Meet the competitors who travel far and wide with their horses for annual Quebec rodeo

Last weekend as Kim Picard rounded the third barrel — careening across the dirt in a packed stadium in Sainte-Tite, Que., she says she had a feeling she’d be taking home first place.

“My horse didn’t miss a step, so I had high hopes,” said Picard, referring to her 15-year-old quarter-horse, Tiger, who’s been competing with her for 13 years.

Picard was among the competitors at the Festival Western de St-Tite. The 10-day event, located 65 kilometres north of Trois-Rivières, is celebrating its 55th edition, welcoming athletes and spectators from across the world.

Picard skidded to the finish line with a time of 16.132 seconds, taking home the barrel race title in the Wrangler Canada Cup Final.

She says she waited around for other competitors to have a go before realizing she really had won — for the second year in a row.

“You don’t have time to realize [what’s happened] you already have to be brought into the ring to do your victory lap,” said Picard.

“[Tiger] was so happy, I felt it, I think we’re really really connected. When we do well, he goes out, he’s proud, he was prancing and lifting his legs while he walked.”

A woman rides a brown horse guiding him around a barrel in a stadium.
Kim Picard won the Wrangler Canada Cup Final with a time of 16.132. (Birtz Photographie)

As they took in their victory, Picard says she was beaming.

“I’m really at peak happiness,” said Picard.

“It happens super fast, then we go back down to the trailer as if nothing had happened, but to realize in reality, my dream came to life. I had butterflies in my stomach all evening, even throughout the night.”

For Picard and other athletes travelling to the town of 3,000 to compete in rodeo and gymkhana events [timed speed events] it’s something they do out of passion — partnering with animals they consider to be athletes in their own right and continuing a tradition that’s existed for generations.

A woman leads her borwn horse into a green field
Before their race, Picard led Tiger around a field just outside of the downtown. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

‘It’s in our blood. This is our culture’

Walking down the town’s main street fitted in button-down shirts and cowboy hats, Hugo Robitaille and Josée Marleau recalled visiting the festival when they were teenagers. Now they attend with their three children.

“It’s a tradition,” said Robitaille.

“It’s a moment when we can join with our [extended] family and live the cowboy way … Looking at the past and looking at the way people used to live or used to work, when the working was hard.”

A family smles at the camera. Some wear button-down shirts and cowboy hats.
Josée Marleau and Hugo Robitaille, far right, visit the festival every year with their three children: Fannie, Alexia and Lily Robitaille. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

For the rodeo’s manager, Sylvain Bourgeois, the festival represents a lifestyle.

“I was born in it and then my kids were born in it,” said Bourgeois, who started competing in saddle bronc riding when he was 15.

“Some of those families here, like there’s like four generations of cowboys. Even [though] we’re from the east, doesn’t mean we’re not cowboys … it’s in our blood. This is our culture and then yes, we want to keep doing it for the rest of our life.”

A man wearing plaid and a cowboy hat looks at the camera.
Sylvain Bourgeois has been the rodeo manager for 28 years and says the festival is ‘in our blood.’ (Rachel Watts/CBC)

Bourgeois says that when he joined the festival as a manager, he wanted to develop local talent to keep this tradition alive. When he started, only half of the athletes were from Quebec. Now Quebecers represent 75 per cent of competitors.

“When I started working for the festival I also told them, like, we needed to develop their sport if we wanted to have some athletes from here [and] not always cowboys from Texas … win[ning] this rodeo,” said Bourgeois.

“So we also had like a satellite company that we put on rodeos throughout the summer to develop the sport and promote our event.”

The festival, which will wrap up on Sunday, features barrel racing, the rescue race, the exchange race, the pony express and bareback riding.

But it is events like saddle bronc riding, bull riding, tie-down roping and steer wrestling that have drawn criticism over the years, especially in 2017 following the death of a horse at the event and a report accusing the festival of violating animal welfare laws.

This spring, a working group from Quebec’s Agriculture Ministry recommended that competitors stop using lassos in rodeos.

Bourgeois says animal welfare has “always been one of our biggest concerns,” and that the festival is collaborating with the ministry as they develop a committee to determine codes of practice for rodeo events.

A woman rides her horse after rounding a final barrel in a stadium
The barrel race competition involves competitors racing around three barrels positioned in a stadium in a cloverleaf pattern. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

‘A partnership with your horse’

Picard first started on the circuit after purchasing Tiger, who had the bloodline for barrel racing.

“My parents signed me up for several sports when I was younger. I tried swimming, ballet, soccer, but I didn’t get hooked. Then when I tried horseback riding, I really got hooked,” said Picard.

“I realized that the horse was really good in the regionals and that we could raise the level. So I decided to try rodeos, which was my dream.”

Last year, Picard and Tiger took home the title at the St-Tite rodeo for the first time. She said it had long been a goal.

“It’s really a partnership with your horse, it’s a beautiful thing. I get a lot out of it, and I think my horse was really born to do this, and he loves it too, so that’s what makes us perform so well together,” said Picard.

A field full of trailers and trucks. In the distance, a group of horses graze in a field.
Many competitors at the rodeo stay in town and sleep in trailers, near their horses, who are able to graze in a field. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

Travelling to participate in the rodeo

Picard, who is a teacher in Thetford Mines, Que., trains and competes when she’s not working.

“I have the best of both worlds … It’s a job that allows me to live my passion,” said Picard.

The only difficulty is the fact that I’m on my own, so I do everything on my own. You have to move around.”

People stand in a stadium fitted in cowboy hats and button-down shirt, preparing for rodeo events.
This year, hundreds of competitors are participating in the rodeo and 75 per cent of them are from Quebec. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

Justin Thigpen drove all the way from Waycross, Georgia, to participate in the St-Tite rodeo.

Living in a trailer, alongside many of the competitors just outside of town, he hosed his horse down after competing in team roping.

“The festival is great, the energy that the crowd brings every night, it gets your motor running,” said Thigpen. “Some places you go don’t get your heart pumping as fast.”

“This is a big one right here. This can put you on the map as far as if you win it, you can be in the race for a world championship.”

Two men in blue shift and cowboy hats
Cody Mousseau, left and Justin Thigpen, right, competed in team roping. Thigpen travelled from Georgia to participate in the festival. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

As a rodeo competitor in the U.S., he’s been making the trek north for the festival for the past decade.

“It’s preparation, because you can’t drive straight through with your animals,” said Thigpen. “You’ve got to stop and give them some rest time and take care of them as well.”

“They’re warriors as well, they’re road savvy and they know how to handle themselves and they love doing it.”

A woman puts a halter on her brown horse just outside of a trailer
Picard says Tiger was not himself when rodeos were cancelled due to COVID-19. She says he loves to race. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

The horses love it, says Picard

Picard says the horses that compete at this level are like Olympic athletes.

“It’s really the highest level you can go,” said Picard.

“Horses that perform this well are horses that love it. And the year of COVID, my horse — we couldn’t compete — it was his worst year. He was really not himself because he loves competing.”

“If I ever retired him overnight, I think I would have a really big attitude problem with him.”

Picard is hoping for a win come Sunday, as she and Tiger compete for the Coors Original Final and hope to replicate their success from last year.

“It’s stressful, but it’s good stress,” said Picard. “But as soon as I get on my horse, I feel more confident because of him.”

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