathers are invariably immersed in the culture of chuckwagon racing. 38 year Stampede veteran, Buddy Bensmiller traveled with his father. Now, Bensmiller’s three sons, former outriders, all drive their own wagons in the Stampede. 10-time Stampede champion, Kelly “The King” Sutherland competes against his two sons. Jason Glass’ Stampede roots go all the way back to 1912, when his great grandfather, Tom Lauder competed at the first Stampede. The Glass/ Lauder family has been represented at the Stampede ever since.
The Calgary Stampede has become a mecca for temporary cowboys and cowgirls to play dress-up and party for 10 days every July. The midway teems with flashing lights, barking salesmen, and drunken city folk. Only steps away, at the race track and in the barns, can be found a culture that has changed very little in the 97 years of Stampede history. True cowboys race against time, the elements, and each other to win the money that will sustain them for another year. With their families making sure that their mobile homestead runs smoothly, chuckwagon racers, even with their fancy new trucks and trailers, are a snapshot of the good ol’ days, when men were men. Anyone who comes into contact with the action packed spectacle that is chuckwagon racing becomes part of a flashback to the real culture and history of Western Canada.