Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The rodeo life isn't for sissies

It's tough going, but cowboy folks wouldn't have it any other way

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MORRIS -- David Paulsen's voice floats over the crowd at the chuckwagon races, uttering words you could probably won't hear anywhere else.

"And that was Ross Schnell with a very, very quick running time for Morris Funeral Home," he says, calling the winner. There's polite applause.

Welcome to the Morris Stampede, an event that is far more than just calf roping and mutton riding, way beyond the midway and the sticky cotton candy.

Hundreds of volunteers have banded together for 39 years to make this four-day celebration a local tradition. Faced with dwindling attendance and financial insecurity, they still prevail.

It's an event that makes some of us briefly yearn for a simpler world. Mostly, that's nostalgia for something we've never experienced. There's a hazy, sepia tone to the real cowboys and the dust and the swagger, to the sheer physical strength of animals and men alike. Earnest competitors explain how to judge a cow's assets; others kindly spell out the nuances of chuckwagon racing.

It's not an easy life, people say, but they wouldn't have it any other way. Rodeo isn't for sissies could be the unofficial motto in Morris.

"In our heyday we attracted 55,000 people," says Ralph Groening, president of the Stampede board of directors. "Last year we had 15,000. There's a lot of competition now. Every town has a fair. What we need to do out here is have a rodeo that's not just young men and boys coming out and drinking beer. We've been working on that for some time and we think we're there."

Although the rodeo lost money last year, organizers remain optimistic.

Under a sun so hot that cowboy hats were almost a medical necessity, families panted in brief wedges of shade, trying to cool off before visiting barns, watching the races or heading for the petting zoo.

The Stampede, which opened yesterday, runs through Sunday.

Sharron Park watched her son Scott, 8, practise his lasso technique. Is this Southdale mother going to let her baby grow up to be a cowboy?

"Nope," she says quickly. "You're looking at the 2012 track and field Olympic champion."

Tim Lewis, president of the Stampede committee, says he's not worried about protests from animal rights groups or afraid that the death of several animals at last week's Calgary stampede will harm his event. PETA came out several years ago and were booed out by the crowd, he says. He says they haven't lost an animal in years.

"We take all the precautions we can here," he says. "It's funny but people seem to be more concerned about the animals than the people."

Up in the announcer's stand, Paulsen runs his patter. He's been doing this job for 22 years, traveling from one rodeo to the next. He used to ride bareback, clowned at rodeos a bit and eventually came to his senses, he says.

He starts the races playing a scratchy-sounding rendition of Oh Canada. On the same CD he's got Happy Trails in both instrumental and vocal versions, Rawhide and How The West Was Won. The stand has a hint of a breeze and the smell of bull and horse manure wafts in.

Describing how close two horses finished, Paulsen cracks: "You could throw the same blanket over them."

Over in the cattle barns, exhibitor Laurie Harp gives a quick guide to bovine beauty.

"Judges are looking for a quality dairy animal," he says, stating the obvious for a city reporter. "A good frame, width and strength, very sharp and clear in their lines, long necks and legs and deep bodies."

And as if that wasn't enough, professional cow groomers shave the animals so their back hair is neatly angular, shine them with oil and fly spray them to get these babies ready for competition. A cow who wins a prize is a real thing of beauty to a farmer, says dairy chairman Arden Ross.

"The winner's worth more money. It's just like pedigreed cats and dogs."

Residents of Morris say the rodeo is a way of life they've always known. "It just becomes a part of your life," says Jeannie Marion, volunteering in the office with her sister, Margaret Gluck.

"Our dad was involved. He helped with the initial funds. I can't imagine not being here. I take my holidays this week so I can volunteer."

In fact, there are 1,700 people living in Morris and somewhere around 500 volunteers involved with the Stampede.

But the real heart of the Stampede comes from the cowboys. Rodeo judge Denny Robbie, a slender man in scuffed boots and a dusty hat, tries to explain their lifestyle. He and his wife Kim live in Alberta where, he says, "I raise a few bucking horses."

A real cowboy, he says, likes the freedom of the life.

"You're on your own. Cowboys do what they want. If they don't want to do something they don't do it. I think the freedom is really what it's all about."

The appeal of being a cowboy is simple, says Robbie, 54.

"Not just anybody in the world can do this. It's a tough world. It's hard on your body. I had a bull jump on me, broke all my bones, punctured a lung. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Rodeo isn't for sissies.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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