CLOVERDALE â€” Think "rodeo" and you’ll probably conjure up images of bronc and bareback riding, calf roping, barrel racing, and basically anything with obvious elements of danger/total insanity.
But there’s another discipline common to just about every modern rodeo that’s no less impressive. It features pretty women carrying pretty flags whilst riding pretty horses. It’s called the "Grand Entry" and it happens at the start of every performance.
Miss it and you’ll miss some truly skilled stuff. You see, the Grand Entry is no mere fluffy procession. It’s serious business.
I had a chance to see how serious when I recently visited a practice session â€” and stood inside the ring â€” at the Stetson Bowl. It didn’t take long to come to grips.
First off, these horses are big. Really big. And really powerful. The idea of opening the gate and fleeing my impending doom at one point became reality.
Once I stopped whimpering, however, I got back in there and closely watched all that went on. Twenty riders in all, weaving intricate patterns, moving swiftly through open gaps and always coming perilously close to one another. And all at a full gallop.
Soon, each rider grabbed a large flag and continued on, except now with just one hand on the reins. Every so often, a horse would get a little squirrelly, only to be calmly brought under control before any damage was done.
(Story continues below video "Opening the 65th Cloverdale Rodeo with BIT-A-BLING")
And that’s when it finally sunk in: Though the big-time competitive events may get all the ink, the Grand Entry is mighty demanding in its own right. Indeed, it takes a heckuva lot of work, not to mention experience and raw talent, to make it look as comparatively "safe" and fluid as it seems from the grandstand.
"It’s our seventh year together as a team," says Sheila Caravetta.
Caravetta, who says she rode horses before she could walk, is team captain of "Bit-A-Bling," the local outfit that’s been responsible for the Grand Entry at the Cloverdale Rodeo for the past seven years.
An Air Canada pilot when she’s not riding, Caravetta explains that the Grand Entry’s been in her blood from childhood.
"I was actually in the stands with my dad watching the first Cloverdale Rodeo I ever attended.
I must have been nine or 10. And I saw the girls come in with the Grand Entry and I said to my dad, ‘I want to do this. This looks fun.’" Fifteen years ago, she rode in her first Grand Entry. Seven years ago, Bit-A-Bling was formed and they’ve been at it ever since. These days, the group does not only the Cloverdale Rodeo, but the Ashcroft Rodeo and the North Thompson Fall Fair and Rodeo, too.
Want in? OK, the next open practice happens in November. You’d better bring your own horse, you’d better be female (sorry, guys) and you’d better be ready to practice at least once a week every month of the year.
And you’d better expect to face off against other women who, like Caravetta, have been riding practically since birth.
"You have to be a good rider because we cover some ground out there," she says. "We all come from a variety of disciplines. I come from a dressage background, some girls come from jumping, some girls are reigning (a sort of up-tempo dressage)."
Don’t expect to get rich, however. Team coach Sharon Jackson, who was there with Caravetta and others at the beginning of Bit-ABling, says there’s no money to be made. "The team gets a stipend that covers the expense of being here…. Five costumes (one for each performance), flags, matching equipment, and that’s it."
Jackson, who is 60 and would now rather stand in the ring instructing than ride, is the person responsible for the patterns and the drills you’ll see whenever Bit-A-Bling performs. She laughs a lot and jokes that she has the job because, "They couldn’t suck anyone else into doing it" – but is clearly a hugely dedicated overseer.
"It’s people management, is what it is," she says. "It’s people times two, because they have their beloved animals out there."
Soon, Jackson is back in the ring, copious notes at her side, directing things. Caravetta’s there, too, of course, as is spectator Linda Temple watching her daughter Dallyce do her thing. Little Sydney Ball, wearing a cowboy hat, jumps up on the fence, trying to get a better view of her mom Shelley.
Over in the parking lot, the men gather as the women rehearse. Tonight, Dan Jensen, husband of veteran rider Megan, brought along a big-screen TV, hooked it to his tablet and mounted it in the back of his pickup truck. And now all of them are watching a Canucks playoff game. It’s like one big family, and that’s just the way they want it.
For more info on Bit-A-Bling, check out their website at Bit-a-bling.com.