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COWBOY CHRISTMAS AT THE PONOKA STAMPEDE

Author: Heather Egger

Heather scribbles stories by moonlight in Edmonton. Every summer Sunday, you’ll find her out in the countryside chasing two muddy-puddled preschoolers. Cuddled up by a log cabin fireplace in Jasper is her happy place and good food is her passion.

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We’re driving through some of Alberta’s richest ranch land – out my window the rolling prairie reaches endlessly to the horizon. We pass grazing cattle, fields of bright yellow canola and acres of ripening wheat rippling in the soft breezes. It’s a perfect summer day to head out to the Ponoka Stampede – also known as Cowboy Christmas around these parts – a celebration of cowboy culture that stretches back to 1936.

Parade Day

The streets of this small town, just over an hour south of Edmonton, are crowded with locals and just as many visitors. Every year during the rodeo at the end of June, Ponoka more than doubles in size. Yet this rural community still keeps its friendly small town charm – the warm country welcome you’ll receive here is one of the best reasons to visit. Well, that, the big parade, and those warm little sugar donuts…

The parade procession glides past us for over an hour – in all, 150 bright floats, marching bands, dancers and clowns, chuckwagons, big rigs and monster trucks, tiny beeping cars, fire engines. The dozens of beautiful horses – I lost count at 80 – are, to me, the stars of the show.

Mini-donuts and Sno-cones

We follow the rambling crowds over to the busy exhibition grounds. Kids line up for the wild spinning midway rides, laughing and screeching once they’re on. We munch on corn dogs, bags of warm cinnamon-sugar mini-donuts, icy sweet sno-cones and giant lemonades. With all this traditional midway food, daily pancake breakfasts and charity BBQs happening every day, you certainly won’t go hungry.

Thrilling Pro Rodeo

Up in the packed wooden grandstands, the saddle bronc competition is on – horses buck and cowboys twist for eight seconds of breathless hush before the buzzer blares and the crowd whoops, hollers and roars. The seven-day competition awards more than $600,000 for the cowboys, cowgirls and chuckwagons that compete – the second largest purse in Alberta, next to the ten-day Calgary Stampede.

Ponoka’s pro rodeo attracts top contenders in bareback and bull riding, barrel racing, roping and wrestling. They bring their best performances here in hopes of earning a spot in the Canadian Finals Rodeo in November. Plus, every evening for six nights in a row, chuckwagons thunder around the track – first the quick ponies, then the big charging horses, urged on by the world’s top professional wagon drivers.

Legends of Canadian Rodeo

On our way to the highway, we swing by the Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame to get a peek into the sport’s long history through the people and animals that shaped it. Then we pull out of town – stuffed with food and happily worn out from all the action – and drive quietly back through the prairie under a starlit sky. A perfect rodeo day.

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