The highlight of the ten-day Calgary Stampede has to be the nightly chuckwagon race, which certainly attracts the biggest prize money: more than a million dollars.
The ground shakes as four teams of four horses charge across the line, their wagon wheels nearly touching, chased by 16 outriders. The announcer adds to the drama with a refrain of: “You can’t beat 'em if you can’t catch 'em!” I am not sure what it even means but it certainly whips up the crowd, me included.
“The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth” is a chance for everyone to be a cowboy for a day or a whole week. Overweight bankers and retired human resources managers dress in jeans, cowboy boots and cowboy hats to shout “YAHOO!” – you can hear the capital letters – in the packed stands. “Yahoo!” is the Canadian version of “Yeehaw!”, serving to distinguish local cowboys and cowgirls from their cousins south of the (US) border. But with Montana only a seven-hour drive away, any other differences seem equally marginal.
In the arena, you know you are seeing the real thing. The skills involved in calf roping and barrel racing are impressive enough but the bull riders and bareback riders seem suicidal. “The usual injuries are to elbows, shoulders and necks – well, everywhere,” says Utah-based Caleb Bennett, the 2013 Calgary Stampede Champion Bareback Rider.
“It’s basically just wear and tear on the body. But the protection now is night and day compared to when my dad was riding 20 years ago. The biggest change is the Kevlar body protector, which protects us inside the chutes. We are technically outnumbered. I weigh 150lbs and the horse weighs 1,500lbs.
Behind the chutes, I can feel the adrenalin in the air as competitors take a quiet moment before the insane burst of action to size up their mounts, wondering if they will win them a prize or cripple them. At the far side of the arena, the faces of the spectators seem tiny, and irrelevant.