Calgary – Look at a historical photo documenting the evolution of Canada, and you’ll likely spot draft horses: hauling ties for the railroad, clearing land for roads, pulling logs, working the fields, digging mining pits, delivering lumber, hauling water . . . the nation-building tasks these beasts of burden took on were endless.
In the year marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Calgary Stampede introduced a new demonstration event celebrating the contributions of these gentle giants and the teamsters that drove them.
“We see so much of the hitch horses, but we never really see what these animals were used for. The number of light horses was quite small compared to draft horses that were used for actual work,” said Tom Christensen, teamster lead with the Draft Horse Town committee, which is also responsible for the Heavy Horse Pull and the Heavy Horse Show. “The committee wanted to highlight the driving skills of the teamsters and show the kind of work these animals did in building Canada and work that they continue to do today.”
The inaugural Teamster Challenge, held Tuesday and Wednesday at the Agrium Western Event Centre, saw six teams face off in judged and timed challenges that replicated real-world draft horse chores:
- Bale race: teamsters drove their teams out to pick up bales of hay, transport them and then drop them for cattle;
- Water race: teamsters balanced speed with smoothness as they transported a barrel full of water on the back of a cart down the length of the arena and back while weaving through a series of posts, trying to preserve the most water; and
- Log skid: teamsters manoeuvered their teams through a serpentine course while dragging a log, trying to avoid toppling the marker posts while posting the fastest time.
“A good teamster is always going to be quiet and calm and not get excited. They are always going to have contact with their animals though their lines. And they have a good sense of reading what the horse will be doing through their body language,” Christensen said. “When you’re riding a saddle horse, you can feel the horse between your legs telling you what they are going to do next. A really good teamster has to be able to read all that through the lines and watching them.”
After two nights of competition, Nolene Boender of Thorsby, Alta. topped the field of teamsters with her Canadian horses Jade and Jessie. Boender has been driving for six years, since she and her husband (who placed third in the event) bought the pair.
“We trained one of our riding horses to drive and it was so much fun, we decided to get a team,” said Boender, 29. “It’s our own team, so I work with it a lot. I know their quirks. And we do so many different things with them, they are accepting of it. These girls are also in the Stampede’s Downtown Attractions. They love it, the crowds the people, especially the kids.”
Boender said the Canadian breed is an amazing dual-purpose horse, big enough to serve as a draft animal, yet versatile enough that you can hop on and go chase cows if need be. In a few weeks, the pair will serve as riding horses at a summer camp.
The event was also as a reminder of the legacy of the draft horse, Christensen said. Take the Palliser Hotel in downtown Calgary: the basement of the historic building was dug out with power supplied by teams of horses.
“It took 450 teams — that’s 900 horses — to build the Glenmore Dam. If you look at a historical photo of binders in the field, you’ll often see them in a complement of 10. That’s 40 horses in that one field. Then there’s the longer hitches of six, eight, 12, even 20 horses,” Christensen pointed out.
On Friday, July 14 and Saturday, July 15, the Draft Horse Town committee is holding a 12-horse hitch demonstration in the Agrium Western Event Centre. For full results of the Calgary Stampede Teamster Challenge, please visit calgarystampede.com
About the Calgary Stampede
The Calgary Stampede celebrates the people, the animals, the land, the traditions and the values that make up the unique spirit of the west. The Calgary Stampede contributes to the quality of life in Calgary and southern Alberta through our world-renowned 10-day Stampede, year-round facilities, western events and several youth and agriculture programs. Exemplifying the theme We’re Greatest Together; we are a volunteer-supported, not-for-profit community organization that preserves and promotes western heritage and values. All revenue is reinvested into Calgary Stampede programs and facilities.
See more at calgarystampede.com