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This your first rodeo? What to know about Alberta’s small town circuit

You’ve heard of the Calgary Stampede, but did you know that it’s just one stop on a rodeo circuit that spans the province? 

Throughout Alberta’s rodeo season, which begins around April and ends around September, 45 events are set to take place.

And if you’ve never sashayed past the shimmering midway of the “greatest outdoor show on earth”, you could be missing out on some greener pastures, or rowdier rings. 

Ranging from one-day shows to multi-day stampedes, these rodeos take place in small towns and cities nearly every weekend during the summer, culminating in the Canadian Rodeo Finals in Edmonton in October. 

Rodeos are typically held outdoors, and exhibit cowboys and cowgirls competing in events like bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing. Food, drinks, and a bit of two-stepping can also be expected, with each individual rodeo offering its own charms.

In Medicine Hat, there’s a midway to explore, while in Strathmore, there’s a “running with the bulls” event for those with a bit of grit. 

Most rodeos also offer mutton busting for the little ones, an event which sees hockey-helmeted children try to stay on a skittering sheep for as long as they can. 

Contestants travel from town to town each weekend, competing in their respective events, gaining points, and hopefully winning a cheque or two. The most points and prize money is awarded to the cowboy or cowgirl who finishes first in their event, then second and third and so on.

At the end of the rodeo season, contestants are ranked overall based on points. 

Denny Phipps, general manager of the Canadian Pro Rodeo Association, said contestants come from all over the world to compete in Alberta rodeos. 

“We really do get those top end athletes from all across North America that come in and it’s really cool to see to be able to have someone from Florida and Australia and New Zealand and Mexico, all on the back of the bucking chutes at the same time.” 

Phipps retired from rodeo in 2021 after over 20 years of bareback riding. Over that time, he said he’s noticed a surge in the popularity of the sport around the province. 

“You hear of rodeos setting attendance records pretty regularly or selling out. I was at Medicine Hat’s rodeo on Saturday night and it was standing room only, which is just really, really exciting to see. I genuinely believe that rodeo is a sport [where] there’s something for everybody to enjoy.” 

A man wearing a leather jacket stands with his arm on the rail outside a dirt arena.
Dennis Grunwald stands just outside the arena before the rodeo kicks off in Medicine Hat April 19, 2024. His favourite event is bull riding. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Phipps added that rodeo, for many small towns, acts as a gathering point for the community.

“As someone who’s rodeoed on the trail, that’s one of the coolest parts about it, [its that] you’re going to a town on one of their best days of the year … lots of times, especially in the spring, everybody’s been cooped up all winter long or they’ve been at the hockey rink or whatever it is. And it’s it’s getting out, getting to catch up with your friends and family.”

The majority of rodeos in Alberta are also not-for-profit organizations Phipps said, with a mandate for giving back to their communities. 

“I know a lot of the rodeos under the CPRA umbrella, they are giving back five-figure numbers to the community, whether it’s the Boys and Girls Clubs or the ag societies or the small spurs little rodeo groups, whatever it is… I think that is also one of the major things that makes these really important events to communities.”

As rodeo season kicked off last weekend in Medicine Hat, we asked four attendees what rodeo means to them, and what first-timers should know if they’re looking to kick up the dust this year. 

‘It’s in their blood’ 

While Dennis Grunwald says spectators should make a point to take in all the events of whatever rodeo they attend, his favourite of the day is bull-riding.

“That’s probably one of the dangerous events there is in rodeo … I watch it all the time on the Cowboy Channel on TV.” 

The goal of bull-riding is for the rider to stay on the bucking stock for eight seconds. Grunwald says the athletes have genetics on their side.

“It’s in their blood. Most of these riders you’ll see here this weekend goes back generations and generations … their father was a bull rider and their son and, yeah, it just follows down in history.” 

When it comes to where the best seats in the house are, Grunwald says it depends what you’re looking for. Some people might want to sit near the calf roping chutes if that’s their favourite event, while others might want to get a front row seat right up near the edge of the ring, a choice that comes with its own risks. 

“You don’t want to get too close to the front because you’re going to get a little bit of that cow patties in your face.”

Grunwald said this time around, he’ll be in the stands with his two grandkids. 

A woman wearing a tuque stands outside the arena in Medicine Hat.
Sierra Booth used to rodeo full time and says it’s a great place to bring kids. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

‘You don’t need cowboy boots’ 

As a barrel racer, Sierra Booth has been to rodeos all over the province. Now, her favourite is in her adopted hometown of Stavely, where she says they put on a good show. 

Overall, she said rodeos are a place for some wholesome family fun. 

“Anybody can go. You can typically just show up at the door, pay for your ticket and it’s quite inexpensive now compared to many other things. You don’t have to be confined to your seats and there’s always wheelchair access.”

“The kids love it because they can just run around and get dirty and they won’t wreck anything. And so they have a grand time between the pop and the popcorn and all the junk food.”

Booth said it’s a warm atmosphere, and that people shouldn’t worry about going to a rodeo in a community or town where they don’t know anybody. 

“People are so friendly that, likely wherever you’re sitting, if you’re sitting beside a stranger, they won’t be a stranger for long.” 

And what about gear? Is a pair of cowboy boots the price of entry at these events?

“100 per cent no,” said Booth. “I’m in my sneakers right now. Hey, I wear what’s comfy.” 

A man in a cowboy hat stands by the concession.
Ben Robinson is a calf roper from Innisfail. Pictured here by the concession at the Medicine Hat rodeo on April 19, 2024. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

‘Support local’ 

For Ben Robinson, the Medicine Hat rodeo this past weekend was a chance to shake off the dust. 

He’s a calf roper, and also ranches and farms close to Innisfail, Alta.

“Well, right here it’s one of the very first ones in the year. So it’s always nice to get out from the long winter and come into it, I guess would be my big thing.”

Robinson said there’s a lot of reasons to branch out beyond just the Calgary Stampede. 

“[The Stampede] is great, but a lot of the littler [rodeos] are a lot easier to get to and not quite as busy and expensive, you know, so they’re great to go to support the smaller local ones.”

He ventures admissions to most rodeos will run you around $20.

As a calf roper, Robinson said the Ponoka Stampede is one of his favourite events of the year. 

“It’s got a long score in the calf roping. So you actually have to see the calf out there a little ways and run them down an alley before you get a rope. And that’s why they get a lot of people at that one.”

Most small rodeos have a variety of fare on offer, albeit not to the extremes of the Calgary Stampede. Robinson wouldn’t know though. 

“I like stopping at a local restaurant and getting a steak. Usually my go to.”

A man wearing a baseball cap sits on a rail fence on the edge of a rodeo arena.
Matthew Coderre was volunteering at the Medicine Hat rodeo on April 19, 2024. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

‘Dance your butt off’

Ever since the Medicine Hat rodeo began hosting its ‘dance in the dirt’ after the performances, Matthew Coderre has been in attendance. 

He’s a volunteer at the rodeo, working behind the scenes (alongside dozens of others) to sort and push steers and calves in through the chutes for the timed events. 

The dance when all the work is done is well worth the wait, he says. 

“A lot of times you’ll get a couple 100 people depending on the night coming out [to] just dance their butts off. Play a lot of country music, a lot of two-step and a lot of country swinging action, and it’s just overall a good time.”

Coderre said that after the rodeo is over, everything in the ring, save for the dirt, is cleared out for dancing, and music is played through the sound system. He’s never found another party like it. 

“It’s one of those things where not a lot of places have these outdoor dances or … the dirt dances or big country parties kind of thing. So a lot of times I find that you can only find it at places like rodeo.”

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