Carman has hosted ten different Heartland Rodeo finals over the years. (EMILY DISTEFANO)
Carman was never a Wild West cowboy town, but it was a real Manitoba hotbed for Heartland Rodeo finals and team roping events from 1996 to 2016.
It all started in 1996, when the Dufferin Agricultural Society (DAS) decided they would host the Heartland Rodeo Association (HRA) finals, plus the Manitoba High School finals at the same time.
The Young Men’s Section (YMS) did all the grunt work for the DAS, being part of it for 1996 and 1997. Jeannie Van Workum was the ramrod for 1996 and a lot of the guys weren’t thrilled to have a woman telling them what to do, but all told she did a good job of organizing the rodeo and banquet.
There were not too many locals competing the first year, but the high school association was well represented. Dawn Crump ran barrels along with the Smith sisters. Actually Sandra Smith was on the high school executive for 1996 and 1997.
Claude Potvin and a few of the other cowboys left the Manitoba Rodeo Cowboys Association (MRCA) to form the HRA in 1996.
The problem was, there was no place for beginners to start rodeoing. The MRCA would not really accommodate someone that wanted to get into the sport, therefore Heartland was born.
Team roping was starting to get popular so in 1999 Ron, Brad and Dean Middleton and their families built an indoor roping arena and ropers came from all over Manitoba and east of Brandon to rope. (Brandon of course had been roping and rodeoing for years.)
When people started coming to the Middletons’ 7-6 Ranch a lot of them didn’t know how to hold a rope or build a loop, didn’t know what a hona or a spoke was, very few knew the difference between a head or a heel rope or what a lay was called, so it was a very interesting process for everyone.
Chances are if you learned to rope in the central or eastern part of Manitoba, you learned at the Middletons’ 7-6 Ranch.
The Middletons started to have instructors come in and give roping clinics to teach proper techniques. Local “elite roper” Jack Dyck from Winkler was probably the first instructor, then came the big boys from the U.S.
World Champion Rickey Green from Texas, then his nephew Chris Green and then Joe Lucas from Carstairs, Alberta.
Today, Brad uses eight-time world champion Rich Skelton from Llano, Texas.
The Middletons operated the indoor arena from 1999 to 2010 and then sold it. The outdoor arena operated until 2014 and then they called it a day. Brad now operates from his acreage at Graysville.
Carman’s third rodeo finals were in 2002 and the rodeo arena was set up west of the hockey arena.
Murray Clearsky was the stock contractor for 2002 and that was bad news for the cowboys. Murray brought in “eliminator” stock and I think there were only three qualified rides for the weekend. Final score: Bulls and Broncos - 37 and Cowboys - 3.
To have a good rodeo you have to have a good rodeo announcer and Heartland has that in Ivan Ahnoltz. He knows something about all the competitors and he really makes it interesting. You also have to have reliable stock contractors. We were fortunate in Carman to have had three good ones in the late Al Brown (1996-1997), Murray Clearsky (2002), and Norm Sterzer for our last seven rodeos (2010-2016).
In the late ’90s Al Brown was the stock contractor for some rodeos in Ontario: Emo, Thunder Bay and a couple of other small towns.
A contingent of Pembina Valley cowboys that hung out at the 7-6 Ranch decided to go down there with him one weekend. I think it was headed by Kirk Griffin and Travis Reichert. Included were Kelly Crump, Dale Knox, Kevin Butler, Erin Armstrong, Murray Moran and Brad Middleton.
The boys were the stars of the rodeo, amassing over $5,000 in winnings, while winning most events. The crowd loved them and clamoured for autographs when the rodeo was over. They were rodeo superstars as far as the fans were concerned.
Over the years the Pembina Valley region has had some very good rodeo cowboys and cowgirls. I’m just going to name a few for you from our region. Kirk Griffin and Travis Reichert from Darlingford; Dale Knox from Miami; Erin Armstrong, Joel O’Connor, Cristine O’Connor, Dawn Crump, Devan Dawydiuk and Dustin Winkler from Carman; Jack Dyck from Winkler; Whitney Harding from Pilot Mound; Ali Mullin from Cartwright – who, by the way, was Miss Rodeo Canada for 2017.
Our most versatile cowboy has to be Kirk Griffin because he could do it all: rope, steer wrestle, rough stock. He won buckles in every event he entered.
Manitoba’s best known cowboy is Zane Lambert from Westbourne. He has been Canadian Champion Bullrider and has represented Canada in the USA, Brazil and Australia.
As of this writing, Zane is just back from Australia where he was on the Canadian team of bullriders. They competed in the Continental Cup against Brazil, Mexico, U.S. and Australia. They ended up in third place out of five teams.
We formed the Carman Rodeo Committee in 2010 with Brad Middleton as president, and had Heartland Rodeo Association finals ten out of 21 years. We had to give it up for 2017 because we could not get the help to carry on.
When the Middletons started roping I got very interested and started working the stripping chutes. I learned very early that steers could kick directly sideways and that they were very accurate with their kicks. I was involved with roping and rodeos from 1999 to 2016 and during that period I was kicked, stepped on, hooked, run into steel fences and run over head on.
The last roping I worked was 2015 and that was the one where I got run over head on. My complete right side ended up black and blue from my ankle to my shoulder and then it turned to a lovely yellow. I had to make sure I went to bed last. My wife never knew about it, but I guess she will now! (When she reads this.)
I also worked rodeos at St. Claude and Miami and they were some of the best times of my life.
Rodeo people are like one big family. Ninety-nine per cent of them get along very well, even though they compete against each other. They help each other in the bucking chutes, lend a safety vest or chaps. They even lend their horses.
I have met a lot of great people through rodeo, the same as I did playing baseball and hockey, who are “lifelong” friends.
Carman has the best facilities on the rodeo circuit and I hate to see then go to waste, so maybe we will have the finals back someday.
My involvement with rodeo is coming to an end, but as the late bronc rider and country singer Chris Ledoux said: It’s been “one hell of a ride.”