Standing by the lush, green, expanse of the International Ring at Spruce Meadows, I find myself in awe of the stadium.
Just outside the Stampede City of Calgary, this is the place where the best horses in the world have come to jump over impossibly high fences for more than 35 years. It is arguably the finest venue for equestrian sport anywhere on the planet.
The majestic animals are everywhere. And when they enter the ring to take flight, the massive crowd collectively holds its breath. There is a sense of wonder here and I've been a witness to it since I first came to Spruce Meadows more than 20 years ago.
Here sport is, quite simply, something grand.
But it strikes me that while I've only once ridden a horse, a clunker named Daisy at Jim Pappin's Hockey Ranch when I was a 9-year-old, this kind of competition has long held a fascination for me.
I remember first being turned on to the Olympics when Jim Day, Jim Elder and Tommy Gayford captured the gold medal in team show jumping at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.
My Dad and I watched the whole drama unfold on a black and white TV and I clearly recollect both of us cheering as much for the horses as the men who rode them. They had become the athletes we counted on to deliver Canada its only Olympic championship that year.
But I've been captivated by racing horses as well.
This weekend, the three-year-old colt Orb ridden by Dominican Joel Rosario tries to win the Belmont Stakes in New York and make up for having hopes of the elusive Triple Crown dashed at The Preakness. The Kentucky Derby champion jockey will then head north to guide mounts in the Plate Trial Stakes and Woodbine Oaks on the way to North America's oldest thoroughbred classic, the 154th running of the Queen's Plate.
This kind of thing conjures up memories of New Brunswick's Ron Turcotte and the mighty Secretariat, a sweet Canadian connection to a legendary, indeed magical, Triple Crown win.
What is it about horses? Why do we have a fascination for them and their athletic capabilities? What draws so many of us to them?
"It speaks to the attraction and curiousity that people have for the horse," says Cheryl Tataryn of Equine Canada, the sport's governing body.
She noted that Bromont, Que., the venue for the 1976 Olympic show jumping and dressage competitions, will soon find out if it has been chosen to host the 2018 World Equestrian Games.
"It's a huge deal for us," Tataryn said.
It's also a big deal for a country that loves horse sport.
The Calgary Stampede is just around the corner and the headliners will be horses. From bucking broncs to barrel racers, they'll take the cowboys to the limelight and cause the fans to leap out of their seats.
"The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth," is how it is billed.
It never fails to appeal to our Canadian sensibility, even to the many of us who live in cities.
"It's the rugged land that our settlers conquered and where cowboys were born. We are fortunate to still have wild horses in hidden pockets of our country," says Mellisa Hollingsworth. The Olympian who won a skeleton medal at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, Hollingsworth is also a professional barrel racer who can equate horses and sport and why Canadians love both.
There has long been the argument that riders of horses aren't really athletes and that equine competition doesn't belong in the Olympics, something Hollingsworth bristles at.
"Just like any sport the best in the world will make something look easy," she says. "Great riders will make it look effortless regardless if it's dressage, jumping, barrel racing or bronc riding. It takes athletic ability to have balance, timing, awareness, feel, instinct and guts."
Perhaps this is why horses have such a hold on us. More than any living player on the roster, horses exude a sense of power. These are beings that can often exceed a thousand pounds and in combination with humans they perform extraordinary and precise athletic feats.
It's why millions tuned in to watch at odd hours as Eric Lamaze and the smallish stallion Hickstead perfectly unleashed themselves in Hong Kong to capture Olympic gold in 2008. It's the reason a desperate stretch drive at the Kentucky Derby or the Queen's Plate can be spellbinding. It's also the compelling rationale of being fascinated by the struggle between horse and human in the crucible of a rodeo.
"A horses' athletic ability, especially when it's applied to a goal impresses me every day," says Hollingsworth. "Every horse has its own personality and the most rewarding feeling is to connect with a horse and accomplish the task at hand."
All of which brings me back to the International Ring and the undeniable mystique of Spruce Meadows. There's "Captain Canada," Ian Millar, well into his sixties with ten Olympics under his belt and another, he insists, on the horizon.
He sits tall in the saddle.
So too does Eric Lamaze, who's in search of his next great champion. He's an Olympic gold medallist seeking a new partner who can come close to matching Hickstead's brilliant tenacity.
The fans of all ages longingly reach out to make a connection with the animals and scamper to have their picture taken with one. It's as if they are wonderstruck by the impressive creatures.
And then there are the horses themselves -- beautiful and powerful, each and every one of them.
I am a captive to the magnificence of this field of play.
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