Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cowboys head out on dusty trail across West

Summer on rodeo circuit: big glory, small paydays

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FOR Mark Nugent, it's the start of a practised routine, driving from his ranch in the foothills of the Rockies west of Calgary, heading down the highway to another rodeo.

"We're on the way to Grande Prairie today," the veteran calf-roper says on a cellphone from his truck, pulling a trailer with his 14-year-old quarter-horse, named Gus, inside.

"We'll be gone nearly every week in the summer now."

Nugent is part of a travelling road show called the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association, homegrown cowboys and cowgirls who perform across the West every weekend from mid-May through September.

They roll into such metropolises as Swift Current, Sask., Medicine Hat, Alta., and Kamloops, B.C. "We were in Cloverdale, near Vancouver, last week, where it was mainly city folk," says Nugent.

But they mostly stop in small towns, where a couple thousand people get together at a dusty rodeo grounds, where folks in the stands wear battered Stetsons and have mud on their boots.

While the Calgary Stampede, in July, may be embodiment of Canada's rodeo season, its soul is in the rural whistlestops: Morris, Man., Oliver, B.C., Shaunavon and Estevan, Sask., and Grande Prairie, Ponoka and Innisfail, Alta.

"Alberta is really the heart of rodeo," says Nugent, 35, a third-generation cowboy who runs a spread of about 100 horses with his wife, Randa, in Water Valley, Alta. "For rodeo, the ranchers and farmers come from miles around, travelling in their truck-trailers to spend three or four days."

They usually get a daily show that includes a junior rodeo, country-and-western concerts, barbecues, dances, fireworks and other entertainment.

But the main attraction is the pros competing in bronc-riding, steer-wrestling, calf-roping, bull-riding, and barrel-racing.

"There are certain events which appeal to people who love horses, events with a lot of finesse," says Nugent, counting his own specialty, which is now called "tie-down roping," a term apparently concocted as a balm to those who don't like the notion of a noose being jerked around the neck of a fleeing calf.

"Then there are people who like to watch the meanest broncs, or the young skateboarders who like watching the bull riders."

The greatest attraction for fans, he says, may be the character of the cowboys and cowgirls, those rugged individualists, sometimes with just a few bucks in their jeans, risking limb and life to perpetuate a way of life, and earn a rather modest cash purse.

"I think people like the fact that we pretty much pay our own way," says Nugent, "that we pretty much show up with just the shirts on our back and don't take home any money if we don't win."

At most rodeos on the Canadian circuit, the contestants pay an entry fee of from $50 to $250, hoping to score a top prize of from $800 to $2,500.

The bigger rodeos, in Calgary or Las Vegas, may put millions of dollars on the line. But the spirit of the west lives in such places as Pincher Creek, Alta., or Dawson Creek, B.C., where visiting rodeo-goers can count on a warm howdy, especially if they first stop at a western outfitter -- there's generally one on the grounds -- to pick up a cowboy hat.

"You gotta have a hat -- it's one of the rules," Nugent says with a laugh.

And whether it's in Calgary or Cranbrook, B.C., Houston or Hanna, Alta., Nugent will probably be there, doing the same thing he's been doing since he turned pro in 1987 -- riding and roping for glory.

"When you get older," he says, "you'll still have your friends, and your memories."

--Canadian Press

See www.rodeocanada.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2004 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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