By Andrea Arnold

This July, McBride resident Tom Ryan is headed back to the Calgary Stampede to compete in the Cowboy Up Challenge for the fourth time. 

According to their website, The Calgary Stampede Cowboy Up Challenge is a multi-faceted equestrian sporting event that showcases both horse and rider as they maneuver through a series of obstacles. Each obstacle demonstrates the horse’s natural agility, the rider’s horsemanship skills and a partnership based on trust

In order to compete, individuals have to submit an application to the Stampede board. The board then sends invitations in hopes of having the top 10 North American competitors. 

He hadn’t expected to compete this year, but for the second year in a row, the Stampede board contacted him. This year they told him there were wildcard spots available, but that he needed to submit his application. 

“We sent it in, and not long after, as we were trying to get to Little Lost Lake, he got word that he had been accepted,” said Shelly.

Ryan says he has been riding for almost 60 years, having first been placed on a horse at six months old. 

Ten years ago, Ryan first competed in Cowboy Up, and then again in 2013. He returned to the ring last year, not long after the devastating fire that took their barn and some of their animals.

“I got the call from the Stampede board not long after the fire,” said Ryan. “They wanted me to submit an application. I wasn’t sure about the timing, but decided to go for it. I didn’t know if it was the right time as we were dealing with the losses from the fire. I am all about feeling emotion. I like to feel emotion, but I need to keep moving forward. Horses and humans are similar in that they can only think of one thing at a time. We have to focus on the right thing.”

Only 10 days before competition at the 2021 Stampede, Ryan started training on his 18-year-old Lustrino, Apache. 

Tom Ryan and his horse Apache during the 2021 Provincial Finals in Cochrane. /SUBMITTED

“It was the first year I competed with Apache, so we travelled to train as much as possible in those days.”

Training can be a bit of a guessing game. The competitions are usually held indoors, but not always. Each course is a series of obstacles that cannot be predicted.

“The competition is about speed and control,” said Ryan. “Some examples of obstacles we have to master are bridges, water, jumping, dragging things, and roping. However, there are too many obstacle variances to practice them all. You can see obstacles that you and your horse have never seen.”

Competitors get a map of the course an hour before the event starts. 

“We have to memorize the map and the flow of the course, and plan your attack,” he said. “Then 15 minutes before we start, we actually get to see the course.”

Ryan said that although there is an audience watching the process, there are elements that the public doesn’t see. 

He remembers one obstacle that appeared to be harmless and easy during the walk through. 

“There was a bridge with a water mat in front of it and we had to get all four hooves wet before hitting the bridge,” he said. “When we got to it, the water mat took on an intense shine. They had a light shining straight from above that the audience couldn’t see. It startled me, and the horse felt it. He stepped back and pooped, then jumped the whole obstacle.”

Competitors are scored on speed as well as for the execution of each obstacle. Judging begins with a score of 5 on each one, and goes up or down as the competitor completes the task. A good performance on an obstacle might score an 8, but a misstep could result in a score of 3.

In 2021 Ryan competed on two of his horses: Apache, and the more experienced G. At the end of the season he was thrilled to place 5th with G and 6th with Apache in the Pro Division World Standings. He was invited to the World Finals in Texas along with the top 60 per cent of athletes from around the world, but the Ryan household was hit with COVID-19 and he was unable to make the trip.

This year, Ryan will be competing on his 10-year-old Lustrino “G.” Typically Quarter horses are used for these competitions, due to their athleticism and mindset. Ryan says the courses are geared toward Quarter horses. However, that doesn’t stop Ryan from bringing in his ranch-bred Lustrino’s.

“Lustrino’s, with the proper training, can’t be touched,” he said.

During competition, Ryan said controlling emotion, being calm, in control of the horse, and being a leader is key. 

“I wanted to get control of my emotional fitness,” said Ryan. “The competitions have helped me do that. When I started I really didn’t like being in front of people. Now I really enjoy it. The competitors are also entertainers, providing the audience a show.”

Ryan began his competition season this last weekend with the Extreme Cowboy Challenge in Cochrane Alberta. He placed third in the Pro Division at the end of the weekend. He is then attending a dressage clinic for the week before heading to the next competition.

Tom Ryan and his 2022 choice for a competition partner “G” placed third at their first competition in Cochrane June 11, & 12, 2022. /SUBMITTED

Both this year and last he was grateful for a sponsorship from McBride-raised Alberta-based businessman, Terry Raymond. Ryan will be attending six-eight events during the season and each of these require driving a minimum of six hours each way. The day money available to win helps cover expenses, but the increased cost of travel means that sponsorship is important.

Ryan is not heading in expecting to win first place, but he has other goals in mind.

“Winning would be nice, but that isn’t the goal,” he said. “The goal is to make it back to the Worlds, to compete with other countries, and to show off the Lustrino breed.”