With the Stampede done for another year, employees and volunteers are enjoying much-needed downtime and quiet days.
So, too, do the bucking star horses that brought the Stampede rodeo to life. Five days after Final Sunday, I visited Stampede Ranch by Hanna. I was accompanying Gabriele, a photojournalist from Germany on a round-the-world tour to capture images and stories of horses in their most natural elements. An experienced rider and horse breeder, she marveled at the Stampede Ranch herd’s health, pride, natural herd social dynamics, and healthy curiousity about the people who came to visit them.
Bucking horses from the Stampede’s Born to Buck breeding program enjoy the most natural herd setting of any domesticated animals – with natural mixed ages herds raised on open pasture with minimal human contact beyond being halter-broken to receive regular medical treatment. Ranch-hands keep an eye on them, watching for injuries or illness and ensuring they get grain to supplement their grazing as needed. But otherwise, the herds generally roam unencumbered and freely across the ranch’s vast 23,000 acres and open skies.
When we arrived at Stampede Ranch, we hopped in the truck with ranch hand Trevor and drove to the expansive pasture where one part of the herd was relaxing – a mere 150 horses or so. There are another 450 in other pastures father afield, including the stallions, breeding mares and colts and bucking bulls that are kept separate from the general population.
In the distance you could see clumps of horses grazing. A few honks of the truck horn and the herd perked up and headed our way, lured by the promise of grain trailing from the truck with the push of a button. Soon the herd was strung out in a long looping line, munching contentedly.
This herd included current bucking stars, up and comers, retired bucking horses, and horses that never made it on the rodeo circuit, but contribute as members of a healthy herd mixture of ages and temperaments.
We hopped out of the truck and snapped photos. At first the horses sidestepped around us. But as the grain was eaten and they began grazing, they all edged closer and closer, their curiousity about the newcomers in their midst overcoming their natural shyness. Soon we were surrounded by the curious gentle giants, nudging in closer to get a look at us, and in some cases, get a pet from us.
Trevor rolled off the names of bucking stars – past and present, pointing out which horses had a bit more thoroughbred, quarter horse or heavy horse blood in the mix. There was the semi-retired Gin Neat, a name well-recognized in rodeo circles. I spoke a soft word and current bucking star Nightmare Rocket strode straight up to me for a cuddle. We’ve met before several times and he’s always eager to have his nose and cheeks petted, whether in the pasture or in the pens prepping for his performance. He was equally happy for a scratch and pat from Gabriele.
There was Lynx Mountain and Loadstone Jade, two long-time stars who are still bucking strong and kicking cowboys into the dirt. Suddenly Loadstone Jade was right up close, curious and looking for a bit of a pet from Trevor, who was happy to oblige.
With reluctance, we shook off the 100’s of horses and headed back to the pens to visit the bucking bulls, stallions and some of the new baby colts with their mares. Here, we opted to stay in the truck to avoid raising any maternal defensiveness, and simply marveled at the baby buckers from afar.
Wistfully, we thanked Trevor for his time and headed back to town, pausing at the ranch gates to share stories of late greats such as Coconut Roll and Cindy Rocket, legendary Stampede bucking stars buried in this place of honour when age and declining health claimed them at last.
But they live on within the ever-increasing power, strength and pride we see in their offspring. What a rare treat to enjoy this peaceful day, photographing just a small slice of the wonderful, natural quality of life these incredible horses enjoy all year-round at the Stampede Ranch.