Any ranch family or rodeo fan will tell you that in Alberta, rural rodeo is king. Sure, you can see a polished rodeo at the Calgary Stampede where the top talent in North America test their abilities against the roughest rodeo stock every July. But it's a much more immediate experience in a smaller setting. And rural rodeo is where champions are born and bred – both the two-legged and four-legged variety.
Ranch kids with rodeo dreams start young. My son's first amateur rodeo competition was in what's known as mutton bustin'. Put a five-year-old on the back of a bolting thick-coated sheep and your baby gets his first taste of how fast the ground can rise up to greet you. If he gets up grinning, you're likely looking at a future bull rider or bronco buster.
The Road to Glory
From Benalto just outside of Red Deer, to Vulcan, 1.5 hours south of Calgary, there are close to 100 amateur and pro rodeos held each year. Qualifying for the annual fall Canadian Finals Rodeo championships in Edmonton is based on earnings, so during the peak rodeo season my son might compete in as many as three rodeos a weekend. Investing in a horse trailer with sleeping quarters for Josh allowed all of us to sleep better at night.
Learn the Ropes
One of my favourite small town rodeos is the Innisfail Professional Rodeo in mid-June. Just a little over an hour north of Calgary, it's rustic, intimate and wild. And it's like old home week for rodeo families. The stands are full of past champions and contestants who will gladly explain the rules of the main events – so don't be afraid to ask. You'll get to see all the stuff you'd see at the Calgary Stampede – bareback, saddle bronc, tie down roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing and bull riding – on the same stock that's earning a ticket to the big show, but up close and personal.
When the dust settles it's time for some serious cowboy chow before we all kick up our heels at the dance. No corn dogs here – just fresh picked and steamed corn on the cob, beans baked country style with molasses and pork rind, hand cut coleslaw and just about the best Alberta barbeque beef on a (homemade) bun you're likely to find. Then we'll teach you to line dance where there's a good chance the guy on your right will be pleased to recall for you what eight long seconds on the back of a bucking animal really feels like.