Wannabe cowgirl at the Calgary Stampede

That a 900-kilogram black bull is snorting and stomping in the rodeo chute beside where I stand doesn’t scare me. Even when it starts slamming against the chute rails and tossing its head in a vain attempt to sink a horn into the cowboy straddling the top rails, I’m frightened only a little.

Bull Riding Camp in Calgary, Alberta

Wannabe cowgirls and boys saddle up at fantasy bullriding camp

No, what sets me shaking in my (cowboy) boots are three words from Joe Messina, the cowboy on the top rail and the owner of Fantasy Adventure Bull Riding: “Ann, you’re up.”

After a couple of hours of instruction, including three rounds on a mechanical bull, this wannabe cowgirl is about to sit on that heaving, hot-tempered mass of muscle.

Surely I could’ve found a less bone-crushing way to live out my cowgirl dreams.

A longtime fan of all things western, I’d booked our family vacation to coincide with the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day western whoop-up that began in 1912 and features a big-money rodeo with the world’s best steer wrestlers, tie-down ropers, barrel racers, chuckwagon drivers and bronc and bull riders.

Every July, over one million Stampede-goers transform Calgary into a sea of cowboy hats, plaid shirts and denim jeans. Businesses decorate their premises with bales of hay, wagon wheels and western facades. Much country music is played. Much beer is consumed. Much partying ensues.

Ground zero for the action is Stampede Park, a deliciously chaotic place where visitors chow down on deep-fried Oreos and corn dogs, listen to live music, wander through agricultural exhibits and the Indian Village, ride the midway, check out booths selling robot vacuums and henna tattoos, and watch cowboys compete for over $2 million in prize money.

It’s all great stuff, but my inner cowgirl wants to be more than a spectator.

And so I convince my teenage sons to join me at Fantasy Adventure Bull Riding school. During the three-hour beginner’s course, Bull Riding 101, we’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at this most dangerous rodeo sport and a chance to sit on a bucking bull in a rodeo chute. (The advanced course, Get Bucked, involves opening the chute gate and dealing with the mayhem.)

The course begins in a mess-hall-cum-classroom at Girletz Rodeo Ranch, a 15-minute drive north of Calgary where Joe Messina, the Australian-born former professional bull rider who started the school in 2008, greets us with an enthusiastic “G’day!“

Job one is signing a three-page liability form that includes eye-brow-raising clauses such as this: “I am aware that the sport of bull riding has inherent risks, dangers and hazards, and injuries resulting from these risks are a common occurrence.” Note the word “common.”

“The reality is we are dealing with livestock,” Messina says, “and we will make it as controlled as possible. But this is bull riding.” He reckons 650 people have taken the course and, so far, there’ve been no serious injuries.  “Please don’t be the first victims,” he says with a smile.

The dozen victims, I mean participants, in our class include a dapper accountant from Calgary, two Aussie tour operators, two salespeople from Edmonton, my Vancouver-based family and a 25-year old man who grew up on a farm outside Ottawa and is taking the course because, “I’ve always wanted to get back at the bulls that chased me.”

We begin our lessons with the history of the sport (started as a drunken bet, according to Messina) and a look at the titanium helmet, high-impact-disbursing foam vest and braided rope that are standard issue. I ask if chaps are necessary. “Nah,” Messina answers, “but they look and feel pretty cool.”

Messina uses a wooden saw horse with saddle to go over the basic technique: sit forward, wrap the strap around one hand, hold up the other, keep your eyes on the bull’s neck, and hold on for dear life for eight seconds. He spices up the lesson with personal war stories from his 16 years in competition. “When you get bucked off, you don’t worry about getting caught with a horn,” Messina says. “You worry about getting stepped on—that’s what friggin’ hurts.”

And how do you deal with that hurt? “You gotta cowboy up. Just suck it up princess.”

We tour the back pen area, then take turns riding a mechanical bull simulator (much fancier than the bucking machines found in cowboy bars) that twirls, dips and eventually dumps each of us on to the foam padding that surrounds it.

And then the moment arrives.

“Take this as far as you want to take it,” Messina says as I climb the rails and straddle the chute. Messina and a helper grab the top of my vest (all the better to yank me out if things go bad) and I step down onto the bull’s back. He lurches violently. I drop to my knees and straighten my legs.

Sitting on the restless bull, I take the braided rope and wrap it around my right hand then lift up my left like a rodeo star. The bull lurches again and my right thigh slams hard into the metal rails.

Messina looks at me with concern but I just smile and tighten my grip. Cowboy up, indeed.

 First appeared in up! July 2011

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