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The south central Saskatchewan village of Wood Mountain is home to the oldest rodeo in Canada, in continuous operation since 1890.

Cowboy on horseback with lasso
Cowboy on horseback with lasso
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Wood Mountain rodeo dates back to when the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) challenged ranchers to horse races and athletic competitions. While the Mounties won most of the field events, the settlers usually won the horse races.

Dates & location

Dates for the Wood Mountain Stampede are the same every year, on the second weekend of July. Dates for the 2024 stampede are July 5, 6 and 7.

The location is also the same annually: Wood Mountain Regional Park, five miles (eight kilometers) south of the village, on Hwy.18.

Driving directions to Wood Mountain from Regina, Saskatchewan: Drive west to Moose Jaw on the Trans Canada Highway, then southwest to Assiniboia on Hwy. 2. Follow Hwy. 13 west for 12.4 miles (20 kilometers), then Hwy. 358 south for 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) to Wood Mountain.

Rodeo events

The Canadian Cowboys' Association (CCA) rodeo events begin on Friday with the arrival of the Wood Mountain Wagon Train. The rodeo schedule includes saddle bronc riding, tie down roping, steer wrestling, team roping and a little britches rodeo for kids.

Saturday's highlight is a horse sale, as well as performances by costumed Rough 'n' Tough Trick Riders, who do acrobatics on speeding horses.

In the late 1800s, Wood Mountain was horse ranching country. Although busting broncs was part of everyday life, the activity didn't become part of the rodeo until 1905. Even then, there were no corrals or chutes. All the events were held on the open range.

Besides the rodeo, there were colorful Indian pow-wows, organized by descendants of Sitting Bull, who returned to the Saskatchewan destination where their ancestors had camped. By the late 1920s, Wood Mountain hills were white with hundreds of Sioux tipis.

Camping at Wood Mountain

Nowadays, the hills are covered with RVs, horse trailers and tents, like ours. We awoke to the whinny of horses and the voices of ranchers carrying hay to their animals.

The aroma of fried bacon and fresh coffee drew us out of our tent to concession stands, where we bought plates heaped with pancakes and sausages. The appetizing aromas didn't rouse the cowboys warmly wrapped in sleeping bags, recuperating from the previous night's Beer Gardens. Cowboy hats protected their faces from the first glimmers of sunlight.

Bareback riding
Bareback riding
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Stampede history

Cars and pickups poured into Wood Mountain Regional Park. People lined up to buy rodeo tickets. Kids 12 and under have free admission.

During Saskatchewan's Wood Mountain Stampede Centennial, in 1990, we met Andrew Caragata, a local rancher, who started the 4-H Club in 1947. He remembered the early years of the Wood Mountain rodeo, when it was a cross between a country picnic and a Wild West Show.

"People who homesteaded here rarely went to the big city," he told us. "They would go to the Wood Mountain Stampede for their entertainment."

He smiled and recalled, "If a fellow had a horse that he couldn't handle, someone would usually brag that he could ride it." And so the competitions grew.

"The highest attendance we ever had was 10,000, one day in 1928," recounted Caragata. "Back in the prohibition era of the late 20s, bootleggers made a fortune selling alcohol to the crowds." (By this time, a racetrack, judging stand and grandstand had been constructed.)

Prize money

During the Great Depression, in the 1930s, prize money was hard to raise, so Wood Mountain rodeo winners were often paid with groceries donated by local merchants. The next day, some of them would be seen trying to trade the dry goods for gas to transport them to the next rodeo, down the road.

Nonetheless, some of the local boys "made it big," according to Caragata. "Carl Olson, who was born and raised here, became World Saddle Bronc Riding Champion in 1947."

To this day, young Saskatchewan cowboys see the CCA rodeo in Wood Mountain as a way to launch their rodeo careers and step towards professional competitions.

Grandstand show

From a packed grandstand, shaded by a brush roof, we watched several of these cowboys competing. To our untrained eyes, they could have been professionals: riding bucking horses that burst out of chutes like coiled springs, roping a calf in less than 10 seconds and riding bulls with daggers for horns. The real hero was the rodeo clown, who darted in front of the bull to distract it from a fallen rider.

Team roping and bulldogging (steer wrestling) were also crowd-pleasers, but bronc riding is what rodeo is all about.

Cowboy on bucking bronco
Cowboy on bucking bronco
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Bucking bronco

"For barebronc riding, we used to use wild horses," explained the announcer, "but they would often run away or take off through the stands. Now we use specially bred bucking horses. The cinch that is tightened around their girth to make them buck is lined with sheepskin and doesn't hurt them."

We certainly saw more hurting cowboys than animals. Many had scrapes, in spite of the pads and tapes that they wrapped around their elbows and thighs. They shrugged off their battle scars with a grin.

Barrel racing

Rodeo isn't a male-only domain. One of the most popular events is ladies' barrel racing, which was introduced in 1954 and became an open rodeo event in the 1960s. Today, barrel racers have their own association, which sets distances and regulations for contestants, who run a clover leaf pattern around three barrels.

Neither have old-timers been forgotten, although we found it rather disconcerting to learn that, in the rodeo world at least, old-timers can mean anyone over 40. Old Timers Rodeos have special competitions for cowboys who are 40+, 50+ and 60+.

Spectators watch steer wrestling (bull-dogging).
Spectators watch steer wrestling (bull-dogging).
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ranching Museum

One of the best places to meet the old-timers and hear their stories is at the Rodeo Ranch Museum, which is operated by the Wood Mountain Historical Society. The museum is open daily between late May and early September.

During the stampede, it looks like a family reunion here. Crowds of ranchers gather around old rodeo photos to see if they can identify family, friends or even themselves.

We saw Andrew Caragata in a photo of the first keg race in 1939. According to Caragata, it ran somewhat like musical chairs. "There were 12 ranchers on horseback and 11 kegs. They'd each ride up to a keg, and keeping one hand on the reins, step off on the keg. The rider, without a keg, was eliminated from the game."

Cowboy boots

Even when the Wood Mountain Stampede is not on, the Rodeo & Ranching Museum is a tribute to ranchers and rodeo cowboys. We saw several saddles, including one from the US Cavalry, brought to Canada by a Sioux Indian in 1877. The Saskatchewan museum also displays cowboy boots and hats, trophies and bags of rosin, which cowboys rub on their leather gloves to help them grip the reins.

Old photos depicted rodeo highlights, from little britches competitions, for children, to wild cow milking contests for adults.

Kids' activities

Today, the rodeo museum caters to both generations. Inside, we saw seniors reminiscing. Outside, children sat in a circle on the lawn, listening to stories about First Nations ranchers and the Wood Mountain Stampede.

Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"In May and June, we show schoolchildren how to light a stove with wood, how to make bread and soap, and how to wash clothes with a board," explained Caragata.

Both the ranching museum and the rodeo left us with a strong sense of community, a feeling you don't get at larger stampedes. "We average 2,000 to 2,500 visitors every year," said Caragata, "but because there are only 600 people in the municipality, they are all involved in some aspect of the rodeo, be it a committee or clean-up crew."

That's the way it has always been at the Stampede. From the days when the NWMP formed the first "committee" to organize events, to the 1940s, when volunteers constructed the grandstand with timber from a CPR bridge, the Saskatchewan rodeo has always been a community project.

Today, the rodeo show goes on, with help from local people who man the gates, unsaddle the horses, line the calves up in the chutes and serve as flagmen, announcers, timers and judges.

Team-roping competition with two riders on horseback
Team-roping competition with two riders on horseback
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

This is precisely what makes the Wood Mountain SK rodeo so appealing. The intimacy of the events offers plenty of opportunities to strike up conversations with families in the grandstands, cowboys in the competitions and ranchers like Andrew Caragata — all of the locals who are part of the history of the Wood Mountain Stampede.


Wood Mountain Stampede: www.woodmountainstampede.com

Tourism Saskatchewan: www.tourismsaskatchewan.com

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