With about 50 minutes until showtime, Kurtis Callander sweeps his hand over Ruger's back, brushing any dirt out from the horse's coat before Wednesday’s chuckwagon racing competition at the Manitoba Stampede and Exhibition.
Below the hot afternoon sun, Callander, 41, breaks a sweat working to clean Ruger’s back and neck, hoping to avoid even the smallest piece of dried mud that may irritate the skin underneath the harness and bridle it will soon wear for the annual event, now in its 124th year.
Callander moves over to brush one of the other horses, which lets out a whinny when he touches it.
"They’re all trained the same way," Callander said. "It’s just the personality of the horse."
A few feet to the right, Callander’s father — Ken, 68 — stands with Ranger, one of the other horses the pair will trot out onto the racetrack to compete in one of the weekend’s first events.
The father-son team tour across the country together, making stops at dozens of rodeos and other competitions. They work together to care for each of the 10 horses they bring along with them — but when it’s showtime, it’s every man for himself.
And this weekend in Morris, Kurtis and Ken will face off once again in the chuckwagon races.
"Sometimes it ends friendly," Kurtis said, laughing. "Sometimes not."
For Ken, there have been many times where he could have called it quits. A few years ago, he got hit by another horse into the barrels and run over, breaking his collarbone and one vertebrae.
"He’s hurt himself more than he’s ever hurt his horses on the track," Kurtis said of his father.
But for people like the Callanders, life wouldn’t be quite the same without the rush that comes when your horse blows past another, the risk that comes with the high speeds. And it wouldn’t be quite the same without the community that comes with the sport, either.
"What’s funny is once the summer’s over, you kind of just drift apart. Everybody does their winter stuff," said Callander. "And then you get back together like you were never separated at all."
But now, times are changing — and the event’s organizers have been looking for ways to get a younger crowd involved, said Stampede president Norm Gauthier.
The Stampede has started adding activities, like colouring contests for young kids and on-site beer gardens for young adults, to try to reach the goal that Gauthier hopes will keep the rodeo alive.
"It used to be that it was all families. If grandma and grandpa were coming, the kids were coming, the grandkids were coming. There was no choice," he said. "Now, we want the next generation to be here."
For Morris native Brian Wiebe, the annual event is his hometown’s time to shine.
"Too often, we hear, ‘Morris, oh yeah, that’s that little town you drive through on the way to the States,’" said Wiebe, the festival’s operations director.
"We just want people to know that there’s stuff going on here… For me, it’s very much about community pride and commitment."
Cheryl Sarrasin, one of the event’s directors, said the event helps bring people closer together.
"It’s a love," said Sarrasin. "You come here, and you’re welcomed just like family."
Three years ago, Sarrasin started bringing her great-niece, Haleyna Fehr, along with her — helping to inspire a new generation of rodeo competitors.
"I started because my auntie was always into horses," said Fehr, 14, who has a two-year-old sorrel quarter horse named Cash she’s training to compete in the Stampede’s events one day.
"My favourite thing is barrel racing, so I think that’s what I’m going to teach my little one to do," she said standing next to the race track, eyes glued to the chuckwagon races unfolding in front of her.
"When he’s old enough, we’re going to start doing rodeos together."