A Quarter Horse leaps into the rodeo arena, nostrils flared, ears at attention.
At the opposite end, a wrangler-clad cowboy pumps himself up, rubbing his hands together and bouncing on his toes.
Following a nudge from his rider, the horse spins on gleaming haunches and careens toward the cowboy. As horse and rider round the arena’s short end, they are moving so fast they seem tipped at 45-degrees. The cowboy springs forward, grabs the saddle horn in his left hand, and swings aboard, behind the original rider.
The crowd bursts into whoops and applause, rocking the stands as the trio crosses the timers as one, stopping the clock at just over eight seconds. Announcer Stephane Daoust calls the time in French, and I’m reminded that I’m not in Colorado anymore.
Every September, St-Tite, Quebec swells from 4,000 to roughly 600,000 people as rodeo contestants and enthusiasts descend for the two-week. A startling majority don cowboy hats and boots. The streets are lined with musicians, vendor tents and food trucks. Poutine anyone? For a small fee, residents offer up their front lawns as campsites and parking spaces for visitors.
For 50 years, this little village sitting on the Rivière des Envies, halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, has built its economy and much of its identity around an adopted culture. The Festival Western began as a way to generate publicity for Boulet, a local leather working and boot making company. The event soon became synonymous with the town itself, drawing competitors and exhibitors from all over North America and as far away as Australia.
“[The Festival Western] wouldn’t be the rodeo it is without the enthusiasm of St-Tite,” says Daoust, who competed for more than two decades before moving behind the microphone. “Québécois are dreamers. We intentionally brought rodeo here, even though we didn’t really have a ranching culture.”
St-Tite’s rodeo does include a mix of standard ranching-inspired sports. But it’s the Quebec-bred gymkhana classes that set it apart: the(rescue race), the (exchange of rider), and the (pony express). These events, with their mix of cowboy grit and trick riding flare, came about in response to a desire for additional contests that offer the thrill and speed of barrel racing.
“There are many events in the rodeo that are made for ranch work. [We are] doing them for starting the horses, getting a horse ready to ride. But the gymkhanas are a bit more exciting. Kids wanting to play with the horses and trying to do their own tricks,” says Daoust. But they also draw on history for their inspiration.
The pony express mimics the high speed swaps mail delivery riders made when trading a tired mount for a fresh one. The rescue race and exchange of riders don’t have such clear roots, but according to Daoust, they are inspired by days when wars were largely fought by a mounted cavalry.
The stadium buzzes. Nine of the 11 professional rodeos held throughout the 2017 Festival Western de St-Tite, the event’s 50th anniversary, sold out. Surrounded by 7,300 other fans, I watch as the ring crew sets up for the second and final gymkhana event of the evening, placing course markers and lining the arena walls with mats. Between rounds, they will diligently rake the footing. With just milliseconds separating teams, everything has to be perfect.
All equestrian sports are based on timing, but in the gymkhana it’s amplified. The horses can reach 50 kilometers per hour in a matter of feet, and partnerships are more complicated.
“You have to have a great horse and a great partner. It’s not just about a good horse. It’s about having a good teammate,” says Daoust. During his years as a competitor, the soft spoken, quick to smile cowboy rode all three gymkhana events plus bulls, bareback and saddle broncs. In 1992, he won the St-Tite rescue race and pony express events.
In the rescue race and exchange of riders, Daoust usually competed as a “jumper,” the one who swings himself aboard a galloping horse.
“You see the horse coming down at full throttle. You have about 70 feet to try to get that horn, and after you get your hand on the horn, you have to jump right—not too high, or you pass over the horse and into the fence. If you don’t jump high enough, you spend too much time on the side of the horse, so he can’t speed up. The faster you can sit properly on the back, that’s where you give the horse the best opportunity,” he says.
To prepare for the highly athletic requirements of the gymkhana events, competitors run and train on a suspension bar to build powerful and resilient hands, arms and shoulders. The horses are selected for speed and agility, but they also must be tough enough to take a curve while jumpers launch themselves onto their backs.
Once the arena is ready, the first jumper takes his place. A horse screams around the corner. The rider leaps to the arena’s perfectly groomed dirt as his teammate swings aboard. The horse never breaks stride. Daoust’s voice booms over the loudspeaker. The team from St-Stanislas-de-Kostka came in at just over 8.519 seconds. The night’s winners would cross the timers at 8.260 seconds.
“Everything is about timing,” Daoust says. “Everything.”
Learn more about the Festival Western St Tite at festivalwestern.com.