Wednesday, 15 September 2010 08:11

Celebrating the Heavy Horse What’s old and new at the Calgary Stampede

Written by  Rebecca Hannam
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The international equine community recognizes the Calgary Stampede as being one of the premier draft horse showcases, and this year the Stampede’s program was better than ever. An important anniversary inspired a new feature exhibit and the show saw an increase in both exhibitors and spectators.

Heavy Horse Show


Heavy horses have been shown at the Stampede every year since the late 1800s
The Stampede’s Heavy Horse Show celebrated an incredible 125 years this year. Horses have been shown at Stampede Park every year since the late 1800s and draft horses are the only class of livestock to hold this distinction. The show began in 1885 as part of a fair which later became known as the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede.

“I’ve watched this show go from rags to riches,” says Bruce Roy, who is the Stampede’s longest serving

Roy first volunteered with the Heavy Horse Committee in 1959 and has been there ever since. He says the early days of the show were challenging because the heavy horse population in North America drastically decreased as mechanization became commonplace and put them out to pasture. But Roy and other volunteers believed the gentle giants could be crowd pleasers and refused to allow the show to fade away. They worked with Calgary Stampede directors to build the show’s presence in the agriculture program and improve its reputation in the draft horse industry.

“At first our show horses were tied in the back corner of the barn,” recalls Roy. “We wanted the public to be able to see them and allow breeders to show off their hard work.”


Calgary offers an auction in which local businesses vie for the opportunity to place their business name on the competing teams.
Today, the Stampede’s Heavy Horse Show is known around the world as a one-of-a-kind performance. Calgary attracts some of the top draft horses in North America to compete in such classes as the World Champion Six-Horse Hitch. The sixes and other performance classes are accompanied by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Roy played a pivotal role in establishing this classical musical partnership and believes it is the reason the audience grows each year, and has now moved to a premier venue, the Pengrowth Saddledome.

“We’re the only show where horses can march to live music while they perform,” says Roy.

The 125th anniversary show this year featured over 250 Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron and Shire entries from across North America. In the future Roy expects to see the show continue to grow and attract more and more quality competitors.

Heavy Horse Pull


A picture is worth a thousand words! Take a look at the crowd watching the show if you have any doubt about the events popularity.
The Heavy Horse Pull is another draft horse favourite each year at the Stampede. For the past 10 years exhibitors from across North America have entered this tight tug pull (horses are not allowed to back up before they start) to showcase the strength of their teams and the skills of their teamster.

A unique aspect of the Stampede’s pull is the Heavy Horse Pull Team Auction–an event where sponsors bid on the rights to display their logo on the side of their favourite team. This innovative concept encourages local businesses to participate in the agriculture program at the Calgary Stampede.

This year marked a first in the Heavy Horse Pull event at the Stampede. Priscilla Tames was the first woman teamster to compete in the event. Tames, from Vibank, Saskatchewan, competed in the middle weight division where teams weigh between 3,001 and 3,500 lbs. total.

There were 16 teams competing in three days of heavy horse pulling events, all vying for top honours in their weight class (light, middle & heavy) and $70,000 in prize money. It is Canada’s premier pulling competition. The Heavy Horse Pull Committee is proud to celebrate the power of draft horses and is looking forward to attracting top pull teams to Calgary in the future.

Draft Horse Town


This team was part of one of the many live demonstrations in Calgary’s Inaugural Draft Horse Town exhibit
This year also marked a first in the heavy horse exhibits with the addition of Draft Horse Town. Visitors could see Belgians, Clydesdales, Percherons and Shires, learn about the history of the heavy horse breeds and had a chance to interact with these gentle giants.

With over 100 volunteers, Draft Horse Town was the new “must see” attraction on Stampede Park and focused on celebrating the important history of heavy horses. This enormous display fed the public’s curiosity about heavy horses and provided entertainment and education.

“We want to celebrate the major role draft horses played in settling Western Canada,” says Dale Befus, a 10 year volunteer with the Calgary Stampede.

Draft Horse Town included live demonstrations, exhibits and musical entertainment. Interactive stations featuring road building, the military and fire fighting equipment encouraged visitors to learn from historians and honour the heavy horse. Experienced blacksmiths, wheelwrights and ranchers from Alberta’s historic Bar U Ranch also displayed antique equipment and gave presentations to Stampede visitors.

The Stampede plans to feature Draft Horse Town again next year and hopes to grow the display in
the future.

“We think it’s important for people to learn that anything with a diesel engine today would have been powered by horses when the West was settled,” says Befus.

The Stampede’s Heavy Horse Show, Pull and Draft Horse Town have done a great job of keeping the legacy of these amazing horses alive.

Rebecca Hannam is a student intern from the University of Guelph working with this year's Calgary Stampede Agriculture Media Committee.

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