Canada: Join the stampede to Calgary

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It has been 100 years since the annual rodeo extravaganza began in Alberta's largest city. Chris Leadbeater travels to this corner of Canada's wild west to discover that there's more to it than just a cowboy carnival.

At the eastern end of Olympic Plaza, three horses stand in a cluster outside City Hall. Sculpted in bronze, these mute steeds are not the real thing but there is something oddly authentic about their stances – nostrils flared, heads lifted. Equine life in all its nobility. I am scarcely surprised to find them here, at the bureaucratic heart of the matter. For few places are quite as in thrall to the clatter of hooves as this city at a Canadian crossroads.

Calgary is several things: the largest urban enclave in the westerly province of Alberta (though not its capital – that's Edmonton, 180 miles to the north); a dot on the map where the hot breath of the US can almost be felt – the border with Montana is just 160 miles to the south; a metropolis caught between the flat green of the Canadian prairie flowing east, and the ridges of the Rockies rising 50 miles to the west.

But, most famously, it is the home of the Calgary Stampede, a giddy riot of rodeo bravado and cowboy derring-do that pushes itself, not entirely modestly, as "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth". Held every July at Stampede Park – a purpose-built compound of arenas and grandstands in the south-east of the city – this 10-day bonanza draws together a series of riding disciplines that might sound vastly alien to European ears, but which in many Canadian eyes are as familiar and hallowed as the Olympic Games: saddle bronc (where fearless riders try to stay seated on a furiously bucking thoroughbred); tie-down roping (where a competitor on horseback has to lasso a running calf); chuckwagon racing (where horse-and-cart pairings dash round a dirt track to the hollers of a capacity crowd).

This year's Stampede runs from 6 July to 15 July and marks the centenary of the original event. The story goes back to 1912 and one Guy Weadick, a US promoter who conceived the concept of a noisy summer festival that would celebrate the skills and macho iconography of the Wild West. Although it would take until 1923 for the Stampede to become an annual staple, the idea certainly caught the local imagination.

For much of July, Calgary will look and sound like a backdrop to a John Wayne movie. The unflashy dress code of the modern urbanite will give way to the wardrobe of the ranch. Hats, wide of brim, will be much in evidence. Pavements will clack to the footfall of leather boots. Spurs will jangle. A pronounced joviality of spirit will soar, notably in the Pancake Breakfasts – all-you-can-eat morning buffets, proffered for free by community-minded individuals and companies on drags such as Centre Street. The bars on the merry lanes of Stephen Avenue and 17th Avenue will open early and close late. And the whole city will expand to double its usual population of 1.1 million. A further million revellers will swell the head count during the Stampede.

Not everyone is in favour. Ordering a coffee at a café in Inglewood – a small yet bohemian district that skulks on the east side of the Elbow, the lesser of Calgary's two rivers – I start chatting to the waiter. His tone alters when I mention the Stampede. "Oh, you mean Cowboy Mardi Gras," he nods. He is not relishing July's arrival.

With its galleries and delicatessens, Inglewood gives notice that there is more to the city than saddles and stirrups. But by this point, Calgary has already surprised me. Driving in from the airport, I am struck by the number of skyscrapers that obstruct the horizon. It is only when I reach the centre that the optical illusion is shattered – the unwavering level-headedness of the surrounding plains gifting these towers the undeserved stature of a new Manhattan where, in reality, the city's hub is compact.

Yet within this grid there's a genuine vibrancy. Calgary is the "Cultural Capital of Canada" for 2012 and it is not difficult to find the sophisticated flipside to Stampede City. It's in the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Epcor Centre, home to the Calgary Philharmonic, and, in north-westerly Kensington, where the weekend revolves around "Market Collective" and the artists who sell their wares at its many stalls. It is there in the summer Folk Music Festival (26 to 29 July this year) at Prince's Island Park, in the middle of the Bow River, and at the National Music Centre – which currently hosts a somewhat niche collection of keyboard instruments (from Renaissance harpsichords to an Elton John piano) but which is due to bloom into a complex of studios, gig spaces, libraries and cafés by 2014.

Then there is the restaurant scene: Rouge, which, though it nestles in the former home of Alfred Cross – one of the locally revered "Big Four" businessmen who funded the initial Stampede – is more of note for its French-Canadian fare (including an aromatic Alberta lamb tortellini for C$38/£23); the breezy River Café, and its bison striploin in vanilla horseradish (C$46/£28); Charcut, a carnivore's dream, with thick steaks from C$24 (£15).

"There is a battle for the city's identity," Terry Rock, CEO of Calgary Arts Development, tells me. "The Wild West idea is a bit of a myth. We were peacefully settled by the railroad. The guns and cowboys thing didn't really happen here."

While ranching played a role in the growth of the fledgling city, it became a fixture of the prairie only during the settlement boom of the 1890s. Calgary's actual seedlings were less evocative but they linger still, facing each other across 9th Avenue SE: on one side, the remains of Fort Calgary, the Mounted Police base that was the city's kernel in 1875; on the other, the Canadian Pacific Railway, which reached the area in 1883 and still sends its steel behemoths rumbling into the maw of Downtown. When the Calgary Stampede began, cattle-rearing ran only single-generation-deep in Alberta.The sentiment behind Weadick's extravaganza – cracking whips and throaty roar – belonged more to the dangerous dust of Arizona than the calm pastures of Calgary.

And yet, to dismiss the Stampede as confection is to underestimate the place it occupies in the city's soul. Calgary's love for its yearly bonanza is displayed at the Glenbow Museum, where items include pieces by illustrator Edward Borein (until 3 September), whose poster for the 1912 rodeo – a sepia sketch of a cantering cowboy – hints at the event's nostalgic essence. Elsewhere, sculptor Jeff De Boer's Barbed Wire Bronco is a hoof-stomping tribute in rusty knotted metal, while a temporary show, Charlie Russell and the First Calgary Stampede (until 29 July), uses this US artist's paintings of 1912 to conjure up that inaugural hurrah.

This is not to say that the Stampede is without controversy. Safety regulations have been tightened, most urgently in 1986 after a spate of equine deaths (nine in chuckwagon racing alone), while six horses died in 2010 (when 92 British MPs signed an early-day motion calling for it to be banned).

A chat with Keith Merrington, the "Director of Rodeo", involves positive talk of breeding programmes and "$100,000 spent every year on horse welfare". But I realise that the best way to gauge Alberta's attitude to its treasured beasts is to sample it myself.

Beyond the city, where the Trans-Canada Highway ebbs west and the sudden appearance of the Rockies seems to block out the future, there are ranches where visitors can try a day in the saddle. Eagle Feather Riding is a soft hybrid – part equestrian centre, part rehab haven for troubled horses – where clients are encouraged to forge an understanding with their chosen animal before they sally forth. And Boundary Ranch offers rides through the forests of the Kananaskis Valley – my sure-footed "assistant" Hank clip-clopping me up a stony path where pine fragrance hangs in the air.

But the jewel is Rafter Six, a family-run option (with lodge accommodation) so near to the mountains as to be almost touched by their shadows. Here, Kateri Cowley is a poster girl for the Stampede – born into rodeo lore to the extent that, though she is still only 26, this year will see her 27th participation in the opening parade. She is also a contender for its Cowboy Up Challenge, a popular tournament of timed obstacle racing, and an unabashed enthusiast for the Stampede. ("All of Calgary puts on a cowboy hat.") Yet there is no doubting the mutual trust between her and her horse. Kokanee is her best friend, she says, and recalls a close encounter with a grizzly bear two years ago when her nigh-on telepathic connection with the horse helped her extract them from a crisis in which panic on either part would have been fatal.

There are no such scares as we embark on a trail towards the Kananaskis River, my mount, Sheriff, steady and reliable – even when we cross what must be desperately cold water, his flanks submerged below the surface. The Calgary Stampede may not be to everyone's taste – but here, with the last of the winter snow clinging to the summits of the Rockies, the notion of man and horse in symmetry is an easy one to believe.

Travel essentials

Getting there

BA and Air Canada fly to Calgary from Heathrow.

Touring there

Timeless Travel (timelesstravel.co.uk) has five nights in Calgary and two at Rafter Six during the Stampede for £2,484pp (inc flights/car hire).

Staying there

Calgary Marriott Downtown (marriott.com). Doubles, C$171 (£106), room only.

Rafter Six (raftersix.com). Doubles, C$189 (£118), B&B.

Visiting there

Stampede tickets from C$16 (£10) (calgarystampede.com). Boundary Ranch (boundaryranch.com). One-hour rides from C$44 (£27). Eagle Feather Riding (eaglefeatherriding.ab.ca). Lessons from C$50 (£31). Epcor Centre (epcorcentre.org). Fort Calgary (fortcalgary.com; C$12/£7.50). Glenbow Museum (glenbow.org; C$14/£9). MoCA Museum (mocacalgary.org; free). National Music Centre (nmc.ca). Tours C$10 (£6).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Commonwealth GamesEntertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
The actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game