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Speed and Danger on Horseback

Speed and Danger on Horseback -
Rodeo Crowds Love Drill Team and Trick Riding Acts

- Photo by Torine Haller

BC -- The Williams Lake Stampede Classics
Loud dance music plays and the crowd roars. Rippling flags, flying manes, flashing sequins, and fast horses fill the rodeo arena. The Williams Lake Stampede Classics, performing another high-speed drill routine, get cheering spectators on the edge of their seats. "Our job is to pump up the crowd for the rest of the rodeo -- to get that adrenaline rushing," says Classics member Becky Telfer.

"The faster we go, the louder the crowd gets," says Telfer's fellow rider Stacey Ward. The Classics represent their hometown of Williams Lake, the historical and well-known ranching community in the Cariboo region of central B.C. Every July long weekend, Williams Lake hosts the four-day Williams Lake Stampede pro-rodeo. At each Stampede performance, the Classics perform in the grand entry. The drill team rides at other B.C. rodeos, as well. Traveling together, loaded with horse feed and camping gear, the Classics appear at about half a dozen weekend rodeos.

This year, the group consists of nine volunteer riders. Some years, as many as a dozen ladies gallop their horses through the intricate freestyle patterns that make the Classics crowd favorites. Each rider carries a bright, rippling flag as the group performs pinwheels, charges, sweeps, weaves, and other complex drill maneuvers. At evening rodeo performances, the sequins on the riders' matching outfits glitter in the fluorescent arena lights.

"This is a nice way to be involved in rodeo," says rider Stacey Ward, relaxing in a lawn chair at the group's camp at the Falkland Stampede rodeo grounds. The horses, blanketed and munching hay, stand quietly in portable 10' by 10' stalls. Some dogs laze around the camp, watching passing cowboy hats. Portable tents cover the picnic area, in the middle of campers, trucks and horse trailers. Big rigs, belonging to rodeo contestants, fill the rest of the infield.

Three drill team riders relax after a high-energy performance: Stacey Ward has ridden with the Classics for three years. Becky Telfer is a 6-year veteran, and rider Pat Cotter has performed as a Stampede Classic for 5 years. "We enjoy team work," says Pat Cotter. "We're a group. When we watch a video of a performance, we have trouble telling one rider from the other."

Classics riders have previous horse experience in a variety of areas, from rodeo to show jumping. Some, like Stacey Ward, have competed in rodeo royalty pageants. As Stampede Classics, all the ladies are ambassadors for rodeo.

"We get calls from rodeo managers who want us to perform," says Becky Telfer. "We all work full time jobs, and use up holiday time to travel," says Telfer, "The number of rodeos we can go to is limited."

At the Williams Lake Stampede, the Classics perform for a crowd of 5000. Like other Classics, Stacey Ward doesn't mind the pressure of performing in front of a large crowd: "I love the crowds," smiles Stacey, "I don't feel nervous at all." Rider Pat Cotter says, "we're so focused on the routine and other riders, we don't notice the crowd until we're finished the routine."

The Classics rely on fast but levelheaded horses to get through the seven minute routine. A variety of breeds -- from Quarter Horses to Morgans -- are used for team mounts that must "trust the rider, be controllable and good around other horses." says Becky Telfer. Flag breaking a horse can be a challenge, "we expect a new horse to spook a little, or toss their head, but not bolt across the arena," says Becky. Telfer explains how horses become used to a flag: "We show the flag to them, and let them sniff it, and tie it by where they eat. Some horses are easier to flag break than others," she concedes, adding, "They also have to get used to the other flags coming toward them." Sometimes, the process is simple: Stacey Ward says, "With my Morgan mare, I just picked up the flag and rode."

The Classics ride at two weekly practice sessions. Using real teamwork, they coach themselves. "We warm up at a trot or slow lope," explains Becky Telfer, "then practice moves and routines." Pat Cotter adds, "some practices we ace." Sometimes things go wrong. "We communicate by voice and eye contact," says Becky. "We have to make quick decisions," Telfer explains, with so many horses, riders, and patterns, collisions sometimes occur.

The three classics riders select the weave as their most difficult maneuver. In the complex move, two sets of riders gallop in straight lines, passing shoulder to shoulder. "The challenge is to keep the straight lines and turn at the same time," says Pat.
Classics horses like music. "We choose music with a strong beat. The horses tense up and prance," says Pat Cotter. Becky adds, "the horses don't respond to music without a strong beat." Before entering the arena, excited mounts might rear, anticipating the upcoming performance. Riders stay relaxed before a performance, walking their horses in a circle and calling out moves in order. "You've got to be a sack of potatoes," laughs Becky Telfer. "If your horse is excited, the rider must keep calm."

At Equidance 2000, an international three-day freestyle drill team competition held at the Calgary Saddle Dome during the Calgary Stampede, the Williams Lake Stampede Classics competed against 20 other drill teams for $30,000 in prize money. At the end of the competition, that was two years in the planning, the Classics placed fifth.
The Classics work hard and travel far to bring rodeo crowds their exciting high-speed performance.

Alta -- Trick Rider Niki Cammaert
Performing gravity-defying, high-speed stunts on horseback is Cammaert's full time job. "I'm booked for a rodeo every weekend," says Niki Cammaert, 21, a Rockyford, Alberta trick rider. While her mount gallops freely, Niki flawlessly performs artistic, acrobatic moves.

Cammaert appears year round at rodeos throughout Western Canada and the U.S. When the snow covers her Alberta home, Cammaert, and her two horses, head for the winter rodeo circuit in Texas.

In front of thousands of rodeo fans, Niki performs at major pro-rodeo venues like the Houston Livestock Show and the Calgary Stampede. Wherever she rides, Niki is an unforgettable combination of talented rider and circus performer, wearing a sequin covered outfit in teal blue or bright orange. Gleaming blonde hair flying, Niki performs daring tricks like the Cossack Suicide Drag, the Stroud Lay Out, the Shoulder Stand, and the One Foot Flyaway. Niki's flashy trick riding mount, is outfitted in a matching saddle pad, leg wraps, and blinkers.

Growing up on a ranch, Cammaert rode from a young age, "I always tried to stand on my saddle," she laughs. A 4-H and High School Rodeo competitor, Niki saw trick riding at the Calgary Stampede and knew she had to try the thrilling, dangerous sport. A former competitive figure skater and gymnast, Niki's athletic ability was perfect for performing stunts that require a rider to have superior strength and balance. "I've always been a bit of a daredevil," Niki says, "In high school rodeo, I did two years of cow riding. Cows can be as mean as bulls. The only reason I quit was so I wouldn't get hurt for trick riding."
Niki took trick riding lessons with Jennifer Hay O'Neil, an experienced trick rider who's performed in Las Vegas. Another legendary Alberta trick rider Jerry Deuce Phillips, also taught Niki for two and a half years, "I was lucky, Jerry lived an hour away. I took lessons for two and a half years." Using a retired trick riding horse, Niki learned the basics from her instructors.

Five years later, Cammaert is acknowledged as a top trick rider -- she even does movie stunt work. "Trick riding is a tough way to make a living," Niki admits. Cammaert spends a lot of time on the road and when practicing and performing, has been in several wrecks. Cammaert often travels alone, hauling her horses in a live-in trailer.

But Cammaert possesses the toughness of a seasoned rodeo competitor. "When you love something you do, all the risks and sacrifices you make are part of the job. I love to travel. I've been all over the southern states -- Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana. This year, I'll be traveling farther. I love the people involved in rodeo, and I love performing for kids."
When performing, Niki focuses on her routine, "I don't hear the crowd or the music, until I'm finished." At a performance, Niki usually executes about 6 stunts. For each trick, Niki's horse is painstakingly trained to gallop full-speed around the arena, then halt in the corner. When Niki is ready to perform another trick, her horse gallops another lap. Cammaert practices year round. "Successfully performing a new trick is a feeling like no other," says the dedicated rider. "I practice more when I'm working with a new horse or trick."

A trick riding horse, Niki explains, must be showy and fast, yet levelheaded. "When I'm into a trick, I have no control over my horse." Niki puts blinkers on her horses to help minimize distractions. "I've tried out twenty horses; I've used six. A trick riding horse needs to have fire but not be spooky -- it's a happy medium that's not easy to find." Strength is another quality Niki looks for in a horse because "the moves I do can easily throw a horse off balance," she explains.

Each trick takes special horse, says Cammaert. A trick rider needs to know the line-up of tricks she wants to perform, then must find a suitable horse. Niki's horses know their job, "I don't hop on them and go for a trail ride. One horse is great with kids, they can walk around on him, but I really only use my horses for trick riding. When the blinkers and saddle go on, they know they have to run the pattern -- it's time to work."

Niki's custom-made white leather trick riding saddle has foot and handholds, and various straps for security. Niki's horses -- running free during her tricks -- don't wear tie-downs or any other restrictive device, " they need their heads free to balance. A horse can go down," she warns, "and could get caught up in a tie-down."

Before each performance, Niki feels nervous excitement. Her line up of tricks depends on the arena size and ground conditions. "Fort Worth has the perfect size arena -- nice and big with good footing," says Cammaert, who did thirty performances in 18 days at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.

The latest trick Niki's working on is the Tail Drag, which has been the most challenging stunt. For the Tail Drag, the rider's feet are anchored in the foot holds on the back of the trick riding saddle, then the rider throws herself over the horse's rump, legs extended, hands dragging on the ground. "The tail drag is the most dangerous trick. My horses are adjusting to it. I think they actually worry about me," says Niki.

To heighten the dramatic effect of some performances, Niki hand-detonates a low-level pyrotechnic special effect, similar to fireworks. As Niki hangs upside down against the side of her galloping horse, a shimmering stream of sparks flares behind her.

Like any rodeo event, trick riding is thrilling but dangerous. "I'm constantly black and blue," says Niki, describing her bruises caused from the rigours of trick riding. As her horse gallops, Niki must maneuver around the straps and footholds on her sturdy trick riding saddle. When performing, Niki doesn't wear protective gear, but during practice sessions, Cammaert sometimes uses elbow and kneepads.

Learning a new trick can cause the horse to spook, buck, or turn into the arena fence. Once, while Niki performed a shoulder stand, her horse turned into the fence and dragged her down the page-wire, "I needed stitches after that," she says matter-of-factly. Another time -- in the Cossack Suicide Drag -- Niki and her horse fell. Both were seriously injured. After each wreck, the gutsy rider rebuilds her confidence and continues performing. "I try to stay in shape, get over the fear, and do every trick as safely as possible."

At all times during trick, the rider must stay balanced, Niki points out. "When you get off balance, you can't get back up to the saddle," says Niki, "everything has to go right to get out of a trick."

"Trick riding is a dying art," says Cammaert, from her Rockyford home. Cammaert would like to perform at Cheyenne Frontier Days and "the ultimate in rodeo," the NFR in Las Vegas. A certified pyrotechnics expert, Niki also performs at sports event openings, amid breath-taking fountains of dazzling special effects. "I'd like to become more involved in live entertainment and public relations," says Niki, with the confidence of a born entertainer.
Cammaert and the Classics occasionally cross trails, performing at the same rodeo venues. This July, the Stampede Classics and Niki Cammaert performed for hometown crowds. The Williams Lake Stampede Classics at the Williams Lake Stampede, and Niki Cammaert appeared at the Calgary Stampede.

Wherever these talented women and their horses perform, the crowd is in for a treat.

Other articles by Tammy Thielman

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