Island teamster and his team dominate at Calgary Stampede heavy horse pull

CALGARY—After getting a taste of ‘the greatest show on earth’ last year, Martin Howard, formerly of the Green Bush, worked his team of Belgians hard all year in order to get a second chance—and that chance paid off. Mr. Howard is now the proud owner of a Calgary Stampede belt buckle for the heavyweight horse pull—only the second Ontarian to have ever won a Calgary Stampede championship. Both of these wins, in different events, interestingly happened during this year’s Stampede.

Mr. Howard was well known on the Manitoulin Island horse pull circuit, saying it’s in his blood. When a job opportunity arose in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta 16 months ago, Mr. Howard packed up his belongings, including his Belgians Sandy and Joker, and headed west. And the pulling didn’t stop there. Entering the rodeo circuit in Alberta, Mr. Howard and his team spent weekends in horse pulls, just like he did before, only this time he had his eye on the prize—the Calgary Stampede—and he made it too.

Last year Mr. Howard made it to the championship round, edging out 60 teams to make it to the top 10. Coming in sixth place just wouldn’t cut it, though.

“We trained six hours a day, every day,” Mr. Howard told The Expositor from his Rocky Mountain House home. “It pays off.”

He explained that the Calgary Stampede only takes those with so many wins and so many championships on the circuit. And with a win at all six pulls he entered this year, Mr. Howard was in, but he was facing some stiff competition, especially from Randy Dodge of Albany, Oregon.

“I was so nervous,” he said, speaking of the big screens, the audience and the media attention inside the arena. “Once you’ve made the finals, your stomach is just in knots for those few days in between.”

“Coming into the heavyweight pull on the evening of Sunday, July 13, Mr. Dodge had a chance to score an extremely rare clean sweep of the Stampede’s horse pull events,” a press release from the Calgary Stampede states. “Mr. Dodge won both the lightweight class on Friday evening and the middleweight division on Saturday. After nine trips down the track, his team of Fritz and Tommy was still pulling strongly going into the showdown with Mr. Howard’s outfit. Both teams were sponsored by New West Truck Centres.”

“A soft spot had developed in the pulling lane and several competitors had already fallen afoul of it,” the release continues. “Mr. Howard’s team pulled first in the final and made it 92 inches before becoming bogged. Mr. Dodge hooked up his horses and they gave it all they had, but 80 inches was all there was. Mr. Dodge had to settle for the Reserve Champion’s cheque of $2,500 while Mr. Howard got the champion payout of $3,000.”

“I’m still shaking, I can’t believe it,” Mr. Howard told The Expositor. “The guy I beat was expected to win with 97 to 1 odds.” When asked how Mr. Dodge responded, Mr. Howard said, “he was missing words, he couldn’t believe it happened.”

Mr. Howard’s parents, Len and Ilene, were in the audience as was his wife and child. By the time Mr. Howard and his team made it back to the barn following his win, 22 congratulatory messages had already appeared on his phone.

Following the win, the horses are tested for drugs, Mr. Howard explained, noting that it’s often in the backs of people’s minds that there is nefarious business going on with the animals, but that’s not the case.

And what of those champion horses? Did they get a special treat? this reporter asked.

“Oh yeah. They got lots of loving—they deserved it,” Mr. Howard responded, noting that Sandy and Joker also took home the Best Team award for their good behaviour in the arena. Never once did they rear up, he said proudly.

“Joker was three when we left Ontario and he’s turned out to be a real crackerjack.”

“It worked out the way a horse pull should,” he added. “It’s a big achievement.”

Horse pulls differ slightly in the west than they do “back home,” Mr. Howard said. While the pulling distance is the same, 14 feet, Stampeders only have two attempts, and the horses must stay hooked. The pull must be a ‘tight tug’ too, meaning there can be no slack in the chain once the horses start pulling. “So you need real strong horses,” he said. “It was a big learning curve once I got here and I think that’s why I didn’t do as well last year. It takes a lot of concentration with them.”

And while the purse is nice, having that buckle is what makes it worthwhile for Stampeders.

“It’s hard to explain, it’s just an amazing feeling—it’s the biggest show on earth and you can’t get any better than that,” he said. “There are only two Ontarians to have ever won the Calgary Stampede and we both did it the same year.” (The other Ontarian Calgary Stampede champion this year is Morgan Grant of Granton who won his championship buckle in steer wrestling and tie-down roping.)

When Mr. Howard was called to receive his buckle the announcer told the crowd that he was from Manitoulin Island—a fact that made him very proud.

Following the horse pull at Manitowaning Summerfest on Saturday afternoon—a pull Mr. Howard used to frequent with his team—The Expositor spoke with some of the contestants about Mr. Howard’s good news.

“Good for him,” Katie Pyette-Cyr said.

Jerome Pheasant, who won the pull, said he recalled competing against Mr. Howard at that very pull when Mr. Howard came first and he came second. “His horses are strong,” he said.