Want to know how old a horse is in human years? Multiply his age by 4.3.
Want to make a bad horse perform better? Get him to the dentist.
Want to learn how to properly sit in a chuckwagon?
How to hold the reins? How to steer?
How to win races?
When Rick Fraser throws open his barn doors, this is apparently the result – a generous outpouring of tidbits and tall tales, all charmingly delivered.
Which is what Brian Smith quickly discovered.
Brian, 16, and his family – parents Randy and Jeanie Maie; brother Bradly, 14; sister Brandi, 12 – travelled from their home in rural Nova Scotia to visit the Calgary Stampede grounds, thanks to the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada.
Arriving in town Monday – and promptly white-hatted at the airport – Smith came bearing good news. He was recently given a clean bill of health after being diagnosed with lymphoma cancer 18 months ago.
It marked the start of an unforgettable trip, which included a jaunt to Banff.
Saturday morning for more than an hour, the Smith clan got the royal treatment from Fraser and his wife Sue.
Right off the bat, the veteran driver told Brian to perch in the wagon box, to take the reins. He patiently showed the kid the proper technique.
Fraser then led the family through his barn, showing them all of the animals and peppering the tour with stories – about horses that fall asleep then topple over, about an old horse of his that enjoyed being finger-scratched IN the ear, about one horse he calls “the laziest creature in the barn.”
It was quite a show.
Later, Fraser explains his attitude.
“The No. 1 thing, make people feel welcome wherever you are. These 10 days … everyone wants a piece of you all the time. You just have to smile, take your moment, be happy with that.”
Fraser also gave the Smiths a rundown of his family tree, which, as chuckwagon aficionados know, is loaded with household names such as Dallas Dorchester and Dave Lewis. He even offered a history lesson on the sport, including the evolution of wagon dimensions and barrel composition.
When Leo Pretty Young Man, of the Siksika Nation, happened to wander by, Fraser dragged over Brian for an introduction.
The morning was as fascinating as it was comprehensive.
And when Fraser didn’t know something? Such as when Randy said he’d heard there was a pressure point on a horse’s chest that, if pushed, could make it back up. He immediately sought someone who would. (Answer: yes.)
“Young people are the future of our country,” says Fraser, a GMC Rangeland Derby mainstay and a World Professional Chuckwagon Association pillar. “If we don’t take time for them, they’re not going to learn to take time for the next ones. I remember when I was younger, it was always special when an older person would take time to talk to you, even if it’s for a few minutes. My uncle Dallas always had time for us.”
Wrapping up, Fraser contacted Stampede staff to make sure the Smiths would be able to watch Saturday evening’s races from the rails, not the grandstands, just to get a better sense of the power and speed.
Finally, he signed posters for the family.
As a field trip, this was tough to top.
“Very nice,” says Brian. “It was something else I wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for the wish foundation.”
For Brian, a bit of a horseman himself, a trip to, say, Disneyland was not appealing.
“My uncle suggested (going to the Stampede) and told me to look into it, ‘It might be down your alley,’ ” say Brian. “I looked into it and said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do.’ ”
The Smiths’ presence in the barns overlapped with another group’s – friends of the Frasers from their home town of Wetaskiwin, accompanied by a batch of curious exchange students.
This particular crew, Sue was leading around.
“It is important to us,” says Sue, who blogs daily – travelintrailer.com – about life on the chuckwagon circuit. “Because without the fans and the friends and the family, we wouldn’t be doing it. It’s good to get the people out and to see what we do. It’s not just the race on the track – that’s only about a minute long. People get to come back here and see how it all comes together. The chores, the horses.”
At every Stampede, however, Fraser and Sue find time for a trip over to the Alberta Children’s Hospital. They round up a handful of drivers, maybe an outrider or two, and head over to cheer up the patients.
Without fuss – there is never a press release – they’ve been doing it for nearly 20 years.
“We don’t go for fanfare,” says Fraser, 57. “We go for the kids. We don’t need the rah-rah-rah.”
Tuesday morning, they plan to make their visit.
“It brightens their day,” says Sue, “and it brightens ours moreso. It’s very touching. It’s so hard to describe. We come out of there with so much. The kids really enjoy it, but we come away with even more.”