Stampede shifts to education

Summertime is fair and rodeo season in Alberta. For me, it’s meant my “field” for the last 10 days has been the dirt (and cement) of Stampede Park in Calgary.

Summertime is fair and rodeo season in Alberta. For me, it’s meant my “field” for the last 10 days has been the dirt (and cement) of Stampede Park in Calgary.

As with so many of the fairs in the province, the roots of the Calgary Stampede go back to agriculture, and farm-related activities and competitions still form a big part of the program. But now, one of the key functions of the agriculture component is education.

This was the debut year for the Agrium Western Event Centre in Calgary, considered the final piece of a $61.2-million Agricultural Discovery Zone on the park.

It’s designed to be where urban and rural audiences can connect all year, so helping visitors celebrate and understand agriculture is a top priority for facility activities.

Producer groups and farm organizations filled the main floor area with the Ag-Tivity in the City but there was lots of interaction during events in the arena as well.

The Next Generation Committee has a social media contest, and winners receive a Unique Experience, meeting some of the competitors and getting up close to the animals, to see what it takes to show and be part of the Stampede. Awareness of animal care is a big message as well.

That’s fun to watch, and as part of the programming at the AWEC, I had the chance to interview several families experiencing the Stampede for the first time, seeing their wide-eyed excitement about being so close to the animals.

One of the great successes was a contest winner last year, where the daughter was so enthralled by her Unique Experience with horses that she decided to take riding lessons after the Stampede.

For me, the best part is always the people stories behind some of the “results” of the events.

In the International Livestock Auctioneer Championship, I met auctioneers from Attalla, Alabama and Winner, S.D. But among the top 10 finalists this year was a father-son combination. Garth Rogers, who’s a familiar voice from earlier days at Rimbey, and his son Travis, both made the finals. Younger son Justin also took part this year, just six months out of auctioneer school.

Garth told me he encouraged the boys by saying he’d take part if they would.

Travis is an experienced competitor, and when the last “Sold” was delivered, he wound up the International Champion, beating his father but making him proud.

Travis talked about the fact his grandfather Buck was also an auctioneer. Keeping the family tradition of colourful market price discovery alive is something the Rogers family does well.

A pair of Texans wound up taking the major titles at the Stampede Cutting Horse Finals this year, but they are both legends in the cutting horse world.

Mary Jo Milner won the Non Pro category with her horse Smooth Asa Zee. Her career earnings in the event are well over a million dollars.

But mind you, it’s been a pretty long career. While it’s never polite to ask a lady her age, estimates at ringside put her in early 70s, and that’s quite an accomplishment to still be riding these athletic horse and be a keen competitor at that age!

Taking the always tough Open title was Chubby Turner on One Time Choice. His high score of 226 points was just two more than Reserve winner Dustin Gonnet of Cayley.

In accepting the award, Turner talked about how Gonnet was one of his helpers, and told him which cows to pick in the herd, even though it meant risking his top spot in the standings.

“That’s what cutting is all about,” he told the crowd.

I also had the opportunity to watch some of the heavy horse classes.

It’s so impressive to watch the grace, beauty and gentleness of these giant animals. And then to see their heart, as they put their shoulders to harness to move mountains (of cement) when asked by their teamster in the heavy horse pull.

Randy Dodge, of Albany, Ore. is a tough one to beat in his combination with Stand Grad of Airdrie, a huge heavy horse pull supporter. Dodge began his horse-pulling career when he was just 14, and probably has more Calgary Stampede pull victories than anyone else.

He added two more this year, in the lightweight division for the third straight year with Red and Bud, and in the middleweights with Mike and Simon. He looked well on his way to a rare sweep of all three titles. In the heavy weight competition, his Fritz and Tommy went all the way to 12,000 pounds of weight, but that’s where they hit their limit, pulling the sled 80 inches.

It was the team of Joker and Sandy from Martin Howard that kept pace in the pull, and they wound up with a 92-inch pull at 12,000 pounds, beating Dodge’s pair by a single foot. It was exciting watching, but even more interesting is Howard’s story.

Originally from Ontario, he was recently transferred to Rocky Mountain House.

He’s been working with horses since he was 18, and first got involved by going to a charity cancer pull event, because he’s a cancer fighter himself. From that time, he was hooked and began competing with his horses.

He calls them his faithful friends, who kept him in “straight mind” when taking cancer treatments.

He’s thankful to the Lord for his horses, which led him to his wife, and now 18-month-old son. His Calgary Stampede victory will be a real memory and highlight in his pulling career.

By the way, Brian Coleman of Didsbury and the Eaglesfield Percherons entry captured their fifth World Championship Six Horse Hitch title, in a dramatic drive-off to determine the winner.

I also learned that sheep are not always docile. In fact, when challenged they can get downright, hoof stomping mean!

The flock used for this year’s World Stock Dog Championship at Calgary, the richest indoor competition going, didn’t seem familiar with dogs and their desire to herd them around.

They were defiant, and you could see the frustration on these skilled canines when they couldn’t get the respect they normally get from sheep.

Time and again a quick nip from the dogs for attitude adjustment would prematurely end a run (it’s a disqualification).

B.C.’s Pam Boring and her dog Sophie had the best record over the two preliminary rounds, but in the Finals Sophie did a “grip” and that ended her weekend.

Tug, handled by Terry Towle of Shaunavon, Sask., showed the most patience and persistence in the Finals.

Even though he didn’t get the sheep in the pen, they went the furthest and claimed the $10,000 purse, which is Towle’s first win at the Stampede.

It was also neat to see the 56 recipients of the Stampede International Livestock Scholarships introduced in front of the rodeo grandstand crowd on the final Sunday, after their time at the Summer Synergy show in Olds.

And in the UFA Steer Classic, a Charolais from Megan McLeod of Cochrane topped the tough field, the same feat her older brother accomplished a few years back.

There’s no doubt McLeod will put the $10,000 prize to good use for her first year of university in Saskatoon in the fall.

With more stories than space to share them, the common denominator is always the passion these people have for working with their animals, and striving for their best in competition.

Now this week, we’ll get to see that right here in our community during Westerner Days. Whether it’s in the miniature horse classes, the beef barn, the goat show or the pony chuckwagon races, you can be sure there will be a lot of great stories unfolding. They’ll be yours to enjoy!

Dianne Finstad is a veteran broadcaster and reporter who has covered agricultural news in Central Alberta for more than 30 years. From the Field appears monthly in the Advocate.

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