Canada: Join the stampede to Calgary

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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).

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