As the Calgary Stampede gets underway, Michael Enright recounts how he learned to love and ride horses

This is part of a series of columns by Michael Enright, reflecting his more than 50 years as a journalist and CBC broadcaster covering Canadian and global news events.

Western movies were the staff of life for me growing up in the middle of a big city. Not so much because of the robbin’ and shootin’ and fightin’ but because of the horses. 

The only horse I knew in real life was the tired percheron that pulled the bread wagon along the city streets. Hollywood horses were masters of their country: intelligent, swift, loyal, driven by a kind of equine nobility.

The Big Three in my cowboy dreams were Gene Autry’s horse, Champion, Roy Rogers’s palomino, Trigger, and the great white stallion Silver, ridden by the Lone Ranger. I was mesmerized. I longed for a time when I could actually learn to ride. It was a dream shared by so many young boys.

Actor Roy Rogers, the King of Cowboys, rides his horse Trigger in front of a group of schoolchildren at Harringay Stadium in London, England, on March 20, 1954. (Terry Fincher/Keystone/Getty Images)

There were very few Wild West cowboys and their horses in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1890s, which irked young George Guy Weadick to no end.

He, too, loved the tales of the range riders and gunfighters, the rustlers and the lawmen. In his teens, he headed west, became a trick roper and joined a western show that toured the U.S. and parts of Canada. In 1908, it came to Calgary. Weadick returned there in 1912 and created a yearly summer event that would carry on for more than a century — the Stampede.

WATCH | How the Calgary Stampede became a symbol of Western heritage:

The birth of the Calgary Stampede

Cowboy Guy Weadick kicks off a unique week-long Wild West show.

If the Stampede is about anything, it is about horses. There are hundreds of horses each year in the parade alone. To the true horse lover, it might be a bit disquieting to see politicians of every shape and size, parked atop a tired animal while flashing a mouthful of teeth and waving a spanking new Stetson. In addition to the parade horses, there are horses for the rodeo events, for example the calf-roping, and for the chuckwagon races.

Most of them are American quarter-horses, so named because they can outrun other breeds over short distances such as a quarter mile. According to the American Quarter Horse Association, some have been clocked as fast as 88.5 km/h. They are usually small and stocky but lively and intelligent.

First Nations elders ride during the Calgary Stampede parade on July 9, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

I sat my first horse when I was about 10. It was a cheeky little palomino that loved to run along the Lake Ontario shoreline of the sandbanks in Prince Edward County. Since then I have ridden in Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta and England.

There is an ineffable smattering of ecstasy to riding a horse. Writers who talk about that moment when rider and animal are one may be reaching for dramatic effect, but they are not far off the point. I think the best writer on horses in Canada is Larry Scanlon, who used to work for CBC Radio.

Sitting in a horse saddle strapped to a large, young, muscular animal can be frightening. You have to fall off two or three times before it becomes comfortable.

Horses may not be the smartest animals in the kingdom, but I’ve found they have the best memory, and because they are flight animals, they can smell fear. They can be skittish. I have been thrown by a horse bolting because of a falling branch. You have to gain the confidence of a horse. You have to assert that you are a friend, not a predator. A Blackfoot cowboy in Montana taught me one way to show affection, not danger, to a horse is to blow up its nostril. It works.

Riders take part in a historical reenactment to mark the RCMP’s 125th anniversary in 1999. (Reuters)

Well, not always. In 1999, the RCMP was celebrating the 125th anniversary of its trek from Winnipeg to Lethbridge to assert the federal government’s authority in the West. They asked if I would like to come along on a commemorative ride.

My producer, the brilliant and mordant Willy Barth, agreed to meet the troop in southern Saskatchewan. We were driven to the Mountie campsite by our Saskatchewan producer, Sean Prpick. Willy and I were kitted out in the traditional red serge jacket, jodhpurs and pillbox hat of the RCMP. The wrangler brought us our horses. Mine was an insolent little mare who took an instant dislike of me. I should have known better. Young mares can be troublesome, unruly.

As I began to ride her, she snorted and bucked and whirled her head trying to bite my boot. Before I could wrest some control, I took flight, over the mare’s head.

Zeke Thurston of Big Valley, Alta., rides Lunatic Party at the Calgary Stampede on July 14, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Now, I have been thrown more times than I can count. It’s a simple journey — you let go of the reins, put both hands in front and roll when you meet the ground. For some insane reason, this time I held onto the reins. As I came down over the mare’s head, my right elbow hit the ground and I heard a disquieting crack.

After a chaotic ambulance ride to Regina, it was determined that I had snapped the humerus bone in my right upper arm. My very first day with the Mounties.

The broken arm took three months to heal. The RCMP trek moved on without further mishap. I went back to work on the radio.

I didn’t ride again for about a year. Nerves, I guess. But once I got back up and felt the reins in my hand and my boots in the stirrups, the magic flooded back. In my mind, and I suppose in my dreams, I was where I belonged.

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