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Behind the scenes of horse care and driver rituals at the Rangeland Derby

Behind the scenes of horse care and driver rituals at the Rangeland Derby

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Like other competitive athletes, horses need time to rest and recover.

Or maybe even a spa day.

Veteran horse-drawn carriage driver Ray Croteau Jr. took full advantage of the new service operating near the Calgary Stampede stables.

“There’s a spa at the end of the stable that I use,” Croteau said Tuesday during a tour of the stables for media to learn more about the daily routines of the drivers and how they care for their horses. “It’s a spa with an ice bath — a few horses just need a little extra care, like football players, hockey players who put ice on their legs, things like that.”

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Billed as “elite horse therapy for elite athletes,” Soak Equine is a mobile saltwater spa trailer where horses can literally step into a standing tub large enough to give them a cooling foot soak.

On Wednesday, Croteau took Appreciated to the spa for a treatment supervised by Kate Rusnack of Soak Equine, a treatment his aptly named horse certainly appreciated on a hot day.

“We’re lucky to have someone like that from the company who wants to come and help us, work with us,” said Croteau, who appreciates the service Rusnack is providing for the first time at the Stampede. “It’s pretty unique. She travels a lot and does a lot of barrel racing and cutting, so she knows what she’s doing. She’s really good with horses and knows how to get them in the trailer and into the tub.”

During the tour of the stables, Croteau also shared other measures drivers are taking to ensure the health and well-being of their horses, especially during the recent heatwave in Calgary, where temperatures topped 32°C.

“With the heat, of course we have these fans and sprinklers just to keep them cool,” Croteau said, talking in his barn amid the hum of a powerful fan in the background. “Other than the normal stuff, we just make sure they’re eating and we have good vets around if something goes wrong. It’s just about making sure they’re comfortable in the heat.”

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“Since we’ve been here, the horses have loved the grass, so after their morning chores we send a couple of guys down to the river to cut some of the longer grass and they each get a tuft of grass for themselves. They see that when we come into the barn with that grass, they’re ready to go. They want some.”

Water misting and fans keep wagon driver Chad Fike’s horses cool at the Calgary Stampede stables. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

Like Croteau, Cowboys Rangeland Derby overall leader Chad Fike keeps the barn cool for the horses, with plenty of fans and sprinklers around the stable.

“If you stick your head in there, it’s beautiful,” said Fike, who was the man to beat in the standings through five nights of racing, just 1.6 seconds ahead of Croteau. “So, yeah, that makes them feel comfortable.”

Also during the press tour, veteran driver Troy Dorchester detailed what a day in the life of a driver is like… and it involves getting up very early in the morning.

“I usually feed (the horses) at 5:30 or 5:45 in the morning,” said Dorchester, who added that his stable crew arrives just before 6 a.m. and begins to turn out all the horses. “Some of them get bathed. A lot, we put mud on their legs, kind of a cooling mud overnight…then they go for a wash, and then they each go for a 15-minute walk.”

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Only after the crew has cleaned all 18 horse stalls, laid down fresh bedding, filled all the water buckets and prepared fresh feed does Dorchester fire up the grill and prepare breakfast.

When asked about his specialty, Dorchester replied, “whatever they throw on the table—bacon, eggs, potatoes, pancakes, sometimes they’ll just mix it up. It’s a lot of fun and it keeps the crew fed because they’re working hard in the early morning.”

These early morning details cover only a small part of what Dorchester has to do each day. He also has a few other duties to oversee, such as preparing the wagon for the evening races and preparing the harnesses for the horses.

“You start getting into the afternoon and you do the same thing you did in the morning,” said the 51-year-old driver from Westerose, Alberta. “It’s like Groundhog Day. You clean the stalls again, take them out for a walk. The ones that are running just go to the wash rack and back because they’re going to run that night. So once they’re out, we clean the stalls, put in fresh bedding, get everything ready and go.”

Horse-drawn wagon driver Troy Dorchester stands with Soldier, one of his lead horses, at the Calgary Stampede stables on Tuesday, July 9, 2024. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

After a pre-race tour of the stables for sponsors and their guests, Dorchester takes a moment to visualize the upcoming race.

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“I like to have my own hour before the race,” he said. “I just lay out my harnesses and sit in the barn and imagine my race 30 to 40 times… and different scenarios.”

Other stops on the press tour included a visit with demo driver Ryan Baptiste and a stop at the stable of budding Stampede driver Dayton Sutherland, whose grandfather Kelly won the Rangeland Derby a record 12 times.

Baptiste, one of two Chuckwagon 101 drivers in this year’s Rangeland Derby — the other is Layne Flad — rides around the track with two competitors before the first heat while commentator Les McIntyre describes the action for fans.

“For anyone new to cart racing — maybe some who aren’t new to cart racing — (it’s) just a reminder of what happens every night in every race,” said Baptiste, who hopes to be invited to compete in the Calgary Stampede next year. “And when the horn goes, we’re going around the barrels, around the track, trying to be safe. You know, safety is really important.”

In addition to providing details about caring for the horses, Sutherland recounted how he and other drivers, such as Dorchester and Jason Glass, got into the sport of harness racing.

“That’s the hardest thing about our sport, the barrier to entry is so high,” said Sutherland, whose father, Mark, retired from racing after last year’s Stampede. “You need not only a ton of knowledge and a ton of finances — and then you need training facilities, a farm, all that stuff.

“Of course, I was very lucky to be born into it. It’s hard to do it any other way, and that’s why you have this generational thing. You see that theme with us, you see that theme with the Glasses, the Dorchesters. That’s just how it starts.”

Chuckwagon driver Ryan Baptiste touches his wagon artwork, which reflects his Native American heritage, in the Calgary Stampede stables. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

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