Heritage Ranch Rodeo Showcases Working Cowboys

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Rodeos have always been part of the cowboy way of life. In the days of long cattle drives, a rider would select his horse from a remuda, ready to be tossed about in the saddle before getting on with the day s work. The horses were often half-broke and the range riders got things sorted out as they headed down the trail to market. Wranglers were handy at roping, cutting cattle, and tending to animals that got sick along the way.

These are the skills the 7th annual Heritage Ranch Rodeo, held November 6-8 at the Edmonton EXPO Centre, will showcase as 16 ranches from across western Canada compete for the honour to be named top working ranch.

It s an opportunity for traditional ranches to showcase their skills, said David Fiddler, show manager of Northlands Farm and Ranch Show. These cowboys take great pride in their horsemanship and stock handling abilities. The rope is their tool.

Events include sorting, doctoring, branding, wild cow milking, a wild horse race, and bronc riding. There are no bulls breaking out of the chutes and riders are not racing down the arena throwing a loop after a speedy calf. These events are not typical of everyday ranch life, as ranch hands know that the best way to move and work with cattle is at a slow and steady pace, said Mike Sears, captain of the Mesabi Ranch. The Nanton Base r Ranch won last year s rodeo event.

Even the heritage rodeo introduces speed to determine winners, noted Sears. The real difference between rodeo and the real ranch life is the stopwatch. The horse race does not happen on the ranch. That s not how you go after a horse, he said. Whether horses or cattle, if you rush them, it won t work well. Time is for entertainment, he said. It is the only way you can compare two teams.

While a ranch horse will occasionally buck, it s not as accepted as it was in the days of horses greeting each day with a snort or two, he said. Back then cowboys didn t care if the horse bucked or not. They were tough-minded and tough-bodied. We have horses that buck but I have no interest in that. I don t like it. I try to prepare them so that does not happen, but back then, they didn t care. They were tougher than me.

Today s horses are started younger and are around people every day, Sears said. The training methods are also more considerate of the horse, with trainers such as the late Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance believing that gentler methods result in a more trusting mount. Their influence changed the way horses are handled, Sears said.

Ranches invited to participate in the Heritage Ranch Rodeo must practice traditional methods, and members have to be employees or family members of the ranch. In other words, you can t bring someone in from the CFR to ride the bronc, said Fiddler. Last year, it was the bronc riding that made the difference between top and bottom placements. Two ranches had a rider bucked off.

Just like on a ranch, all of the events, except for bronc riding, are a team effort.

Very few places get by with just one person. It s usually a husband and wife, or husband, wife and children, or a husband, wife and an employee, Sears said.

Sears and his team compete each year for the social aspect, but also to see how they stack up against similar outfits. It s the satisfaction of making sure your skills are comparable.

One goal of the Heritage Ranch Rodeo is to preserve the skills that are part of Alberta s ranching history. Cattle are now trucked to market instead of overland trail drives, and some ranches are turning to ATVs instead of horses. But not Sears. I like the horse. It s a preference. If you re not comfortable with a horse, then I guess you can switch to an ATV. But horses can go anywhere a cow can go, through thick trees that an ATV can t get through, and mud and water. And if you need to treat an animal, there s no way of restraining it if you re on an ATV.

The Mesabi Ranch, which grazes, backgrounds and finishes cattle, returns this year to defend its title. Other ranches expected to compete include the R Bar Ranch (Bluffton, AB), Bar U Ranch (Longview, AB), High Plains Ranch (Carnduff, SK), Roseburn Ranches (High River, AB), the Porcupine Quill Ranch (Pincher Creek, AB), the Douglas Lake Cattle Company (Douglas Lake, BC), the Gang Ranch (central BC), the Nicola Ranch (Merritt, BC), the River Ranch (BC), Wineglass Ranch (Cochrane, AB), Sleepy Spring Ranch (Winfield, AB), and the Coldstream Ranch (Coldstream, BC) .

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