“Folks, he paid his entry fee so let’s pay him off!” says the announcer at the Pilot Butte rodeo near Regina, Saskatchewan.
The crowd claps sympathetically for the red-shirted rider whose lasso has just missed the horns of a young steer. The prize money isn’t going to be his this time, but the rider is able to raise his hand in a wave anyway.
That’s what real cowboys do when they’re competing in small-town rodeos. As the old saying goes, ‘they pays their money and they takes their chance,’ and if all goes well, the prize money is theirs. If not, their payment is the applause of an appreciative crowd.
If you’re ever in Saskatchewan on a warm summer’s evening, you might want to experience the time-traveling sensation of attending one of the dozens of small town rodeos that take place in community centers around the province. Don’t go expecting the Calgary Stampede – that’s not what you’re about to see. Go looking for a place where time stands still and hometown values still count for something.
You could arrive to find a big pile of sand piled high beside the concession stand, and a passel of kids, big and small, happily digging in it. You’ll wonder what they’re up to until you see the small, hand-lettered sign. “Find a token and get a free freezie.”
“We put ten tokens in there,” smiles the concession stand lady, “and those kids have been digging all evening.”
A free freezie. Can you imagine a city kid rooting around in the sand for a freezie? Not likely – but these kids are having fun.
And so are the kids sitting in the stands with their parents, digging into huge bags of kettle corn and sipping on soda. You can tell this is a big evening for the whole family, because everyone’s Wrangler jeans are neat and pressed, their boots are polished, and there are more white cowboy hats than you can shake a stick at. My husband and I look down at our shorts and t-shirts and feel a little under-dressed. We’ll know better next time.
No one’s paying much attention to fashion anyway, given the action in the ring. From calf roping to bull riding and bronco busting, the cowboys and girls of the western circuit are putting on a show that’s all about courage and competence. At any moment, a stray hoof or horn could spell disaster for the young athletes and the crowd holds its collective breath until the event is over and the danger has passed. Only then do the watchers ‘pay off’ the competitors with warm applause.
While the adult events are without doubt the most breathtaking, the most impressive is indisputably the junior chuck wagon race.
It’s a pretty simple system.
Each team has a small wagon, big enough for one child to ride on. A piece of Bristol board is curved over it, to form the roof. While the rider crouches inside the wagon, two other children perform the services of the horses, racing madly around the track beside competing chuck wagon teams.
That’s all there is to it.
Six teams are on the roster to compete, making a total of 18 kids. Given that each competitor might only have two parent spectators and perhaps the odd grandparent, I expect the stands to empty for this final event – but I’m wrong. Not one soul leaves. The stands are packed and everyone rises to cheer on the victors as well as the also-rans.
And the prizes?
Every competitor receives – a freezie.
If the world has been moving a bit too fast lately, head for a small-town Saskatchewan rodeo and get a grip on what really matters – honest competition and genuine appreciation for hard work and talent.
Oh – and while you’re there – be sure to have a freezie.
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Liz Fleming is an award-winning Canadian travel journalist who specializes in adventure, health and wellness and learning travel. For more from Liz, go to: Liz Fleming’s Travel Tales.