The Loewens don’t watch much TV.
Instead, the family of five (father Dan, mother Lavaunne, and sons Dawson, 17, Dallyn, 16, Ryder, 14) spend a lot of time before sundown out on their arena, designed to practice rodeo events, or out on the road competing at rodeos.
The arena, about 180 by 260 feet, is made of ground soil, with panels (metal fencing) from Idaho. Calves (or steers) walk from a field into an alleyway, then are led to the chute. The gates on the chute clang open and the calf (or steer) springs free. The boys then practice, about 3 to 4 times a week, the rodeo events they’re trained in: tie-down roping, team roping, and steer wrestling.
Referring to the arena, Dan said “this is our living room.”
The Loewen boys are some of the most accomplished rodeo competitors in the region. Competitions this year included the National High School Rodeo in Gillette, Wyoming (with more than 1,750 contestants from 43 states, Canada, and Australia); the Canadian Finals Rodeo in Nanton, Alberta (where Dawson was named the second best steer wrestler for his age group in Canada); and the Kakeyow Cowboys Rodeo Association finals, in which Dawson won a Senior High Point Championship buckle, and Dallyn won a Junior Team Roping buckle. Dawson finished the high school rodeo season’s overall high point leader.
Dawson is considering going to college in the U.S., possibly in Texas or New Mexico, and is hoping for a full-ride scholarship because he’s a three-event cowboy. He said he might specialize in steer wrestling, and an attractive feature of a university would be a steer wrestling coach.
Regardless of where Dawson ends up going to school in the U.S., Dan said the trip to visit him down south would be long.
“I guess what do you do,” Dan said. “I say why don’t you go to Vermillion or somewhere in Alberta for school. No. He wants to go south he said, where it’s warm. At least he’s focused I guess.”
Independence is necessary for the life of a rodeo competitor. Occasionally, Dawson and Dallyn go off to rodeos on their own. Dan said the farthest they’ve been by themselves is Val Marie.
Dan and Lavaunne say Dawson and Dallyn travelling by themselves holds the boys accountable.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” Lavaunne said. “Not only do they have to maintain themselves as athletes, they have to look after their horses.”
“Then you have to be out of bed,” Dan said. “Sometimes they compete at 8 a.m.”
“When you can send two boys 16 and 17 down the road and they leave for the weekend with four horses and come back with four horses, it’s kind of impressive.”
The family often travels together. Dawson said rodeo isn’t as popular as other sports in the area, but he estimated there is roughly a family in each little town. Rodeo families often travel together, and Lavaunne said “everybody knows everybody.”
Dan said he gained interest in rodeo sports when he was around 12 or 13. He couldn’t afford to haul horses when he was old enough to go out on his own, so he wasn’t able to compete in team roping. Him and his buddy “decided it would be a good idea to ride saddle bronc.
“Let me tell you that was hard on the body.”
Saddle bronc is one of rodeo’s most iconic images: the event involves staying on a bucking horse for eight seconds.
“It’s nothing you’ll experience in your life,” Dan said. “You come out of a chute, you nod you head, and it’s eight seconds of absolute terror.”
Dan said he also rode a few bulls before deciding against pursuing it further.
Dan and Lavaunne grew up in the area, and left in 1993 for 21 years before coming back. Dan worked in the oilfield, and was often on the road, sometimes leaving for months at a time. The family lived north of Lloydminster for a time, but Dan said “we couldn’t build a sandbox this big, so we moved back home.”
The family moved back to the area in 2014. Dan is currently the city’s director of infrastructure, while Lavaunne is the city’s payroll coordinator.
Dallyn was at work pumping gas at the Co-op in Battleford, so Dawson demonstrated tie-down roping.
Dawson nodded and Lavaunne cracked the chute. The calf darted out and Dawson roped it. He then jumped off his horse, wrestled the calf to the ground, and tied three of its legs together. During a competition, he’d throw his hands in the air, a flagger would drop a flag and the timer would stop.
The Loewens know the behaviours of their calves, but calves at rodeos are luck of the draw: some are more explosive than others. A tie-down roper’s time depends on the calf: how fast it is and how much it struggles while roped.
Tie-down roping, like all rodeo events, is a mental and physical challenge. Co-ordinating how fast one’s horse is going, how fast the calf is going, and where both the rope (with a loop a diameter of about 5 to 10 feet) will end up requires extensive practice, as does roughing a calf to the ground, and tying its legs. Arena size is a factor too.
Dawson tried another calf, but roped the back legs instead of the neck.
“If you get him by the back legs, it’s not a wash but you’re probably going to struggle a lot more,” Lavaunne said. “You wouldn’t give up on it if you paid your entry fees. You’d fight.”
About co-ordinating everything, Dawson said “it’s all muscle memory.”
The Loewens then demonstrated team roping. After the steer is released from the chute, the header tries to ropes the steer’s horns or neck first, then the heeler ropes the heels. The goal is to rope head and heels as quickly as possible, although the heeler roping only one leg results in a five second penalty.
Dallyn normally team ropes with Dawson, but Dallyn wasn’t home from work yet. Dan filled in.
Team roping adds another dynamic, and co-ordinating the five moving bodies requires good communication. Brothers usually make good partners because they say things to each other that strangers wouldn’t say.
The sun came down before the Loewens could demonstrate steer wrestling, also known as bulldogging. The steer is released from the chute, followed closely by the hazer, who keeps the steer in a straight line. The bulldogging horse follows, and the bulldogger drops from his horse, gets a hold of the steer’s head and tries to twist the steer to the ground.
Planting one’s feet in the ground in the wrong way could cause riders to lose their front teeth, Dan said.
Professional steer wrestling times range from about three to 10 seconds.
Rodeo sports are concentrated intensity. Long trips are usually involved, for seconds of competition.
“It ain’t like football where you get $3 million and a charter that picks you up,” Dan said. “You got an old ‘99 Dodge, over 500,000 kilometres, and an old trailer with old hotels.”
For most rodeo events, a rope barrier in front of a horse is pulled once a steer reaches a certain distance in front of the horse. The horse (and rider) breaking the barrier before the steer reaches a certain point results in a time penalty, and “going from hero to zero just like that,” Dan said.
“Say you have a winning run of 11 seconds, and [the horse] broke out, now he’s at 21. So now you just drove 1,200 kilometres, you had a smoking run, you broke the barrier, you paid 100 or 200 dollars for entries fees, plus fuel,” Dan said.
“And you only get one run,” Lavaunne said.
But unlike most minor sports, rodeo sports offer winnings. Rodeo is associated with high prizes, and a popular YouTube video features a bull rider who wins $117,000 “for 32 seconds of work.”
Dawson said that when he went to the KCRAs this year, there was one rodeo in which he didn’t win his entry fees plus fuel back. Winnings this year included prizes worth $1,800, $800, $600, along with others. Winnings depend on a number of factors, but Dawson said generally the more rodeo participants there are paying entry fees, the bigger the winnings can be.
Dallyn came back from work just after the sun went down, but in time for a photo. He couldn’t find his hat.
“Dallyn, Dallyn, it’s in Dawson’s dodge,” Dan cried, his voice reverberating across their land.
“The neighbours can hear everything,” Lavaunne said. “It keeps us in check.”
All three boys go to JPII, and Dallyn and Ryder participate in team roping. Dawson is on the younger end of the Senior age group, which features adults. Dallyn won his first saddle at 12, while Dawson did so at 13. Dawson began team roping at 12, tie-down roping two years ago, and bulldogging last year.
Dawson said he’s thought about competing in rodeos for a living, although it involves practicing daily out on the arena, rather than just doing it for fun.
“You’re always gone, you’re by yourself. It’s kind of iffy if I did it for a living. It’s a self-centered kind of lifestyle, because it’s just you and you’re going wherever there’s anything. Whereas right now it’s kind of a family event.”
“But it’s a lot more fun than going to work, that’s for sure,” Dawson said.
Dan said he hopes Dawson doesn’t go too far.
“We’re kind of scared he’ll fall in love, get married and never return.”
Additional submitted photos: http://www.newsoptimist.ca/photos/loewen-rodeo-photos-1.23066489