Going Western at the Calgary Stampede

In my very first memory of the Calgary Stampede, when I never dreamed I would someday be a Calgarian myself, I’m walking through horse poop three inches deep in my white

Cowgirl in white standing up on the saddle of a palomino horse

Riding in the Calgary Stampede parade (courtesy of Calgary Stampede, photo credit:: Mike Ridewood).

shoes, clarinet in hand. Our high school band is lining up behind the scenes waiting to march in the big parade behind 10,000 or so incontinent horses. As it turned out, that was just the marshalling yard. The parade route itself was kept nice and clean. The spectators never knew how we suffered for our art.

My marching days were long ago. Now I’m one of the spectators too, alongside fellow Calgarians and guests from all over the world. A lady from France near me one year was terribly excited about the cowboys. “It’s our trip of a lifetime, to see the real true West!” she said, and clearly it was all living up to her expectations.

The Stampede Parade is the official start of The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, the granddaddy of Wild West shows, mixing rodeo with country fair, agricultural exhibition, Western art auction, and all-round festival of cowboy culture old and new.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • You’ve always wanted to be a cowboy.
  • After the Stampede, there’s more! Calgary is a popular jumping off point for longer summer road trips through the Canadian Rockies via Banff and Lake Louise to Vancouver.
  • The Stampede has something for all ages. By day, there’s lots for kids and families to see and do. At night, there’s a unique, fun Western bar scene that comes alive for Stampede week when everyone’s a cowboy or cowgirl.

Dressing Western is a must. If you don’t know how, copy the cowboys: Hat, shirt, belt buckle, jeans. I’m not going to recommend wearing new cowboy boots 24-7, but if you want a pair, the Alberta Boot Company is the place to go.

The parade ends around noon and then the crowd mostly drifts south to the Stampede grounds.

When people in Calgary say, “Have you been to the Stampede yet?” they mean, “Have you been to the Stampede grounds yet?” When they say, “We’re going Stampeding, wanna come?” they mean, “We’re dressing Western, heading to any bar with country music, and we’re going to drink beer and dance all night. Care to join us?” Too much going to the Stampede is OK, but too much Stampeding hurts, or so I’m told.

Whatever your preference, Stampede or Stampeding, try to make it to at least one early morning pancake breakfast. The CBC has a really good one, but it’s also one of the first. Don’t worry if you miss it. There are plenty to choose from. Chow down, round ‘em up, and head out to the fair.

Cowboy polishing coat of the side of a big dark draft horse in harness

Getting a horse ready to show (photo courtesy of Calgary Stampede, photo credit: Bill Marsh).

At the grounds, the kids love the midway rides and games, and everybody can find something fun amongst all the free shows. It changes from year to year but some of the favourites are the pig races, the BMX trick bike riders, the rock concerts and variety shows on the Coca-Cola Stage, and of course, the Super Dogs. In the agricultural show tent, there are ongoing, fascinating competitions, where the Australians show the rest of us how to shear a sheep in under a minute, for example.

Those Little Donuts and Other Stampede foods

What would a fair be without food? Expect all variations of fried stuff on a stick, and some new inventions making their debut here. As a Stampede food traditionalist, I go for beer nuts, Those Little Donuts, Beef on a Bun or Back Bacon on a Bun, and later in the evening, maybe a beer.

Sometime in the day, we wander through the barns to see the champion beasts. Before they show off in the judging ring, these horses, cows and bulls are brushed and groomed to a perfect glossy shine. These aren’t pets, they’re livestock, but in Stampede week, each one is as pampered as a prize poodle.

The calm animals in the barns are the opposite of the broncs and bulls of the rodeo. You need to buy a ticket to see the classic man versus beast contests, like bronc and bull riding, steer wrestling, and barrel racing, the only women’s event.

Animal welfare advocates criticize the Stampede for using animals for sport. Rodeo supporters say the events are carrying on a Western tradition based on skills still used in real-life ranching. It’s one of those debates guaranteed to go on as long as there’s a rodeo.

A man and woman in cowboy dress have their backs to us while looking at colourful fireworks. He has his arm around her.

Fireworks and romance at the Stampede (photo courtesy of Calgary Stampede, photo credit: Tye Carson).

The evening chuckwagon races offer more controversy, exciting as they are to watch. Four wagons race in each of the nine nightly heats. Four racehorses pull each wagon, with two outriders alongside. That’s a 24-horse race around a half-mile track.

Afterward, you can stay in your seat and watch the grandstand show, followed by the closing fireworks display, or you can go out and explore the grounds instead.

The Calgary Stampede is a 10-day opportunity to dress Western, slack off work, have fun with friends and get a taste of cowboy culture.

Thanks to my early band experiences, I get all choked up at the parade whenever a high school band marches by. I often wonder if their first Stampede memory will be the same as mine: poo on shoes.

Practicalities

  • Check the Calgary Stampede’s website for detailed information and ticket ordering.
  • The Stampede always starts on a Friday in early July. Check the exact dates as they change from year to year.
  • Book your accommodation as soon as you can.
  • Stay near a C-Train station to travel to and from the Stampede grounds and downtown by train rather than driving. Check Calgary Transit’s website for more information.
  • Calgary International Airport (YYC) is well-served by all the major airlines. WestJet Airline is based here.
  • The drinking age is 18. Don’t drink in public, only at licensed bars and restaurants. Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious crime.
  • Expect warm to hot weather in Calgary by day, but pack warm clothes as the evenings can be cool. A warm jacket and long trousers (blue jeans!) are a good idea for the evening. If you plan to travel to the mountains, keep in mind that the temperature can fall below freezing occasionally even in July.

Thanks to the Calgary Stampede and photographers for these wonderful photos from their collection on Flickr: Standing on Horse (Mike Ridewood), Shine ‘Er Up (Bill Marsh) and Fireworks Romance (Tye Carson).

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