Calgary – There is something very special about a sport where horse and rider work together as one in a fluid, ever-changing set of circumstances. When there are three of these combinations teamed up, the result is an always-exciting and fast-moving sport called Team Penning.
Team cattle penning is a race against the clock where each team of three riders has a maximum of 60 seconds to separate three specifically-identified cattle from a herd of 30 and direct them into a 20 x20 pen at the opposite end of the arena. All three riders must work in harmony to cut out the correct cattle and drive them to the pen, while keeping all the other cattle out. Teams of riders enter the Stampede’s four classes based on relative skill and experience – in ascending order from 7 Class to 10 Class to 14 Class, with the highly-skilled professionals of the Open class at the very top.
The road Wally McComish travelled on his way to becoming a top Team Penning competitor is, in some ways, similar to that travelled by many others. In some ways, however, McComish’s journey has been unique.
Growing up on a farm near Coronation, McComish rode a lot. \”After I left Coronation,\” he says, \”I wasn’t on a horse for fifteen years.\” Even though he was raising some cattle, he laughs, \”I did everything on a quad!\” McComish’s passion in those days was basketball, a sport he played in high school and kept playing until he was in his early 50s. An injury finally ended McComish’s basketball career, and he says, \”It left a big hole.\” A neighbor and friend, who had been trying to interest McComish in Team Penning, finally managed to get him to buy a horse and give the sport a try.
\”I grew up on horses,\” he says, \”but I never knew what a good horse was.\” With a mount that is properly-trained, McComish says, \”I could not believe what you could do.\” In 2008, his first year in the sport, McComish not only competed at the Stampede, but was part of the team that finished second in class. \”When they called the winners up, they second-place up first and they handed me a Stampede buckle by mistake,\” he recalls. The incident just lit a fire under him to get one he could keep, he says, and that’s worked out pretty well. Since then, McComish has been on teams that won twice and finished second three times. Last year, McComish and longtime teammates Larry Cressman of DeWinton and Vern Hamilton of Innisfail, scored their biggest win – the super-competitive Open Penning class at the Calgary Stampede.
\”I’m not the greatest horseman in the world,\” McComish says. \”There are lots of competitors who are better riders than me. I’m good at reading cattle, in my opinion, but where I think I excel is in picking teammates who complement me. It’s a team game.\”
His other teammate, the one he rides, is a horse he calls ‘Gambler’ because buying him was a bit of a longshot. In 2009, McComish bought a 7 year-old named ‘Wherehaveyoubeen?’ Although the horse wasn’t trained for penning, McComish remembers, \”I liked the way he looked and the way he worked.\”
The gamble certainly paid off, McComish says. To date, he has won prizes worth almost twelve times what he paid for the untried gelding.
The Stampede’s Team Cattle Penning Competition is one of the sport’s annual marquee events. This year, the first two qualifying rounds in each of the four classes will be held at the Okotoks Agricultural Society grounds on Wednesday, July 2nd and Thursday, July 3rd. Twenty teams will qualify for the semi-finals in each class with ten advancing to the final, all of which happens in the Saddledome. Semi-finals and finals in both the 14 and 7 classes will be held beginning at 4:30pm on Friday, July 4th. The Open class semi-finals and finals go on Saturday, July 5th at 5:30 and the 10 class semi-finals and finals are on Sunday, July 6th at 5:30.
\”I’m sure I have lots and lots to learn,\” McComish says. \”That’s what makes this so much fun – there’s something all the time that you can do to make yourself better.\”