Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association is set to wrangle an impressive show
By Nick Winnick
From its humble beginnings in 1991, the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association (ARGRA) has grown to host one of the defining events of southern Alberta summers. The 100%-volunteer run organization is fixing to make this, the sixth Canadian Rockies International Rodeo (CRIR) and Music Festival in its new Strathmore digs, the biggest show yet. Recently, ARGRA's communications director, Drew Davidson, had a chance to give us a rundown of what people itching for a good rodeo event - or even just a good party - can expect from this year's festivities, running June 27th to 29th.
Now in its fourth year accompanying the CRIR, the music festival is offering a wide variety of acts for a wide variety of tastes, though it maintains that quintessential western feel. The scheduled guests include Amy Bishop, who will be performing with Lisa Jacobs, and frequent collaborators Hashmagandy. Also on the roster are Netty Mac, Smoking Aces, and the prairie favorites Jason Hastie and the Alibi.
"Not everyone wants to listen to music," Davidson says. ARGRA is nothing if not prepared to, in his words, "cater to a little bit of everyone, of all age groups. Some people want to mingle, have some good food, and then go to the dance afterward."
ARGRA has lined up an array of vendors and caterers. For the rustic palate, Calgary's Blind Monk will be providing service on the midway, as well as providing for the rodeo contestants. For something outside of the traditional smoked-and-barbecued western fare, the Empenada Queen will also be in attendance, offering authentic Chilean flavours. And anyone who has been through Cochrane on a hot summer afternoon will be delighted to learn that McKay's ice cream will also be available. Furthermore, Earth's Emporium will be on hand, offering fair-trade, ethical goods from across the developing world, as well as a licensed massage therapist to work out the kinks of hard-knock rodeo events.
This is the bread and butter of the annual festivities. Many of the rodeo events will be known to the average rodeo-goer. Rough stock events, including bull riding, steer riding, and chute dogging, as well as the single and team roping events, are well-known in the professional rodeo circuit. There are also a number of speed events that place competitors on horseback, including barrel racing, flag racing, and pole bending. A few events, however - the much-vaunted camp events - are pure delights that can only be seen at a gay rodeo. And unlike traditional rodeos, every event at the CRIR is gender neutral. Men, women, all points in between can compete on their own or in mixed teams.
The first of the camp events, steer decorating, is a speed event for teams of two. "The first contestant would bring the steer across a designated line," Davidson explains, "and the second would be tying a ribbon on its tail. Once that's done, the contestant would remove the rope [tying the steer's] horns, and the contestant runs for the chute to hit the timer." If the ribbon falls off before the contestants hit the timer, it's a disqualification. Believe it or not, despite the hundreds of pounds of agitated steer, Davidson classifies this as an introductory event. "If somebody's had no rodeo experience whatsoever, this is one of the events that people tend to come in on to try it out."
Goat dressing is another perennial favorite. Again in teams of two, contestants chase down a goat and attempt to put a pair of flashy underpants on its hindquarters, tail and all. If the pants come off before the contestants hit the timer, perhaps the goat scores points in its own internal record keeping, but the contestants most certainly do not. One can only imagine what the goats think of the process.
Last but not least, the most intense, and likely the most dangerous of the camp events is the Drag Race. Teams of three competitors are given one haltered steer. One contestant, with the help of a second, coaxes the animal across a designated line. Once across, the third teammate - the one in drag, for whom the event is named - has to successfully mount and ride the steer. All three contestants then draw the steer back to the line to complete the event. The more flamboyant the drag the better, of course, though perhaps this would be a good time to give the expensive evening gowns a miss.
If all this sounds like your cup of tea - and, really, who hasn't daydreamed about hopping on steer-back whilst wearing one's finest sequined ball gown and stiletto heels - ARGRA's rodeo school may be just what you're looking for. For a cost of $25 per event, fledgling cowpokes can learn the fine arts of calf roping (on foot), steer decorating, chute dogging, steer riding, and goat dressing. According to Davidson, "The nice thing about the rodeo school is that the majority of people who go through it will actually sign up to compete the following day." That's right - with just a few short hours training, you can be down in the dust and spotlights with the professional contestants, doing your damnedest to play personal shopper to an unimpressed ungulate.
ARGRA has even set aside a prize for the rodeo's most ambitious first-time competitors. "The new competitor with the most points will be awarded the [Founder's Buckle]," says Davidson. "Not necessarily for the best times, but if you participate in the most events, you could get your own buckle. It's a really nice feeling to have, if it's your first time and you give it your all." One caveat: the rodeo school is a pre-registered event which tends to fill up quickly. If you're feeling a particularly powerful hankering to try your hand at some real western skills, best to visit ARGRA.org and sign up post haste.
As with any event involving animals, the question of their welfare is top-of-mind. While strict vegans and stringent objectors to any use of animals in sport will certainly want to be somewhere other than Strathmore during the last weekend of June, many others will be able to take comfort in knowing that ARGRA abides by the animal welfare guidelines of the International Gay Rodeo Association, whose standards for animal care are actually more stringent than those in the mainstream rodeo circuit.
Davidson is unequivocal on this point. "We very much endorse and adopt the promotion of animal welfare, and human," he says, "and responsible treatment of animals, be it their housing, feeding, training, or exercising during the competition. We're always very concerned about wellbeing. Our stock contractors are informed about all of our policies and by-laws regarding animal welfare, and they are aware of the financial penalties for failing to comply."
As to specific measures? "We prohibit electrical prods in bucking chutes, we don't allow spurs, the flank-straps have fleece so that they're not painful to the animals in any way. We also have a minimum size requirement for goats during the goat event, and they're rotated out, so they do get appropriate rest. After eight 'dressings,' as we call it, the goats are rotated out."
Quoting from IGRA's bylaws, they affirm that: "this responsible use of stock does not rise to the level of abuse. IGRA does not abuse animals nor condone animal abuse, at any time, in any way, by anyone. The IGRA imposes specified rules related to animal welfare which are strictly enforced. The Association penalizes any contestant, official or contractor found to be treating any animals inhumanely." Whether or not this is comforting depends on one's personal definitions of the terms "abuse" and "inhumane," one imagines, though both IGRA and ARGRA maintain that there absolutely are strict and effective standards of animal care in place.
The CRIR's venerable Tornado Nightclub will be in full swing for all three nights of the rodeo, offering more country music in the mix this time around, by popular demand. The club runs from 9pm to 2am on each of the three nights, with an indoor DJ and dance floor, and outdoor bars, tents, fire pits, and lounge areas. Each night will offer up a different DJ set, so that rodeogoers will always have something fresh to unwind with after a day of hard riding, or even hard spectating.
Fully cognisant of the prominent "G" in its acronym, ARGRA has partnered with several local queer advocacy and outreach organizations, in particular Camp fYrefly and the SHARP Foundation. Several fundraising partnerships over the course of the year, including ticket-selling events staffed by SHARP volunteers and the Save4Change piggy bank project, provide all three organizations with some much-needed capital. The youth of Camp fYrefly are even given free rope lessons in the CRIR rodeo school, if they're interested in taking part.