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Chasing Cowboys in Canada’s Cosmopolitan Prairie Metropolis

Calgary is something of a Dallas of the North: the oil boom led to a frenzy of skyscraper-building. Like Dallas, the metropolis is surrounded by extensive ranching country. A day as a cowgirl at the mecca of Wild West culture.

“Howdy, partner!” For ten days in July, that form of address is used not only by gruff cattle herders and seasoned ranch owners. During the Stampede, everyone in Calgary is infected with the cowboy bug: students, hotel receptionists, businesspeople, literally everyone. The world’s largest rodeo is a giant-scale western spectacle that includes pancake breakfasts, a parade, country music, lassoing, and bull riding, of course. When Canada’s Prairie Metropolis celebrates its fifth season of the year, the thinking is big: 7500 animals and more than 2000 volunteers have their work cut out. On the Calgary Stampede Ranch that encompasses approximately 23,000 acres of land, hundreds of horses are bred especially for the various competitions. The prize money exceeds $2 million. Every evening on the “half mile of hell”, 36 chuck wagons compete fiercely to win the race. 80,000 costumes serve as requisites for the subsequent Grandstand Show. Every year, 1.5 million visitors flock to the grounds to see the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”.

Photos: pictures provided

Tough leather meets delicate lace

But in Canada’s oil capital, Wild West dreams do not only come true during the Stampede. As the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, Calgary is surrounded by an infinite prairie landscape that is ideal for grain farming and cattle breeding. Romantic campfire ambience, a spirit of adventure and a sense of boundless freedom are omnipresent, stretching as far as the city’s mirrored skyscraper canyons. I have decided to spend a day immersed in the western lifestyle. But where to start as a complete fledgling who, besides appreciating country music, has no western expertise to show? Accomplished cowgirl Kateri Cowley knows how to help. She is the first woman ever to win the Stampede’s “Cowboy Up Challenge” that involves completing an obstacle course, of a sort, in the shortest possible time. She was also crowned Stampede Princess once. “You see, cowgirls are made of tough leather and delicate lace,” the petite horsewoman explains. Which brings us to lesson number one: “The right cowgirl look requires not just a hat and boots, but also a healthy dose of self-confidence. You don’t walk, you swagger. There’s no messing with you, but you have a sweet aftertaste.” I obviously need to work on my attitude; so let’s start with the boots.

Boots for Brad Pitt and Kevin Costner

Real Calgarians buy their boots from the Alberta Boot Company, where each pair is made on site and in traditional handcraft. “200 steps (no pun intended) are required to create a boot out of 1.5 square metres of leather,” trained shoemaker Ben Gerwin explains. He is at the helm of this third-generation family business, set up in the 1970s. An “ordinary” pair made of cowhide leather, suitable for everyday use, costs from 300 Swiss francs upward. “We also work with more exotic materials,” says Gerwin and opens the door to what he refers to as his “treasure chamber”: ostrich, crocodile and stingray skins are stored in the chamber. Especially celebrities –such as Brad Pitt and Kevin Costner– like to treat themselves to a bespoke pair of boots. “So far, our most expensive pair cost $4000.” The company also produces footwear for the world-famous Canadian Mounties (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). “We are very proud of that, no question. But, for me, the greatest honour is to have regular customers come into our shop and spend their hard earned money on our quality products,” says Gerwin. And I really believe him.

During the Stampede, a whopping 400 pairs of boots are sold every day. That translates to a total of 4000 – and is a good half of the company’s annual production. Decorative seams in bright turquoise, boot tips in silver, fire-engine-red thigh-highs and star-graced disco boots: with over 3000 different pairs of boots to choose from in the Alberta Boot Company salesroom, the trained eye of a sales professional is essential. Irene has worked for the company for 27 years – longer than her boss. “With time, you know whom you are dealing with,” she says as she scurries off to the other end of the store. In no time at all, she has set out her favourites for me to try. I go for a discreet pair of knee-high boots in light brown leather. They fit like a glove.

The way to a cowboy’s heart is through his horse

My goal: to become a cowgirl from head to toe. For that purpose, I clearly need a hat. And what’s good enough for William and Kate can’t be bad for an ordinary mortal like me. The place to go is Smithbilt Hats. When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the Stampede in 2011, they wore the prime design of this long-standing Canadian hat company: a white cowboy hat made of felt. Originally created in 1946, it is today a popular tradition to present visiting VIPs with the “White Hat”.

But a Smithbilt is not just reserved for special occasions: “Whenever I leave the house, I wear my hat. It’s a part of me,” says Bryce Nimmo, the president of the company. A hat is something very personal: “We all have our individual style. Some desire a pink bow, others have a very clear idea of the shape. At the end of the day, I want everyone to be happy with their headgear. ” Nimmo explains. Women, in particular, often feel uncomfortable and are concerned that a hat will be too overpowering. His trick: “A narrower brim.”

It certainly works for me. But I still need a few more essentials for the perfect cowgirl look: jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, a belt and –very important– a silk scarf. “Men wear a wild rag here, too,” Kateri explains, ‘because, besides keeping you warm, it can be used as a bandage or an emergency horse holster.” She suggests I start by showcasing my outfit in the Ranchman’s Club. “You can attempt to ride on the mechanical bull and, even more importantly, let your hair loose at line dancing.” Following a rather clumsy start, I master the choreography and am amazed that dancing in chunky cowboy boots is very doable. I have one last question: how to win the heart of a cowboy? Kateri raises an eyebrow. “Now that’s an easy one: talk to him about his horse!”

“Kateri Cowley, you grew up on a ranch and are an equestrian expert. Did you ever consider a different career?”

“Not really. I have worked with horses all my life. Apart from a few modelling jobs and my work as a stunt double in films and on TV, being in the saddle is what I like best. Nothing beats riding along the river in the Rocky Mountains.”

“What fascinates you most about your work with horses?”

“We can learn so much from them about ourselves! They show us benevolence, patience, respect and discipline. My horse is my most important companion and my greatest love.”

“What matters most when riding at your level?”

“A flawless communication between the horse and the rider. And, above all, deep mutual trust.”

“You lived in Texas for a while. How is cowgirl life different there from Calgary?”

“The Texans have no idea about ice hockey or maple syrup. But we agree on one point: there is nothing better than the Stampede.”

Kateris survival tips for the Stampede

On no account should the opening parade be missed! Early risers will be rewarded. The run for the best seats starts at 6 am. Don’t forget to bring your camp chair!

Planning is everything. In addition to an information brochure which lists all of the activities and events, there is a Stampede app. Rodeo competitions take place in the afternoons. Showdown Sunday is the highlight.

Deep-fried beaver? The name Beaver Balls may sound slightly off-putting, but no Stampede visit is complete without savouring this speciality. More than two million of the small doughnuts are sold at the annual happening.

Text: Marlies Seifert