Opinion: The Great Canadian Steer Riding Debate

This article has been updated as of 10:00am MST on April 13th, 2017 and will continue to change as more feedback and suggestions come in. 

CALGARY, Alberta — There has been much discussion over the past few years on the calibre of bucking cattle in the junior steer riding event.

Are the animals too rank? Should they buck harder? Why are we getting less than 30 entries at the biggest professional bull riding events in the country? What is it going to take to keep our sport alive and moves things to the next level?

A few of these questions are connected, and the future of our sport lays in the hands of the kids getting involved. I find it promising that the majority of phone calls and emails I get about schools posted on my site are about steer riding. We seem to have a large amount of interest, and it seems like there actually aren’t enough steer riding schools out there. 

The Johansen Brothers and Scott Schiffner’s school is full, and they had to turn kids away. The same goes for the Claypool School in Saskatchewan. Ty and Haley Elliott and their Small Spurs crew in Claresholm have done a phenomenal job helping build steer riders over the past few years. These are still only a few schools, likely under 100 kids per year.That’s not quite enough when one small town in Manitoba has as many kids start hockey each year.

We don’t have a ton of kids to start with; we need to get them started right from the beginning.

 

 




I have to commend the Calgary Stampede and the Carlier Family/X6 Ranch for what they did in 2016. Calgary implemented a tiered second division of steer riding to help some novice riders on their rodeo path. These kids are all vetted through the office to even be able to enter, and Linsdey Carlier sets the pens accordingly. There’s no one family that’s done more for steer riding than the Carliers The amount of time they have spent working on these cattle and setting the pens is astronomical.

What this helps is a kid’s confidence and the motivation to keep going. Despite being Canada’s biggest stage in rodeo, Calgary gives nearly everyone that wants to enter a shot with the best help and support in the world. Where else is a kid surrounded by his champions and has the opportunity to have said champions help them on and give them some tips? It’s a school in itself having this second level of steer riding with appropriate cattle.

With current events we can’t forget the presences of the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sports Medicine Team in Calgary. I don’t have kids yet but when I do, I likely won’t take them to a rodeo of the team isn’t there.

 

Calgary isn’t the only committee working to improve things; with the amount of entries out there people are starting to take notice.




This piece isn’t to bash the people bringing this bucking cattle to the events. This top stock was a big part of the reason that steer riding was brought back into the fold of the Canadian Finals Rodeo (CFR) in 2008 after leaving in 2003. I do think the top stock helps out the kids at the top.

The rest of the kids, in my opinion, are kids like myself that might not have made it right off the bat. I didn’t start riding until I was 12 and at that point I knew nothing. I let go when I got scared basically for the first whole year and got into countless wrecks. I hadn’t been to a school and had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even understand or know what rosin was when I first showed up. I know I had some help at those first few places but everything changed in June of 2003 when I decided to enter the Ponoka Stampede. There I would end up in a chute with the help of the previously mentioned Don Johansen among countless others.

I remember being behind the chutes with George Hines’ chaps, father of two-time Canadian bronc riding Champion Clayton Hines, and seeing Dan Mortenson and Will Lowe. My Dad struck up a conversation with Will and he shook my hand and I think he mentioned how cool our name was. (I went by William at the time, I thought I had to put my real name on the card paperwork with the CPRA.)

Back to the point of the story, the best of the best were in Ponoka and that day I stayed on one of the raffle cattle. I think I was 67 or 68 points and I was on top of the world. I remember Dennis Halstead pumping me up after I rode. I thought there were 20,000 people there that day! I stayed on again the next day and never really looked back. If it weren’t for those raffle cattle and the champions in Ponoka that day I know I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am today. I’m not really saying I’m anywhere but those couple days in Ponoka started it all for me.




As the year, 2003, went on I started staying on more and ended up seventh in the CPRA I believe. I think only 12 kids even bought cards that year. The first time I remember getting on any brahma cattle was in Pincher Creek, AB in August. The older steer riders talked them up pretty big and had me psyched up. That cow jerked the piss out of me to the point my arms ached afterwards. My limits were tested but I did stay on for 70 points. I had many other 70 plus point rides that year on beef cattle that weren’t nearly as tough.

The next year, 2004, I remember staying on more than I was bucked off. I got my shot at Calgary and rode a nice spinning brahma for a big 80 point score. In the finals I got on the infamous “01” and was bucked off quite handily. The cow was scored 45 points, no shit. A few weeks later Ty Patten cranked out an 87 on the same cow to win the Canadian Championship in Strathmore.

That year at those finals I think it was Ty, Clint Laye, Brendan Laye, Jordan Ness, Casey Vernon, Tom Clarke, Wacey Finkbeiner and myself. There were only a few others that even went to the pro rodeos that year. All of us are still around in some form, Clint made the NFR in 2015 in the bareback riding, Brendan Laye is an FCA All-Around Champion both bronc riding and steer wrestling and Ness was part of the CIRA recently. The only current bull riders out of group are Wacey and Ty.

I knew by the time I was 15 I wanted to ride the brahma cows more than not as I had grown up enough to be able to handle them better. Even with that said the last cow I got on at the FCA Finals in 2005 whipped me down enough to break my helmet. I may have stayed on but today I would surely have been sat afterwards for a concussion. I went on to play hockey the next week as we all did that time of year.




Then there is the junior bull riding event, this one has really been intriguing lately.

Personally, I think this level is where things started to go wrong in my career. I only ever won a junior title when I was 16 and even then I started competing in open events that were way over my head. I wasn’t the only one. The junior levels at amateur rodeos honestly weren’t my favorite. After getting a taste of the Pro’s I didn’t like going back. I did really enjoy riding at the high school rodeos but there were only a couple places where the stock was sufficient for us younger kids. I have to commend John and Dustin Duffy for their efforts there. They didn’t bring anything that was going to wreck us out. I remember most of the contractors in our district doing their best to help us along, same went for the parents around that were current of former professionals. Stock was nearly always appropriate except for maybe the finals in Ponoka or the states, at that level though I can see part of it when some kids are already professional or only a step off. I can’t imagine how tough it is to set a pen for that level of competition.

Practice never was easy, later on in my career I probably could have easily died practicing (See: The Flank Hangup). My memory isn’t great but the only real good practice I remember getting was in Okotoks one night I think when I was 16 and I got on a few of Tyler Thomson’s cows to get them bucked. Other than that it was the Johansen Brothers School in Vermillion in 2007 and a couple times at Gary Leffew’s house. I disliked practice as you probably would after seeing that flank massacre. Again, after being around the best help, the best bullfighters, bull riders and sports medicine at the Pro Rodeos, going back to the amateur events was a step back.

Novice bull riding was attempted nobly a few years ago in the CPRA by then director Scott Schiffner but the stock wasn’t appropriate at the first event that only had one entry. I would love to see that attempted again I think it could be a hybrid between the top end kids in the steer riding bracket right up to when a kid turns 18 and can buy their full card. That being said, there aren’t a ton of kids that are going to make that step right at that age, lots are still growing and need time to develop. I remember going pro at 20 in 2010 with that still probably being too early.




In all of this, I’m not trying to start a fight, I want to start a discussion for positive change. What I want to see is our sport succeed and I think there are a ton of people that agree with me. If you’re still reading this, I think we are after the same things.

I think Calgary is on the right track with two divisions, could that be implemented across all levels in the steer riding and junior bull riding too?

I think we are at a key point where the stock has had more support than our people. There are more bulls than cowboys by far and there hasn’t been nearly as much time and money spent on our cowboys and cowgirls as the stock. This isn’t a knock on the stock contractors either, I appreciate the time and effort you all have put into your animals, I think it’s incredible. I do believe there is a time and place for that top stock now however with what American Bucking Bull Inc. has brought into Canada. Bulls can compete there and at the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) events while the lesser stock is what our kids can learn on. There is a place for everything and everyone.

I’m not the only one with an opinion on this as I’ve seen a number of post from the likes of World Champions Cody Custer and Gary Leffew among others. I see both sides and I’m welcome to your phone calls, texts or emails. I want to hear from you, let me know what you think should be done and how we can move our sport forward. We are all in this together.




Feedback

“I was a pusher for the brahma cows. I think they fit the right kids. I’ve seen those same kids step out of riding those cows to adjusting to other riding events with ridiculous ease because they have been on stock that bucks hard out of the chute.

But, they are not for everybody. That’s where the parents come in they need to know when there kid is ready to enter around those cows. Contractors are listed for each rodeo so they know where those cows are, so do your homework.

The kids are figuring it out, they rode awesome at CFR last year. I’ve yapped about it lots but haven’t taken time to do it but I think there is a need for a school to introduce the kids that are ready for these cattle to see if they are ready. This would shorten the time it takes them to adjust,” – Jim Finkbeiner

 

“I agree with this article because we should be recruiting kids from non-agricultural backgrounds not just the kids that have grown up with it there whole lives. I know for myself, not coming from a rodeoing background, having a school locally with easier stock would have been great for self confidence and a better experience,” – Jared Froese

 

“I think the brahma cows should be at every pro rodeo! It should be the best of the best stock and the best of the best Cowboys! It’s called pro rodeo for a reason! The amateur rodeos should only be aloud beef cows!

But with this being said, not anybody should be able to enter a pro rodeo in the cow riding! I think the CPRA should make some adjustments so that kids have to meet certain standards in order to purchase there pro card!

Some examples could be:

  1. Any one who wants to buy there card must have attended some sort of steer riding school
  2. In order to buy your card you must have an amateur finals qualification under your belt

This would give the kids at the pro level more opportunity to better themselves and also give the kids at the amateur level more opportunity to better them selves! Amateur kids get on amateur stock! Pro kids get on pro stock, plain and simple!

I also agree that there needs to be more schools put on! Not only put on by older bull riders but put on by the kids that succeeded in the steer riding at the pro level, because they are the ones that know how to stick it on the rank ones! All in all the bucking cows that are at the pro rodeos are not too rank! Bringing the level of stock down is not going to help out the association, but bringing the level of our up and coming Cowboys up will help the association!” – Bryce West

“After coming through the steer riding ranks for four years I have developed a first hand opinion on the subject. I strongly believe that those cows have a place in pro rodeo. Key word being pro rodeo. I also thought it was a great idea that X6 brought them to the amateur finals because even though it may have cost me a championship it gave me a chance to get a taste of what those cows were like.

Like you Ted, I started getting on when I was 12 and spent my fair time falling off the runners before I could even stick a jump kicker. My dad made me a deal that he wouldn’t even let me think about those cows until I had been on 50 beef cows. Although I didn’t quite make that number I am still very grateful for him making sure I was ready before I started getting on them.

When I was that young kid starting out I was beyond thankful for the beef heifers that the Duffy’s packed and believe they are truly helping the sport. However, in my last year of steer riding they weren’t very much fun anymore. I am very grateful for having the brahma cows to move into when I was ready and made some of my most memorable rides and of course lessons learnt by getting my ass handed to me a few times.

Long story short I guess my opinion is the brahma cows should stay at the pro rodeos and the LRA and tier two BRC Is on the right track with providing suitable cattle to start on. The junior bull riding is also another issue that I am now right in the thick of and I certainly don’t have any answers to that. The bull business is an expensive one and nobody pays the contractors to keep 18-19 pointers around which makes it difficult for kids like myself trying to make the transition into bull riding on three year old bulls with high end blood lines. I don’t claim to have all the answers and never will but I thought I would put my opinion out there. Hope it helps. Thanks,” – Cauy Lawes

 

“Ted there are some great points in your article. I would add that organizations such as Small Spurs Haley and Ty Elliott are doing a fantastic job of providing opportunities for newcomers to the sport and a place for the seasoned kids to hone their skills by separating the kids into groups based on age and ability.

They are getting up to 30 entries per rodeo. It’s a great idea and it is where we got the idea to tier Calgary. So maybe pro rodeo does provide cattle that are more suited to advanced riders. Let’s not call them professionals because kids playing triple A hockey aren’t called professional. We need to keep in mind they are kids and Jim is right the parents are in the end responsible for their well being.

If the cattle at pro rodeos are for the advanced kids then there needs to be some serious reconsideration for what cattle are at the amateur level rodeos. Those rodeos are meant to be where a kid gets their start. Maybe we get lucky and a local kid enters his hometown rodeo and we get a new competitor to the sport. But that’s not going to be good for anyone if the kid has to ride the same animals that they are getting on at a pro rodeo.

The fact is we all need to work together and build a development system that works and is safe for the kids but also allows them to advance and challenge themselves when they are ready. We are shrinking the development and introduction level for our sport by not providing proper levels of growth for the kids.

If anyone has an questions on how well the tiered system works feel free to give me a shout. And yes the Caliers supplied both levels and did an amazing job. At the small Spurs Duane Ashbacker supplies the cattle and also does a great job so it can be done and done well. Let’s get this moving in the right direction! Thanks,” – Kynan Vine

“Thanks, Kynan Vine.

We believe We have had major success with our steer riding in 2016/2017 Small Spurs Rodeo. We had a few phone calls from parents who have no involvement with rodeo but had kids wanting to ride. We quickly put together a two day clinic with the best of the best instructors. Scott Schiffner, Jordan Hanson, Tanner Girletz, Kynan Vine, Jared Parsonage, Wes Cyr, Clay Elliott, Grady & Griffin Smeltzer, hats off to these guys for volunteering two to three days.

We had 32 kids come to the clinic, five of which had no idea what a bucking chute even looked like. We are proud to say all five stayed hooked and made some pretty darn great rides during the season. This was only possible because Dwayne and Kole Ashbacher have an amazing tiered pen of bucking cows.

Our decision to help take over SSR was to continue to grow the sport of Steer Riding. We are confident we can continue to do this by having an A,B,C rating system we average 65-70% rides per rodeo. We aren’t saying this is a good system for every association but we are a stepping stone for the amateur and professional levels.

We do have our SSR Steer Riding clinic dates
November 3rd (clinic)
November 4th (rodeo)
November 5th (clinic)” – Ty and Haley Elliott

“I think lost somewhere in the Brahma vs. Beef debate is the root of what we are all talking about, appropriate stock. 16 point Brahma cattle exist, I know, I got talked into buying them for practice cattle early on for the kids. In fact Ty and Haley’s efforts at Small Spurs was called out in your article, those were Brahma cattle all year long. (for the record I think the Elliot’s do a huge service to the future of rodeo) The Small Spurs season kicked off with a steer riding school that utilized Brahma cattle. The rank cattle also exist, and they don’t belong at those types of events, and they weren’t there. The point I am trying to drive home is that we aren’t necessarily talking about the type of cattle in my mind, more the quality.

It has been said to me many times, the Brahma cattle dissuade new kids from showing up because of the risk of injury. I tend to disagree to a certain extent. If a new Mom shows up with a new cowboy and asks one of us who is around the sport a bit if any of the stock in a pen full of feedlot calves is too much for her child, I really don’t have much of an answer, not a truthful one anyway, I simply don’t know.

If that same Mom asks about a pen of Brahmas split into A, B, and C, pens, I can walk her right up to a cow in the C pen that I know has had 100 trips, stands like a shot dog, won’t run her kid over, and is going to kick around to the left, in other words we know what we are dealing with.

I fear when we make the claim that it is simply a Beef vs. Brahma, a committee can theoretically go find a pen of feedlot stock that has never been run through a chute, and feel comfortable they have done their best to keep the kids safe. A pen of Beef calves that have been bucked, and is chute broke, is worth a pile of gold to the amateur and school world, even if it’s just psychological, but they are tough to come by.

I think another piece we are not recognizing is that I am still a Dad, I get a say. I’m not sure how it goes in other households, but very seldom does the 9 and 11 year old win the argument. Steer riders want to get on everything, of that there is little doubt, but that is where I step in. I have turned my kids out if I felt they were over their heads. I only know that because I have seen the cows before, and had a track record.

I thought it would be a fight or a disaster, but that was our agreement from day one, I get the final say. One could argue that it isn’t really fair for a rodeo to have turn outs in the steer riding, but I think we all agree that having a turnout is far better than packing a youngster out on a board. I have had this very discussion with other steer riding Dads who have the same tactic in play, Dads of CFR steer riders. If one message can be taken away in this regard, “parents, there is no shame in turning your kids out if you feel they are over their heads, not one time has there been any drama around it”

While one of the Canadian steer riding contractors was out hurt last year, I packed his cattle to the Canadian 4H Rodeo in Calgary. There was some ground work done in the morning, but when I got there, we simply matched kids up, based on what the morning instructors saw and based on the kids experience; we had a young girl who had never been on before win 2nd. Most of the kids made the whistle. Now that scenario is the perfect one, we selected the stock for the kids and it turned out well, a draw system makes it more challenging, but I circle back to my original point, it is the quality of the stock we are talking about, not the breed.

I won’t speak for others, but I won’t enter my kid at Rodeo’s where the ” A” pen is out at 11 years old, he’s just not ready. That’s not a hack on the A pen, just the reality of being 11 I guess. The “b” and “C” pens are all over the amateur circuit and I’ve seen plenty of CCA, FCA, and CRA steer riding checks show up here with a 66 or 68 point score, I’m fine with that, they were chute broke and were APPROPRIATE. Should the best cows be up against the best kids at the best rodeos, Ponoka Short round, Calgary Short round, CFR? I tend to think so, will I be entering an 11 year old? No. The contractors are doing a pretty good job weeding out the cows that are getting too big, set up and whip kids down, bad to get out on, stupid mean and so on, if they aren’t, cuss them. Regardless, on a personal note, we are a ways from entering those deals.

I liked Tork’s comment on one handed in the pros, hadn’t thought of that one. I went to my first High School Rodeo in 25 years last week, where the kids have to ride one handed, I was impressed at the control that they had, there may be something there. (There is a Jr. High School division now) The comments in regards to more schools has been made several times and I fully support that as well, there are lots of great minds out there, and several have the ability to teach as well, so that part shouldn’t take a monumental effort.

I watched the bull riding in the Sr. Division and was a little shocked at the quality of the stock, but that was likely the Daddy factor kicking in and not the stock contractor factor since I have to raise the buckers too. I would love to see some of the older, campaigned out, amateur bulls and horses donated to High School Rodeo. Obviously that would entail a point person to care for and haul that set around, which costs money, but if we could figure that piece out, there would be a pile of benefit. Kids would know what stock they have, would have likely seen it if not been on it before, would be comfortable with the chute behavior and would be in the right head space.

What’s cool here is we are all trying to find a way to create future rodeo athletes from a different demographic. We all want to achieve the same thing, develop kids and not muck them out along the way, this is a good thing. These discussions will help us achieve those things provided we keep it professional. There are lots of good points made and plenty of food for thought. I don’t particularly care if they are white or purple, Brahma or Beef, so long as they are appropriate for the ability of the kids, until someone has an enforcement body in place, parents will own some of that as well.

Just my 2 cents,” – Nate Gardner 

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