STORY & PHOTOS BY GUEST BLOGGER Cyndi Rowat
The Wheatland County Cowboy Challenge (WCCC). That is quite a moniker. But this ‘grass roots’ series is growing rapidly into its britches and what a boon for horse enthusiasts East of Calgary and in particular for the Strathmore Region.
The brainchild of three local arenas, Lausen Arena and Whispering Spirit Stables South of Strathmore, AB, and Hat Creek Performance Horses just a short drive further east, has exceeded the organizers’ expectations.
Cowboy Challenge is an equine sport originating from the Texas region through Craig Cameron’s Extreme Cowboy Racing. Touted as a sport for the whole family and all riding levels, the premise being to encourage quality horsemanship skills and a partnership with the horse to enable them to overcome sometimes difficult, seemingly impossible and sometimes crazy obstacles.
Melanie Lausen, one of the organizers of the WCCC, riding coach and a competitor puts it succinctly, “It (cowboy challenge) terrified me and I wanted to try it. The first time was a blast.” She grins, “You need great horsemanship, control, good hands and it drew me in.\” Lausen first got started racing in Cochrane – “I was competing against myself, cause they are really good there.”
Upon starting a family, Lausen looked closer to home for somewhere to compete and found Hat Creek Performance Horses with Sonja Pfeiffer-Alves.
“My husband, Alex, is a great roper,” explains Pfeiffer-Alves, “So there was no way I could compete there. But cowboy challenge was something I could work on with my horsemanship and have fun and be competitive.”
Whispering Spirit too, had been hosting similar events in the past couple of summers where Rob Charette co-owner and coach was also drawn to what the sport offered. “I was interested in it – not necessarily even competing, but to expose them (horses) to it. What I love about it is that anything goes. There are, of course, certain boundaries for the element of safety.”
So, the idea was spawned to work together to introduce the sport to the Strathmore region equine community in a fun and encouraging atmosphere.
The first event of the season saw 12 eager competitors. The next couple of events saw an explosion of interest – 30 to 45 people. “We were not expecting that many!\” laughs Pfeiffer-Alves.
Hosting any kind of equine event series in an Alberta winter has its’ own challenges, but this devoted group of organizers’ biggest issue was dealing with so much interest! It became clear in the next couple of events that the format of a three-hour morning practice followed by the three divisions, youth, novice and open was no longer working.
“We were still learning too. Watching it grow. We needed to change the format. It was too busy in practice and riders had to wait too long between their practice and actual competition.”
Now, each division has an hour and a half time slot for practice prior to their competition. The 100% payout on the competition entry fee portion stayed the same. The real benefit of the joined forces of arenas and bevy of organizers though, has been the spirit, energy and enthusiasm toward the sport, the people in it and the collective imagination of the organizers; Each competition has introduced new elements to challenge the competitors. Donkeys, goats and cattle have creatively been called upon to assist with increasing the challenges’ complexity.
Halfway through the series, strong leaders have emerged in all three of the WCCC divisions. Nolan Yaskiw heard about the series through Facebook and attended his first ever Cowboy Challenge at the start of this series and hasn’t looked back. He and his 16-year-old appendix Quarter Horse are topping the leader board just ahead of organizer Sonja Pfeiffer-Alves. Yaskiw figured it would be exciting to try something new. The fact that it was local and supported local arenas, was an additional bonus.
“Anybody would be surprised to win,” he claims of his first-time success. “It\’s just good to have an all around horse.”
Yaskiw and ‘Big Guy’ have shared nine years together, team roping and bush riding and believes that experience makes a horse. “To do this (cowboy challenge) and to be able to put kids on, to shoot a gun off of. To me, it’s worth a lot. The more a horse knows, the better off you are.”
The Youth division is in full battle mode between 13-year-old William Sharpley of Rockyford, AB and his 11-year-old sister Taya with only a three-point spread. Coming from a riding family both have a fair bit of experience in the saddle. Enjoying family rides in the hills and participating in rodeo together, neither of them hide their competitive nature when it comes to Cowboy Challenge.
Riding ‘Andy’ his older brother’s horse, William is not frazzled by his sisters’ hunt for top spot. “If I just keep gaining points, I can beat her.” He states assuredly from beneath the brim of his cowboy hat. Sharpley has gained a variety of riding experiences thus far in his young life including barrels, breakaway roping and steer dobbing. ‘But I don’t like the jumping.” He shakes his head. It is an obstacle, which oftentimes is included in a cowboy challenge. “I like roping though.” He says with a smile.
When Taya isn’t trick riding on her horse \’Mickey,\’ she is likely participating in a vast array of rodeo events. Mickey is her dependable partner for cowboy challenge and the pair has been slowly gaining points on her brother. “I’ve been beating him lately,” she states proudly. Taya ‘stole’ Mickey from her Dad last year and admits that the trust she is gaining with him and he with her is helping them win more challenges. “I like the teeter totter and the tarp.” She admits, “But not backing through the obstacle. I am not good at it.”
Like her brother, she enjoys roping and pretty much everything in rodeo. “I’m working on my roping. I rope the dummy and my brother.” She says, “It’s easier to get something that is moving.” I guess we’ll know in a few more challenges if young Taya is able to rope that top spot from her brother.
In the Novice division, Linda Harten of Strathmore, AB, raised the bar on the day with her ten year-old Quarter Horse partner Indy. Masterfully tackling each obstacle they really shone on the teeter-totter, showing control and calmness as they demonstrated balancing and counterbalancing the teeter-totter, gaining maximum points on the obstacle.
Proudly, like many competitors in this sport, Harten says the biggest challenge is against yourself. “Our biggest nemesis at the beginning was the teeter totter. She would just vibrate when she tried it at first. It is the one obstacle that I am most proud of her for,” beams Harten.
“It’s fun meeting people with a similar interest, making progress and competing with one another and still cheering each other on. I love it. ”
Harten and her mare have gained confidence as a team. “We’ve been fairly consistent and attended them all. Good thing too or I would be chasing Beth.” She says with a laugh. Friend Beth Vergowen and fellow riding student of Lausen currently sits in the number two spot.
“I like the fact that everyone (each venue) has different obstacles. It’s awesome.”
It is this very fact that sets this series apart and potentially what is making it so successful.
“It started off as a grass roots series,” explains Lausen. “To get people interested. We had hoped that the 100% payout on the competition would be one of the draws but really it was just about enticing people to try it.”
Pfeiffer-Alves agrees, “This is really affordable. It really is for someone to come and compete and practice.” And the formula appears to be working with the organizers’ estimating that approximately 75% of the competitors are completely new to the sport and have come from across the disciplines.
So, with so many ‘green’ competitors, how is the competition stacking up against their expectations?
\”I am very happy. Every time we come out, the riders are getting better every time. It’s exciting to watch them too!!” says Lausen. “In my mind it is great to gain confidence and push themselves a bit.”
The WCCC set out to provide a venue for Cowboy Challenge competitors east of the city. To expose riders to a sport they are keenly passionate about and in turn, the camaraderie and enthusiasm is growing and taking on an even bigger life than ever first imagined.
In order to qualify for finals – including prestigious belt buckles sponsored by all three venues, contestants must compete at a minimum of five events (down one from the six due to a weather cancellation) and must compete at least once at each venue. Additional sponsors are always welcomed. Organizers, however, are encouraging all youth 15 years and younger to participate in the finals regardless of whether or not they have been competing this season. One more regular competition is coming up the end of March at Whispering Spirit.
The finals competition will be held April 9th at Hat Creek Performance Horses.