That first race does tend to make an impression. And for veterans, nightly in the wagon box, the sport continues to thrill.
Even if the high-wire experience – clenching the reins and driving four thoroughbreds through chuckwagon traffic jams – nearly defies description.
“I still remember going in for the practice turn and that feeling – your heart, your adrenaline,” Troy Dorchester says of his debut in Trochu, Alta., in 1993. “I don’t know what it’s like to ride a bull, but your adrenaline’s going – and it still does. Every time you get in there, it’s exciting and that’s why I still do it.”
Recently retired Rae Croteau Jr. told someone the other day that in his post-driving life only sky-diving can match wagon-racing for sheer exhilaration.
Baptism by fire – Lloydminster seven years ago – has stuck with Curtis Morin.
“A lot of anxiety, nervousness – of course, that just means you’re alive,” says Morin. “The adrenaline was pumping, really, really, really lots. But (even now) when it’s almost race time, blood starts pumping. It’s the same as the horses – they know when it’s race day.”
According to Chad Harden, the wagon-seat rush belongs in a league of its own.
“It’s not like a race car where you can just hit the brakes, right?” says Harden, who was 14 years old when he started racing pony wagons in Winfield, Alta. “Sometimes you pull on them and sometimes there’s no stop.”
It was five years ago in North Battleford, Sask., that Danny Ringuette had embarked on his own maiden voyage.
“Everything seemed so fast,” he says. “I don’t really remember much of the race. I know that afterwards it was just a big relief.”
You get the idea.
Then there’s Roger Moore.
The old smoothie from Loon Lake, Sask., is different – and he knows it.
After faltering when first asked to run a reporter through the emotions of piloting a frothing four-horse team full tilt for more than a minute – “I don’t know how to answer that” – Moore comes clean.
“For myself, when I get in the seat, I’m a little bit opposite of a lot of people,” says the 52-year-old, making his 18th appearance as a Calgary Stampede driver – he earned the Orville Strandquist Award as top rookie in 1997. “I just relax. Pressure’s never bothered me. Ever. About really anything. I don’t get too excited about too much, really.
“When I get in the wagon seat, I could literally go to sleep. I’ve been like that ever since Day 1.”
In Moore’s case, Day 1 is indeed notable. That had been 1994 in Unity, Sask., a stop on the Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association and his introduction to driving.
All Moore did was win – the whole show.
But this was no greenhorn.
He knew what he was doing.
“I was born and raised on horses. My whole life, that’s all we ever had, eh?” Moore says. “That’s just the way we were raised, you know. It’s a little different nowadays when not so many people are raised with horses.
“I mean, when I say that’s all we had, that’s all we had. We had no phone, no power, no nothing. If we wanted to do something, we used the horse.”
(This is a common theme among reinsmen of a certain vintage. Listen to Harden, a 47-year-old from Mulhurst Bay, Alta.: “When we were young, that’s all we did – ride horses and play around, right? If it poured rain in the spring and we had a flood, well, guess what? We rode the horses through the water, we swam the horses. In the wintertime, you ride the horses and jump off in the snowbank. It sounds like I’m dating myself, but that was our fun when we were younger.”)
No surprise, given his upbringing, Moore’s future was always going to include horses.
“I paid attention to the drivers,” says Moore. “I watched Buddy Bensmiller, Herman Flad, Dallas Dorchester. Just the way they did things with their hands. And they knew where everybody was and what every horse was doing on everybody’s outfits.
“Herman, especially. After the race, he could tell you what every horse on everybody’s outfit was doing … but he also knew exactly where he was all the time.
“Buddy, same way. That man was amazing. The way he drove he’d never throw a horse off stride. Just little ways he moved his hands. It was a pleasure just watching him. And those are the people I learned from.”
Moore’s outriding career was splendid – six times the CPCA champion, four times the Calgary Stampede aggregate champion, two times the GMC Rangeland Derby champion.
And even in those days, before his shift to the wagon seat, he had been one cool customer.
“I’d sit on the fence,” says Moore. “I’d never stretch. I’d never do anything. I watch all these other guys slapping the heck out of each other and jumping and stretching. I’d be sitting on top of the fence, having a smoke and wondering, ‘Jeepers, that’s got to hurt.’ Then I’d just go out there and ride them all. Never missed a heat in 12 years.”