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 ( 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 ( Doubles, C$171 (£106), room only.

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

Visiting there

Stampede tickets from C$16 (£10) ( Boundary Ranch ( One-hour rides from C$44 (£27). Eagle Feather Riding ( Lessons from C$50 (£31). Epcor Centre ( Fort Calgary (; C$12/£7.50). Glenbow Museum (; C$14/£9). MoCA Museum (; free). National Music Centre ( Tours C$10 (£6).

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'