I was wading through a sea of cowboy hats. The smell of barbecue and fried corn dogs wafted through the air. As I passed the giant bronze cattle statues, it seemed for a moment that I might have accidentally wandered into the Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show, but this event wasn’t even in the same country. Texas rodeos don’t have poutine. I was at the Calgary Stampede, billed as the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, and who am I to argue? It’s pretty amazing.
Alberta, Canada is the closest to a Texas doppelgänger that the Great White North offers. The province is famous for its cattle ranching and oil production. Its rodeo is the largest on earth and, not surprisingly, there are tons of Texas cowboys that come to the stampede to win their share of Canuck bucks.
Calgary has a short summer before it plunges into a freezing winter, and the stampede takes place during the warmest part of the year. Not only is it a world-class event, but the entire province gets into the revelry. The mood is infectious. It’s a chance for everyone to kick up their heels before the nights get longer and the snow starts to fall.
Is it better than the Houston Rodeo? That’s hard to say. The crowd certainly has an incredible time, and you can’t really say you know the rodeo until you’ve done both.
West Jet, Air Canada and United all offer direct flights to Calgary from Houston. Flights start as low as $250 round-trip. Book your hotel or Airbnb in advance because the entire city sells out during the rodeo.
The focus of the 10-day event is the Grandstand Rodeo. Calf tie-down roping, barrel racing, steer wrestling and six other daily events offer a combined $2 million in prize money. The top performers in the world come to win. I saw a Texan lasso a calf, jump off his horse, and tie a bovine’s legs in 6.9 seconds. That’s about half a second longer than the world record.
I can’t even tie my shoes that fast.
There are several arenas scattered throughout the saddle dome with plenty of different things to do. You’ll find all genres of live music at the Coca-Cola stage, the North Nashville area and the newest building, The Big Four; all of which offer unique experiences. The Big Four was named after the founders of the event and serves beer and barbecue with various bands taking their turns on the stage.
Canadians love their beer, and there are many local choices that don’t disappoint. You won’t see potato salad and barbecue sauce with your smoked meat though. Instead, you’ll find horseradish cabbage salad and strips of bacon. Also served: pulled pork, pulled chicken and miniature sausages served with semi-sweet rolls, and poutine, the standard junk food choice of Canada—French fries covered with gravy and cheese curds. You'll either love it or hate it.
This year there was a trained dog show: Dogs catching frisbees, canines racing through obstacle courses and shaggy mutts dancing with their trainers. The arena was full of delighted dog lovers. Outside in the midway section, motorcycle daredevils wowed the enthusiastic crowd as they raced up ramps and somersaulted through the air. Dogs, motorcycles, and junk food. What’s not to like?
One of the highlights of the Stampede is the chuck wagon racing. It’s a controversial sport because both riders and horses have lost their lives in this high-octane race. The “half-mile of hell” is vehemently opposed by animal activists, but has been a tradition for almost a hundred years. The wagons—usually four per race and accompanied by outriders—first complete a figure-eight around barrels and then do a lap around the track. The entire affair takes about one minute. It’s fast and furious, and the most talked-about part of the rodeo.
The first chuck wagons were those that served participants a pancake breakfast. Ninety-five years later, Volunteers still line the streets throughout Calgary offering free flapjacks for hungry, wannabe cowboys. Who doesn’t love free pancakes?
The heart of the Stampede is about the animals that make it happen, and there’s a chance to view and interact with many of the stars of the show, watch demonstrations, and git your cowboy on. I saw some of the biggest horses I’ve ever seen, many beautifully-polished hooves and horns on perfect animals, and miniature donkeys, a sheep exhibit, and what appeared to be the world’s largest petting zoo, complete with llamas and clean baby pigs—there's not much in the world more adorable than that.
One of the largest sections of the rodeo is the midway. I’ve never seen so many people trying to win stuffed bears with games of chance. Attractions that might have one or two players at the Houston Rodeo are literally swarmed with contestants all vying to win the coveted plush awards.
You won’t see any Canadians walking the stampede with a beer in hand. It’s verboten. Alcohol is served only in designated areas, but the concession stands have all the standards including turkey legs and fried everything, though miniature donuts, root beer, and soft serve ice cream are the most popular.
I couldn’t figure out why soft serve cones are such a big deal in Cowtown (Calgary’s nickname), but there’s all sorts of variations to the frozen treat that I’ve never seen before. I also witnessed the Canadian premiere of the latest addition to the international junk food scene—the pickle corn dog. Concessionaires wrap a hot dog in a a pickle and then fry it in corn batter. There's even a pickle juice chaser.