He’s been a top-10 finalist at the World’s Greatest Horseman competition, held down in Texas as part of the National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) world championship. He’d already won five titles in the Open Bridle division, the premier class for both horse and rider, at the Calgary Stampede’s Working Cow Horse Classic.
But when John Swales heard his aggregate score – 301 – announced on Sunday, well . . . that was something special, even for one of the sport’s elite.
“Yeah. I was pretty excited. That’s the best score I’ve ever had, and I’ve never marked a 77 down the fence before,” beamed Swales, 34, a reined cow horse trainer from Millarville, Alta.
Swales and Maximum Echo, the last team into the ring Sunday afternoon, merely needed an average performance to eclipse a pair of teams holding on to first place with a two-day aggregate of 290.5. Instead, Swales and the steed went full tilt against a cranky heifer under the Big Top – scoring 150.5, matching their first-round result from Friday, and posting that 301 for top spot in the Open Bridle division of the Stampede’s Working Cow Horse Classic, presented by Tesla Exploration, Ltd.
First place was worth $1,920 and a Stampede championship buckle to Swales. Tim Unzicker of Roundup, Mont., on Halin Magic Diamonds, and Jesse Thomson of Longview, Alta., aboard Pickachiclet, shared runner-up, or reserve champion, honours, picking up $1,440 apiece. Kent Williamson of Bragg Creek, Alta., won the Limited Open Bridle title aboard Smart Lil Boonlight.
Maximum Echo, owned by Flo Houlton of Caroline, Alta., carried Swales to the Stampede’s Open Hackamore title in 2009. “He’s so trainable. He has an excellent mind,” said Swales. “You go hitch him every day, and he’s exactly the same. He’s very talented physically, but he tries hard every time.”
The Stampede’s Working Cow Horse Classic honours the tradition and heritage of the early 18th-century Spanish vaqueros in California; horse-and-rider teams are judged on their authority, discipline and precision in two distinct areas – reined work, or dry work, and cow work, otherwise known as fence work. Reined work is based on a predetermined pattern of manoeuvres, including figure-eights, straight runs, sliding stops and 360-degree spins. Cow work, the portion of the show that gets the blood pumping, sees the horse-and-rider team first box a steer, then send it at full tilt along the fence, heading it off and turning it both ways, before finally circling it once in each direction in the centre of the arena.
The Stampede’s Working Cow Horse Classic hosts bridle and hackamore divisions for fully-trained horses and four- and five-year-olds, respectively, with open, non-pro and novice designations for various levels of rider experience.
As in 2009, the Swales surname was attached to three of six Stampede division championships Sunday during the Working Cow Horse Classic.
Younger brother Clint, 26, of High River, Alta., who’s also a reined cow horse trainer, won the Open Hackamore title on The Mask, a victory worth $2,160, with an aggregate of 291 and also claimed the Limited Open Hackamore crown . . . likely for the last time. Riders in the Limited Open can compete only up to a pre-set threshold of career winnings, which Clint figures he surpassed Sunday.
“Yeah, I think I kicked myself out of the class today,” grinned Clint, who’d won the Stampede’s Open Hackamore title in 2007. “We had a cow that was just rank enough today. We wanted it a little wild . . . if it’s too soft, you can’t win anything.”
Dale Clearwater of Hanley, Sask., was a busy man on Friday and Sunday, entering five times in the Open Hackamore division. His 286.5-point aggregate total on Smart Lil Double Pep was good enough to share reserve champion honours with Clint Swales and his second entry, Twice the Bet. “The big thing was to have the help available to pull this off. If I have the horses under me, all I have to do is show,” said Clearwater, who took home $1,500.26 as reserve champ. “We did something like this once in Nampa, Ida. (in the fall of 2008). A friend of mine broke his leg there, and I ended up showing nine or 10 horses that day – all of his, and all of mine.”
Meanwhile, Bart Holowath of Cayley, Alta., became the first member of his family to win a Stampede championship buckle, claiming the Non-Pro Bridle division, and a cheque for $1,140, after a dramatic turn of events. Holowath and Precision Dee challenged the leaders with a 147-point performance Sunday, and his two-day aggregate of 292 held up through the last four of 12 entries for victory. The difference on the day was cow work, as Holowath scored a 75 while the frontrunners stumbled. Veronica Swales of High River, Alta., saw her cow fall and scored a 69, while defending champion Suzon Schaal of Millarville and Genuine Brown Gal drew a rather lackadaisical bovine, and paid for it with a 69 of their own.
Precision Dee “was way better on his cow today. We schooled him yesterday on his cow work, and he was back to his old self,” said Holowath, the president of the Alberta Reined Cow Horse Association, whose wife Terri was runner-up in the same class a year ago on Precision Dee. “He’s a real good fence horse, and he always has been. He’s pretty automatic on the cow. They always say it’s won on the fence. Today, it was.”
Schaal and Genuine Brown Gal, who won the NRCHA world title in Novice Non-Pro Bridle in February at San Angelo, Texas, had to console themselves with the runner-up position, or reserve championship, in Non-Pro Bridle, taking home $950. As a relative newcomer to the sport, Schaal ended up winning the Stampede’s Novice Non-Pro Bridle crown on and Genuine Brown Gal.