Agility, speed and precision are on full display as the Indigenous riders race around the track, each of them possessing the ultimate in horsemanship, skill and determination as they officially kick off the start of the Stampede Rodeo in the exhilarating Grand Entry.

“All of the participants come from horse savvy backgrounds and are raised on horses, so their equestrian skills are top-notch,” says Suelin Richards, Indian Events committee member.

Their horsemanship skills are crucial and what the judges look for when selecting the lucky participants who will make their grand entrance in front of thousands daily during The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.

“The Grand Entry youth participants often grow up raising and training horses and many have learned the ropes from their Tipi family members,” shares Richards.

All riders must have a connection to one of the 26 family Tipis. The Tipis represent the five nations of Treaty 7: Kainai, Tsuut’ina, Stoney Nakoda, Siksika and Piikani. Each has a unique design on the outside and beadwork, buckskin outfits and artifacts are displayed on the inside.

Aside from raising and training horses, the riders also ranch, hunt, compete in rodeos and take part in Indian Relay Racing.

Austin Standing Alone, Kainai – CS Rodeo Grand Entry 2016

“Having one more event to train for is a great new challenge and goal for the participants to take on,” explains Richards. “It gives them the opportunity to build and hone their horsemanship skills, while showcasing their culture and traditions– a badge of honour for their Tipi families.”

The participants are youth leaders and role models for younger Indigenous youth in both their families and communities. “They show that anyone is capable of being successful when given the chance and opportunity, “says Richards. “This is important because they are not only inspiring the youth of the future, but the youth of the Indian Village and our nation. It’s imperative that they are given opportunities, resources and tools to empower themselves with skills to succeed in an equal and fair manner.”

After the Grand Entry is finished for the day, you won’t find the participants taking it easy! “Our riders are all multitalented; some of them participate in dancing, drumming and singing, while also assisting their families with their tipis in the Indian Village. It’s an extremely busy 10 days for all of the families that participate,” shares Richards. “It’s really about inspiring the next generation of Indigenous youth and keeping their culture and traditions alive.”

Symbols that tell a story

Indigenous warriors would paint their horses using bright colours and symbols displaying their skills before heading off to war.

“There were signs for horse stealing, signs to represent lighting, hailstorms, counting coup on the enemy and even signs for tadpoles painted on horses. Piikani people believed that hail storms, thunder storms, tadpoles and water all had very strong power – and they wanted that power going to war,” shares Steven Wolftail, a participant in the 2016 Grand Entry and member of the Piikani Nation.

Wolftail preparing his horse for the Grand Entry in 2016

It’s a tradition that means a lot and for the Indigenous participants of the Grand Entry, it’s the reason they arrive three hours before making their big debut in the Grand Entry. They pass the time preparing for the big show by painting their horses with beautiful symbols, each telling a unique and sacred personal story.

“Each nation has their own traditional symbols and ways of telling their stories,” says Suelin Richards, Indian Events committee member. “Storytelling is an important part of Indigenous culture today.”

The story is different for each rider and can be one passed down from generation to generation, or one of personal experience or significance,” shares Suelin Richards.

“This symbolism is significant to our heritage, because the warriors were willing to give themselves up for the safety of their people so they needed the ultimate protection. The horse would be painted with designs before war to protect their spirit and well-being. And as times became modern, Indigenous people dressed their horses in beautifully decorated beaded horse tack regalia as a symbolic way to honour the animal, rider and nation,” says Wolftail with pride.

“I was proud to carry on this tradition when I participated in the Grand Entry and so are my fellow participants, past and present,” says Wolftail.

Each nation has different symbols and stories to share, but as just one example, Piikani war horses often showcased the following paintings:

The horse above is drawn after Anthony Crowshoe’s horse from the Grand Entry in 2016

Look for, and cheer on, the Indigenous youth participants in the 2017 Stampede Rodeo Grand Entry from July 7 to 16, 2017.