Airdrie Pro Rodeo hasn’t always been the five-day professional event it is today. In fact, it started off rather modestly.
According to longtime resident Dan McKinnon, it all started in 1967 when members of the Lions Club, then just two years old, decided to organize an event to mark Canada’s centennial.
“There wasn’t a single thing planned for Airdrie, so we decided to have a parade and gymkhana,” says McKinnon, noting the one-day event, held on July 1, was “mostly for the kids.”
Held at the Plainsmen Arena, the event, which featured several horse races, was a success, prompting the club to make the parade, gymkhana and sports day an annual occurrence.
Without a permanent home, the event moved around the then-small town, being held on the Towerlane mall site and then on the west side of Nose Creek. McKinnon says what didn’t change was the commitment from hard-working volunteers who made the event a success each year.
“It took us two weeks to get set up,” says McKinnon, as an example of this hard work, explaining the corrals and chutes had to be erected and dismantled every year.
Finally, the Lions Club decided to permanently locate to the Airdrie Pro Rodeo Grounds, located west of the city, and built the corrals, ring and fences on the site.
“The reason that it is blue-and-yellow fencing is because that was the Lions Club’s colours,” says McKinnon, who grew up about four kilometres east of Airdrie and has been a Lion’s member for 51 years.
According to McKinnon, the rodeo didn’t always attract world-class cowboys, but it did draw in folks from “quite a distance.”
Longtime rancher Ron Hanson was on the organizing committee when the rodeo went pro in 1993. He explains the format of the rodeo changed over the years, from being novice, to senior and back to novice in the late 1980s.
“We built it up to the biggest novice rodeo in Alberta except for the finals in Red Deer,” says Hanson, noting difficulties in getting sponsorships prompted the organizing committee to make the leap to professional.
Although the decision was a good one, with sponsorship quadrupling after the rodeo went pro, Hanson said it was a controversial choice as some were concerned the event would lose its local touch. To quell concerns, the organizing committee decided to keep several novice events, including bareback, saddle bronc and boy’s steer riding – contests that are still a popular part of the annual event.
Hanson notes over the past 15 years or so, Airdrie Agricultural Society has also sponsored a children’s rodeo with contests such as the wild pony race, calf scramble and mutton bustin’.
“That’s been a huge hit,” says Hanson, noting the rodeo also once featured pony chuckwagon races.
Stu Morison, who was born and raised just west of the rodeo grounds and served as the Airdrie Pro Rodeo manager for several years, agrees that there was some concern about going pro. But he feels it was a good decision.
“It has been quite successful,” he says. “The biggest thing is that it is a nice, rural sitting, [and] you can sit there and be 30 feet away from the action.”
Morison volunteered at the rodeo for many years, and has some great anecdotes – including a scene involving 50 horses let loose in the arena on a wet day one late June.
“They were all rolling in the sand, it was just unreal,” he says, noting the hilly terrain of the rodeo grands has made for many spectacular views over the years.
Mostly, Morison recalls the many hours of volunteering time he and others have put in, and the many friendships formed along the way.
“There have been some great people involved in Airdrie’s rodeo,” says Morison. “We spent a lot of time out there.”
It’s a sentiment to which Lorie Young, who sits on the organizing committee, can attest. She sees many of the committee members as her “second family” and says the passion of the volunteers is what ties the rodeo’s past to its present.
“When you get to know this group of people, you will understand why we have been around for 50 years,” says Young.
Brenda Moon served as president of the Airdrie Rodeo Ranch Association, the group responsible for putting on the rodeo, in the early 2000s. Born in Edmonton, Moon is a “first-generation city girl” who has lived in the Airdrie area since 1997. She and her husband live on a 40-acre spread east of Airdrie.
“I have a passion for all things western,” says Moon when asked why she got involved with rodeo shortly after moving to the area. “It was something I could get involved with; something that I thought I could make a difference with,” says Moon, who notes joining the board was also a way to get involved in her new community.
Moon is proud of the five-day event and proud of the many volunteers whom she says work tirelessly year round to make the rodeo successful. Moon’s chest also swells in pride when she talks about the Airdrie Pro Rodeo’s Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, an ongoing tradition that has raised funds and awareness for breast cancer every year since its inception around the year 2000.
“I am a two-time breast cancer survivor, and I think the campaign is a great way to bring attention to the disease,” she says.
One of Moon’s fondest memories was when a group of breast cancer survivors took to horseback or were pulled in a wagon behind a team of Belgian draft horses – while their foals, sporting pink scarves, ran alongside – to bring awareness to the disease.
Lorie Young has helped organize the Airdrie Pro Rodeo for a number of years and says last year women outnumbered men on the executive board. She says although rodeo can be perceived as a guy’s sport, she has always felt welcomed and appreciated for her commitment.
“Women have the same passion as the guys,” says Young when asked why she got involved, adding she stays because of the “second family” she has gained by being involved.
Young says most female rodeo volunteers aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, and can often be found working alongside the guys.
“The guys do listen and respect our opinions,” says Young, adding the Ranch Association includes women who have been volunteering for up to 20 years.
Leanne Grenier, who has been the director of the rodeo’s Royalty Program for a decade, couldn’t agree more. She said there is a tremendous amount of respect shown amongst the volunteers, regardless of gender, and no one is above any job.
“Everyone does the same chores,” says Grenier, a self-described farm kid who grew up in the Airdrie area. “It has never been ‘that’s a man’s job.’ Everyone pitches in.”
Over the years, Grenier says, the impact of the young women who have served as queens and princesses has proven that females add a great deal to the rodeo.
“They are the role models; the public relations representatives,” she says. “The rodeo is five days, but these girls make people aware that there’s a rodeo for the other 365 days a year.”
Looking to the Future
Fifty years in, the future of the Airdrie Pro Rodeo is looking bright, thanks to the long-term commitment of volunteers, including several families whose members have been involved almost since the event’s inception.
Brett Raines, a member of the Airdrie Rodeo Ranch Association, has served as arena manager since 2012, ensuring things are in place and running smoothly. He is a familiar face at the rodeo, having volunteered when he could for three decades.
“Now that I am back in the community, I got recruited to work at the rodeo,” he says with a laugh, explaining he grew up in the area and is no stranger to rodeo, having worked as a bull fighter, who lures animals away from cowboys in the arena after their rides, and raised rodeo stock, including fighting bulls and bucking horses.
Raines manages 24 arena volunteers, who not only take care of the livestock, but ensure the animals are in the right place at the right time. He says many of the volunteers hail from just a handful of local families.
“Some of the volunteers are third generation,” says Raines, mentioning the Hansons and the Fletchers as examples. “Being farm and ranch kids, I guess it is something their families did and they carried on,” he says of the multi-generation volunteers.
Raines says he relies heavily on those who have experience working with livestock, explaining most of his volunteers are in their 20s or younger and the majority put in five long, hard days – with chores as varied as feeding, watering, loading and sorting the animals to knowing when to swing the gates during the events.
“It starts in the morning and goes throughout the day,” he says. “I have a good, good bunch of guys – they work hard, they are right there and hard at it.”
Despite their youth, some of his core volunteers have already put in 15 years, says Raines, explaining many of them are lifelong friends. These keen, young volunteers are what gives Raines a sense of optimism about the future of the rodeo.
“We already have a succession plan,” he says. “They are getting the experience they need so [the older volunteers] can move away and they can step up.”
Wayne Hanson, the president of the Ranch Association, said he remembers being involved as a kid. His dad, Ron, a well-known Airdrie-area rancher, got the family involved, and now Wayne’s son, Travis, 26, is also heavily involved. Wayne says Travis’ involvement began when he was about 10 or 12, adding the Fletcher family is much the same when it comes to their involvement in the rodeo.
“We enjoy the rodeo, and everyone should be giving back to the community,” says Wayne of his family’s long-term commitment. “Our whole committee works tirelessly. I am really proud of the crew we’ve got.”
Rob Brietzke is a past president of the Pro Rodeo Association who has been involved with the local rodeo for 21 years. An experienced horseman who grew up on a farm north of Edmonton and whose whole family now volunteers at the Airdrie Pro Rodeo, Brietzke has developed an appreciation for the many volunteers who keep the rodeo running as smoothly as possible.
“The coolest thing for me is looking out [at the rodeo] and seeing the crowd enjoying the moment and not knowing the organized chaos going on behind the scenes,” he adds.
Brietzke, who sat on the board of directors for the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association for several years, says the commitment of locals to the rodeos is inspiring.
“I can’t say enough about the volunteers and the sponsors who have been there all along,” he says.
Brietzke is excited about the future of the Airdrie Pro Rodeo, explaining the growing fan base means the event will be successful for years. Wayne is also optimistic about the future of the rodeo.
“If we can stay well sponsored and get buy-in from the City of Airdrie, could have this thing one of the top two or three rodeos in Canada pretty easily,” says Wayne. “I think we are just starting to burn with it now.”