There can be no denying that professional rodeos are a staple of summers in Alberta, but every year the chorus of those who oppose the treatment of animals in specific events such as calf-roping gets louder and louder – but there is a kinder, more-gentle alternative, and it’s growing in popularity.
Known as “ranch rodeos”, the competition involves the purest and most traditional aspects of the sport in which certain tasks requiring patience and a gentle disposition are judged with an emphasis being placed both on teamwork and respect for the animals.
“It was a great event and a lot of fun,” said Kathy Richards, secretary of the Rimbey Ag Society, which recently hosted the first annual Kansas Ridge Ranch Rodeo. “We had a few glitches but it was our first time holding a ranch rodeo and we didn’t really know what was all involved, but it went well and the competitors had a lot of fun.”
Unlike the frantic, rock concert-type of atmosphere associated with professional rodeos, Richards said ranch rodeos reflect the centuries-old skills that were introduced to North America by the Spanish during the 1500s and 1600s who brought horses to the continent.
“The ranch rodeo really reflects what they do out on the pasture,” Richards said. “Other rodeos and professional rodeos are obviously more for entertainment purposes, whereas this is much slower. Most of the events, other than the ranch horse competition, are usually done at a walk and if the horse breaks into a run, the rider is disqualified.”
While admitting that ranch rodeos don’t have the mass appeal of professional rodeos just yet, Richards feels that particular attitude may be part of a much bigger problem in society, but she is confident that people’s perceptions are changing.
“The slow pace of a ranch rodeo is, I guess, a problem that you see throughout the entire world: if it isn’t fast, people don’t really want to watch it,” she said. “But at the finals of the ranch rodeo competition last November in Edmonton, they had huge, very long lines of people wanting to get in to watch.”
Slow pace or not, Richards said she’s talked to many people in rodeo circles who are more and more becoming fed up with professional rodeos based for the most part, on the treatment of the animals.
Incidents such as the chuckwagon crash that occurred at last year’s Calgary Stampede in which three horses had to be put down in front of tens of thousands of spectators in attendance and millions watching the news on television at home, certainly doesn’t help the image of professional rodeos. Images of calves suffering traumatic injuries during rodeos don’t help much either.
“I think professional rodeo is coming to an end, at least events such as calf-roping and others like that, and I think they’ll end up with much fewer events. But in a ranch rodeo, they can’t do any of that. Everything is done very quietly and slowly so they don’t excite any of the animals,” Richards said.
“It is so different from professional rodeo, which, of course, is all about the money,” she added. “In a ranch rodeo, the animals can’t be hurt, and that’s where the competition comes into play. The competitors have to figure out how to treat a cow that’s got foot rot, for example, without hurting her and that’s why it takes so long.”
While the slow pace of a ranch rodeo may not appeal to many spectators just yet, it certainly is a hit with competitors who generally feel it is much more difficult than competing in a professional rodeo.
“When we started planning it, we thought it would be local and very low-key, but oh my goodness, it got a little out of hand with so many people wanting to enter,” she said. “We thought there’d be five of six teams and there ended up being 14 and we could have had another 14 teams.”
Despite the low turnout of spectators, Richards said plans are already underway for the second annual ranch rodeo to be held in Rimbey and while she knows they’ll have plenty of competitors from throughout Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan, the Ag Society will continue to build on an emerging niche market of fans who are beginning to warm up to the idea of ‘rodeo light’.
“We’re already getting calls from competitors who want to participate next year, so they’ll be here. It’s just attracting spectators that we’re a bit concerned about,” she said.
“But a ranch rodeo such as ours is much different and would probably appeal to many people who like rodeo, but do not want to see the animals traumatized.”