Rod Hay continues to live the rodeo life, but times three.
An eight-time national champion and winner of four Calgary Stampede titles, no other Canadian saddle bronc rider has qualified for more world championships.
Retired in 2010, Hay was inducted into Canada’s Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2019.
His three saddle-bronc-riding sons — Logan, 25, Dawson, 23, and Devon, 18 — were all invited to compete in this year’s Calgary Stampede rodeo, which starts Friday.
“There’s never a boring day when you have three kids riding bucking horses for a living,” Rod said. “One’s winning, one’s beat up, the other one is trying to get to a rodeo and trying to figure out how to get there and the truck is broke.”
The 10-day Stampede rodeo is one of the richest in the sport offering $1.5 million in prize money.
Dawson has twice been a Stampede entrant, although a leg injury may sideline him this year.
Logan makes his open saddle bronc debut, while Devon rides novice saddle bronc for the first time.
“It means a lot. A dream come true pretty much, holy crap,” Devon said. “It’s going to be really cool to be there with all my brothers, my dad, my mom.”
Said Logan: “I’ve always dreamed of competing in the open at the Calgary Stampede. Since watching my dad when I was young to competing in the novice, it’s always been something I put very high on my goal list.
“If you ask anyone, they will tell you the Calgary Stampede is one of their favourite rodeos and it’s not just the money. It’s the atmosphere.”
Years of watching her husband routinely master half a tonne of see-sawing horse gave Shelley Hay a measure of comfort.
Their sons following in the father’s bootsteps tests her nerves, however.
“It is a lot different when it’s your babies riding out there,” she said. “I was just getting used to watching my older two. The learning curve when they’re starting, my youngest one just turned 18 … that’s a little more difficult to watch. They get into some wrecks.”
All three competed on the same day in a rodeo in Lea Park, Alta., in June.
“You literally hold your breath. You’re almost blue by the end of the event,” Shelley said. “I honestly didn’t think all three would be competing at the level that they are.
“We’ve lived this lifestyle obviously because Rod rode professionally and had a lot of success within the sport. I always kind of assumed they would give it a shot especially considering we have three boys. It’s takes so much hard work and determination to be competing at that level of competition. So proud of them.”
Born into the life, children of professional athletes often take up their parents’ sport. Logan and Dawson travelled with Rod to rodeos as youngsters. Before they ever got on a horse, they played on Rod’s bucking machine.
They’re old enough to remember watching their father compete in both the Calgary Stampede and the world championship National Finals Rodeo in the United States.
Those ranked in the world’s top 15 in season money won earn NFR berths, which Rod did 20 times and Dawson has now done twice.
Calgary Stampede money counts towards the world rankings. Each event’s champion takes home well over $100,000 in combined day money and a winner’s cheque.
“With it counting toward the world standings, it makes a huge difference in making the NFR,” Logan said. “A guy could almost win enough there to go to the NFR alone.”
A leg injury, which turned out to be career-ending, forced Rod to withdraw from the NFR in Las Vegas the last year he qualified in 2010.
“Some of my biggest childhood memories were cheering my dad on at the rodeos,” Dawson said. “It’s such a huge part of my childhood, watching my dad compete. I think that had a huge influence on me and my brothers.”
Saddle bronc competitors are often called the “smooth-riding cowboys” of rodeo. Riders are scored on their ability to produce a fluid, controlled ride for eight seconds, which requires agility, power and quick thinking to stay in the saddle.
A teenager taking up saddle bronc embarks on a steep learning curve to learn the craft. Injuries are common. Rod’s experience has helped his sons through the make-or-break years.
“Obviously my dream was to ride at the NFR growing up,” Dawson said. “It’s a bit of a long shot at the start with two or three years of getting in wrecks, not staying on, not scoring, not making amateur finals.
“You see other guys win because they’re staying on, but maybe they’re not riding correctly. You’re going to rodeos every weekend falling off, but you’re trying to do it the proper way. It seems easier to cling on and make some money.
“Dad always said ‘forget about the money right now. This is such a sliver, a drop in the bigger picture. You’re going to do so much better if you continue to ride correctly and do things right.’ He brought us out of a lot of times like that.”
Devon’s memories of watching his father compete are hazier than those of his older siblings, but being the youngest has its advantages.
The teen has the pick of the best practice horses on the family ranch near Wildwood, Alta., which is 110 kilometres west of Edmonton.
“When he decided he was going to give it a go, we already had some good beginner horses and he had three coaches instead of one,” Rod said.
“He’s probably getting the best start of all. We streamlined the path for him a little better on what to do and how to do it.”
Rod will be alongside the Calgary Stampede chutes to coach Devon, but Logan and Dawson require less guidance from him now.
“With Devon, we talk about rides all the time. It comes to a point with the older ones, I only put my two cents in when I’m asked,” Rod said. “They’re absolute professionals now and ride as good as anybody going.”