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The cowboys in the chutes and a new golden age for Alberta saddle bronc

It’s a Friday afternoon on a balmy summer day in Ponoka, Alta. Atop a hill at the edge of town, a red-and-white gleaming grandstand frames a huge dirt ring. Flags from around the world flutter in the breeze. The place is packed. 

The boom of the announcer’s voice reverberates out across the arena, while the clanging of corral gates echo from every angle. But below the din, a cowboy speaks quietly to a horse.

“Tch, tch, tch,” he says, offering a warm greeting to the animal that’ll soon do its best to fling him to the ground.

The cowboy gets his feet in the stirrups and grabs the rein in one hand. The sounds of the rodeo rattle on around him, but he doesn’t hear a thing. He gives a nod and the gate of the bucking chute swings open.

“Everything kind of zones out and you don’t hear much … [until you] circle back to the bucking chutes and then the boys are all whoopin’ and hollerin’,” says 24-year-old saddle bronc rider Ben Andersen.

If you’re a fan of saddle bronc in Alberta, there’s a lot to holler about right now. 

A cowboy rides a horse.
Zeke Thurston rides After Party during this year’s Calgary Stampede on July 7. (The Canadian Press)

The province has been the proud home to its share of stars over the decades — including hall of famers — but for the last four years, it has produced a third of the top 25 best riders in the world. It’s a feat veteran observers say has ushered in a new golden era for the sport in Alberta.

“[We’ve] always been known for good bronc riders … but the last 10 years or so has just been phenomenal,” says Duane Daines, of Innisfail, Alta., a retired championship saddle bronc rider, and the first Canadian to win the $50,000 Calgary Stampede title in 1990. 

Consider this: Zeke Thurston, 30, of Big Valley, Alta., who is currently ranked eighth internationally, is the reigning saddle bronc world champion, and has won four National Finals Rodeo (NFR) titles in the last eight years.

Logan Hay, 27, Andersen’s cousin, holds the world record for the best saddle bronc score, a feat he accomplished last year at the Hardgrass Bronc Match in Pollockville, Alta.

Seven Alberta riders have qualified for the Calgary Stampede this year, including Andersen, as well as Hay’s brother, Dawson, who was the rodeo’s champion last year.

For those at the top, the cheques at stake are big money.

The winner’s purse at the Calgary Stampede is $50,000, and the best riders can make $200,000 to $400,000 in earnings throughout the year. 

Guys sit around under a grandstand, bags are scattered about.
Saddle Bronc riders get ready for their turns at the Ponoka Stampede. (Kylee Pedersen/CBC)

Rodeos classic event

For the uninitiated, saddle bronc requires a cowboy to hold onto a rein with one hand and complete an eight-second ride on a horse trained to buck hard. 

If he can manage that, he’s awarded a score by the event’s judges: half the points are determined by the rider’s form and spur ride, or how he moves his feet up and down in time with the horse’s jumps. The other half are derived from the horse: how high it jumps, and how far its feet kick out behind it.

It is known as the classic event of rodeo, a level of prestige that Daines says honours its humble origins, and its role in starting it all.

“That’s how rodeo began. It was a couple of ranches getting together and having a Sunday bronc-riding match against each other, finding out who was the better cowboy,” says Daines. 

In Alberta these days, it’s a contest that’s become anyone’s game, says bronc rider Layton Green, 30, of Millarville, Alta.

When Green thinks back to the time he started out in the sport, around 15 years ago at the age of 14, he didn’t see as many Canadians riding at the highest level of competition. Now, it’s a different story.

Two cowboys talk to eachother beside the bucking chutes.
Layton Green talks to a fellow cowboy before his ride at the Sundre Pro Rodeo. (Kylee Pedersen/CBC)

“When I was younger there was really no Canadians that were making the NFR in the bronc riding. It almost made it seem like it was one of those things that … you’re wondering if a guy can do it.”

Green, who holds the No. 21 spot in the world standings, says the top saddle bronc riders in Alberta all started out around the same time, and have been pushing one another to do better since the beginning. 

“We’ve all seen each other grow from, you know, falling off every horse to competing with the best in the world.”

He added: “At this point in the game, it’s kind of whoever draws the better horse.”

Big bucking horses

If Part 1 of Alberta’s saddle bronc success is a crop of young cowboys driving each other to reach new heights, Part 2 is the horses. 

“You can’t ride unless you’re getting on real good stock and, and there’s a lot of good Alberta broncs right now,” says Daines. 

While family operations have bred bucking stock for decades, Daines says the Calgary Stampede Ranch, whose horses compete at rodeos all over North America, has taken it to a new level. 

A cowboy stands with his hands in his pockets.
Logan Hay breaks down his ride at the Ponoka Stampede. He says he gives himself 10 minutes to reflect on a mistake, but after that, ‘you’ve just gotta forget about it.’ (Kylee Pedersen/CBC)

Just as in breeding for racehorses, bloodlines of legendary bronc horses — most are a quarter horse cross — are preserved and mixed in an attempt to produce animals that “buck their heart out,” according to Daines. 

At the Ponoka Stampede, Hay is set to ride a bronc called Legacy, one that bucked Andersen off the weekend prior at the Wainwright rodeo. 

A second into his ride, the same thing happens to him; his unceremonious landing kicks up a cloud of dust. Hay is not happy about it, but he takes it on the chin.

“He’s an eliminator … they can’t all be easy,” he says about Legacy. 

“It’s just a horse like that. If you make any mistake, no matter if it’s at one second or eight seconds, he’s gonna buck you off.”

Hay says the best riders can consistently get the best out of whatever horse they draw. Thurston, he says, is one of those competitors. 

“There’s not a question who the guy to beat in Canada [is]. It’s Zeke.

“If he was a bit of a [jerk], it would make it a lot better to beat him. But he’s one of our good buddies. So … I don’t mind seeing him win, but I do like it when I beat him.” 

‘It’s like poetry’

Winning each rodeo, or getting a second- or third-place cheque, is the goal for all saddle bronc riders, but it doesn’t come at the expense of the camaraderie that exists between them. 

Cowboys travel the rodeo circuit trail together for weeks at a time, and most have tight family and community ties. 

“I look at it as if it’s me versus my horse, not me versus, you know, them other guys out in the arena, because we’re all real close,” says Green. 

“The only thing you have control over is the way you ride on the horse you’ve drawn.”

When a bronc rider finds out what horse he’s drawn for an upcoming rodeo, he’ll prepare by making a game plan of how to ride it. For example, the rider may change where they grab the rein, based on how the horse is known to move. 

A horse stands in a bucking chute, its wearing a red halter.
A saddle bronc horse waits in the bucking chute at the Sundre Pro Rodeo. (Kylee Pedersen/CBC)

Every horse has its own personality, something 27-year-old Lucas Macza, of High River, Alta., knows well. 

Macza is ranked 20th in the saddle bronc world standings, and is having what Daines thinks could be his “breakout” year. He has also qualified for the Calgary Stampede. 

Macza has spent his life around broncs — not only did he start riding them at age 18, his family breeds rodeo stock. 

When his horse gets into the chute, Macza says he tries to connect with the animal before he nods his head. That means staying loose and letting the animal move how it wants, to a degree.

“Some horses they wanna lean a bit in the chute or squat down, so I just let ’em do that if they need it.”

After that, when the clock starts, Macza says much of a rider’s eight-second ride is muscle memory. At its best, it’s a synchronized routine that almost looks like it’s been choreographed.

“Bronc riding, it’s more poetry than like bull riding, where it’s kind of like a knife fight,” says Andersen.

“You [and your horse] are in time together doing a job together.… There’s not so much aggressiveness to it, [it’s] more fluid and just fun.”

Cowboys stand around amidst corrals at a rodeo.
Saddle bronc riders talk in the contestants’ area behind the bucking chutes at the Sundre Pro Rodeo. (Kylee Pedersen/CBC)

A life on the road

Leading up to the Calgary Stampede, saddle bronc riders — and most rodeo competitors, for that matter — endure in a nearly impossible schedule. 

‘Cowboy Christmas’, beginning in mid-June and ending in early August, sees the athletes zigzag all over North America to get to the rodeos they’ve entered. 

At the Sundre Pro Rodeo on June 23, other bronc riders are slapping Macza on the back before his ride, congratulating him on the birth of his baby daughter Lane 10 days prior. 

About a week-and-a-half later, he’s at a Walmart in Bozeman, Mont., with Green, his traveling partner, killing time between rodeos. Since Sundre, they’ve both attended nearly a dozen, sometimes two a day. 

Over that time, they’ve had trucks break down, eaten numerous meals on the road, and spent a lot of time away from their families.

It’s one reason why making it to the Calgary Stampede is so sweet, says Green.

“[Calgary is] one of my favourites by far, it’s close to home and it’s hard to beat. The atmosphere there, everything about it is a bucket list rodeo for sure.”

“You’re dang sure it’s been on my mind to try and get the win there.”

Guys stand around with boots on.
Saddle bronc riders await their turn at the Ponoka Stampede. (Kylee Pedersen/CBC)

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