I wrote this little ditty for the Globe & Mail a couple of years ago. I had just returned from a springtime trip to Alberta, and was blown away by this example of community. It also illustrates how food always has a way of bringing people 'round the table...
'It's essentially a social event where people with a deep faith and a western background come together to show off their dogs and eat lots," says Terri Mason, the rootin' tootin' editor of Canadian Cowboy Country magazine. She's filling me in on what's about to take place during the second annual Dog Trials in Cremona, Alberta.
In a fun, rodeo-style competition, about 30 dogs and their owners -- and many more spectators -- have amassed today to corral cows, have a potluck dinner and sing and dance till the sun dips below the green hills.
The Cowboy Trail Church of nearby Cochrane is a two-year-old group boasting more than 300 cowboy congregants, and they organized this event. Meetings happen every Tuesday at 7 p.m., followed by a social hour. It's a non-denominational church -- everybody's welcome -- there's prayer, a fiery sermon now and again, and then singing. Church takes place in a large room in a heritage house, where rancher Jason Bradley says the congregants "meet people where they're at." His mom is in charge of the coffee.
Pastor Brynn Thiessen is the ringleader of the festivities. He's a big, funny man with a fluffy mustache and a black-and-white dog.
The rules: All participants have three minutes to coax their dogs (mostly collies) into getting three cows to do a figure-eight around two blue barrels before corralling them into a pen. Some dogs know exactly what they're doing. Others haven't a clue.
Pastor Brynn is up first. He shouts commands, his dog circles, sits, waits, and chases. The pastor whistles. The dog stops, lays down, nips at a cow. Time's up. He's only made it through one obstacle. Much hootin' and a-hollerin.'
Next up, a woman named Danae Frew. She calmly tells her dog to "lie down, wait." The dog circles slowly. "Lie down, shhh, che-che-che." Thirty second warning. "Ssss, lie down, che-che-che." Together, they make the figure eight and get the three cows into the pen on time. More hootin' and a-hollerin.'
You can also do the Dog Trials on horseback, which is how most ranchers do it on the range. That's how ranch manager Jason Bradley is doing it today. But it's not going well. His young pup poops by a barrel then goes to take a nap in the corner while one cow bolts and the other two start mounting each other.
This is the second year of the Dog Trials, which happens on Dan Taylor's ranch each spring. Last year, it took place in his outdoor arena, but today it's cold and rainy so they've brought the festivities inside the barn and stables.
Over the next few hours, many more collies and owners do the trials, the competition eventually degenerating into seven women corralling the three cows while carrying their sleeping dogs.
And then country singing star Paul Brant gets on that same gorgeous mare that people have been riding all day. With cows charging it, dogs nipping at it and about a dozen different cowpokes saddling her, this horse has retained a Zen-like calmness that has been amazing to watch.
She trots over to Pastor Brynn, who is about to make a surprise announcement.
It seems that Mike McGough, whose vision it was to create the Cowboy Church, was recently bucked off his new horse, badly breaking his collarbone. (Just so you know, when your horse bucks and breaks you, you've got to give her away. You've lost her respect. It's the way of the West.)
But today there's a big surprise for Mike McGough. Brant hops off the horse and Pastor Brynn asks a confused McGough to mount the horse with their helping hands. Then Brynn makes his announcement.
Today, the cowboy community is presenting McGough with this calm horse. This beautiful mare that didn't scare and didn't bolt. The Cowboy Church raised the funds to buy it for McGough, to honour him, as he honours them.
Arm in a sling, his eyes welling with gratitude, shoulders slumped in humility, Mike McGough shakes his head in the most cowboy way. After a good little while, he composes himself: "I know a cowboy shouldn't cry," he softly whispers. "But it sure does mean a lot."