Cowboy Layne Collins, from Arden, Alberta is bucked high into the air on a horse called Plum Cherry during Calgary Stampede rodeo action in Calgary, Alberta on Friday July 4, 2008. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press))

You can feel it in the air.

It doesn't matter how many rodeos I've attended, there's always something special about the Calgary Stampede.

There's extra anticipation the first day, as everyone involved in putting on the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth is anxious to make a good impression for the visitors, and trying to remember the routine reached by the tenth day, just a year ago.

As I enter the rodeo area, the familiar sights and sounds fill the senses once again. As a farm girl, I'm more aware of the aroma of hot dogs and cotton candy than the rural scent of horses and bulls that catches the attention of others first.

Even though it's a warm day, the jeans are freshly starched and the shirts are crisp and clean. You'll see all colors of the rainbow when it comes to cowboy garb, but any people around the infield, behind the bucking chutes and competitors themselves are to be in long-sleeved western shirts, jeans and the ever-present cowboy hat.

Now what the fans wear, or don't wear, is a different story, and plenty of them are looking to absorb some Alberta sunshine! But there's a common sense reason for the cowboy outfit requirements. Long sleeves, pants and a hat are good protection, and besides, they just look right.

Bucking stock

Around the rodeo office, cowboys are checking in, and checking out what bucking stock they're matched up with. That's by the luck of the draw, and so it's important for them to get a little insight on what the animal may, or may not do, when the chute gate opens. That helps when they're setting up their equipment on the animal. But bucking stars being what they are, the horses and bulls don't always read the playbook. So they can behave totally different than they did the last time, and homework is thrown out the window.

"It always gives me fresh passion for the sport when you see the intensity there, and know all the hardships these dedicated competitors go through, just for a chance to be part of the Calgary Stampede."

The busiest place pre-rodeo time is the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sports Medicine Team center. The cowboys are feeling the pain of the busiest time of the rodeo year. They've been on the road non-stop for more than a week, taking in rodeos from Ponoka, Alberta to Pecos, Texas and many points in between. 

Sitting in a cramped pick-up truck for hours with several other cowboys once you've been thrown hard to the ground or beat up by a rough horse or an ornery bull only cramps up muscles more. So does not eating properly or sleeping. So the sports medicine team members administer advice, tape, massages, and all kinds of insight for these elite athletes. Then it's off to the dressing room for some preparation time. That's when the competitors get down to business, focusing their mind and body on what has to happen in just a tiny amount of time, and over which they only half control.

A 'do or die moment'

There are very few sports where so much must happen so quickly. It's not like having the rest of the period in hockey, or a full team of guys in football, ready to correct any small errors. It truly is a 'do or die' moment in a very individual game. That's why they often visualize those eight seconds of a ride over and over, putting themselves through the paces before it all takes place

As the mighty Stampede grandstands begin to fill, and the music starts to blare, Canada's Snowbirds do a pass-over in the blue skies above and add to the drama of opening day. The grand entry horses and cowgirls ride in at full throttle, carrying flags and gearing up the tempo of the event. There are welcoming comments, passionate anthem singing, and a rousing yee-haw.

And then, after months of preparation, miles of travel and tons of commitment, the 2008 Calgary Stampede is underway.

'Behind the chutes'

It's hard to describe the adrenaline I see in the area 'behind the chutes'. That's where the cowboys meet their stock, put on their gear, climb over a gate, and get on. When they nod their head, it's an explosion of energy.

It always gives me fresh passion for the sport when you see the intensity there, and know all the hardships these dedicated competitors go through, just for a chance to be part of the Calgary Stampede.

Stampede organizers know what a unique perspective that is, and so they offer a behind-the-scenes tour to many of their corporate clients.

I pass by several of those tours, as Stampede volunteers explain what's going on while the cowboys try to block out all distractions and focus on the job ahead. It's also why the infield seats are the most sought after at the Stampede. Those lucky fans can actually hear the discussions at chute-side, and taste the dust when the rides roll out. They get a glimpse of what makes rodeo so magnetic.

The action is electric, the pace frenzied. If you blink, you can miss a winning ride or run, or a joke by the funnyman entertaining the crowd. On this day, the bulls are the stars of the show, and only one of the ten cowboys makes the whistle and gets a mark. Another makes it to 7.72 seconds. Unfortunately, that's not good enough. It's eight or nothing.

There are lots of good scores in the opening performance. But at a rodeo of this calibre, that doesn't cut it either, and only the 'great' times and marks that earn any cash. To be the best of the best is the ultimate challenge in rodeo, and there's no better place to make that happen than at the Calgary Stampede.

Notes: from my unique 'behind the chutes' perspective, I love to get cowboy stories. The best one of Friday was from bareback rider Russ Hallaby, who won the top payday in his event. He's getting married July 15th, two days after the Stampede is over. Fortunately, the gal he's marrying is used to the rodeo lifestyle, since her dad is a former bareback riding great and is actually a judge at the Stampede. Does he get any special treatment in the marks department? "No, I don't worry too much about that," grins the Airdrie cowboy. "He does his job good, and I do mine, but he does let me know if I ride bad!" "As long as I keep riding good, I think I'll be all right." But the more important instructions for Hallaby come from his wife-to-be, Teal. "She just keeps saying 'hang on for eight'!"

Dianne Finstad is an agricultural and rodeo broadcaster in Red Deer, Alberta. She grew up near the Montana border in southern Alberta where her family’s been ranching for a century. Her western background and 4-H experience led her to a broadcasting career, which has included more than 25 years of covering pro rodeo for television, print, radio and now through this blog, the internet!)