A competitor loses his hat as he wrestles a steer during competition at the Calgary Stampede. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

It's a recognized symbol of the west.

The cowboy hat.

One stroll through the Calgary Stampede grounds will tell you the cowboy hat remains an integral part of every cowboy, or want-to-be cowboy, outfit.

The traditional shape of a high crown and wide brim came from very practical roots. The brim was wide enough to protect range riders from the sun's rays (long before doctors were recommending sunscreen!) and the rain's drenching. Why, you could even use a hat to draw water from a stream, or fan a campfire on a chilly prairie night. OK, very few hats at the Stampede would be used like that now, but they're still very much a working style statement.

In fact, you can tell a lot about a cowboy from his hat. In the early days, the crease in the crown might even give away where the wearer was from. Now, it could give you a clue about the rodeo event, or horse discipline, the person is involved in.

When it comes to hats, one of the experts in the field rodeo cowboys themselves turn to is Vern Elliot of Vernon, B.C. He's a former bull rider and his son Ty rides bulls professionally now. The family has a well-known western store, and Vern is one of the few custom hat makers around. I had a chance to visit with him recently about the western hat world.

"To do custom hat work, you have to be a little bit artsy," Vern confessed. "Everybody has their own look or profile that they feel comfortable in. Every hat has a personality. We can take a hat based on a person's features and put it on and it will either look right or wrong, based on the shape of their face or what they do for a lifestyle."

But as traditional as real cowboys are, they are still susceptible to some subtle trends, and Vern's up on the latest.

"In the rodeo business, tall crowns and flat brims are coming in a big way. I've done several bronc rider's hats with the taller crown now. In the cutting horse, and reining horse world, it's still the traditional regular crease with the squared off front. But we're seeing bigger brims and taller crowns showing up in some parts of the industry."

As Vern is sharing all this knowledge, he's busy shaping, steaming and creating another custom hat for a customer, a process that takes about nine hours start to finish.

"It's really not a job for me. I enjoy it. I think it's kind of cool when I have guys with world buckles coming in and getting their hats ordered," he smiled.

I remembered him telling me about the hot style when I interviewed bull rider Brian Canter here at the Stampede. He's got one of the taller crowns around on his hat, but perhaps that's to add a little height to his 5'3" frame…

There are many legendary names in the cowboy hat world, such as Stetson, Resistol, or in Calgary, Smithbilt.

Another old name in the business with a new identity is Serratelli and Stampede chuckwagon announcer Les McIntyre swears by his, calling it the most comfortable hat he's ever worn.

A quality scale in the hat world is by the X's, which refers to the 'fineness' of the finished hat.

That means the higher the X value, the finer the feel of the hat. They do make them up to 1000X, but be prepared to shell out some $3000 for one like that!

Of course, you don't have to make a huge investment to get your self a western head cover. And they're definitely not all in the tan/silver/black/cream/beige tones. No, the popularity of what I call the 'scrunch' hats, but seem to be referred to as raffia hats, is evident everywhere. Country singers like Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw have made them top sellers. They're a little more flexible, allow for more air circulation around the head, and come in colors like pink, or purple. Let's just say you don't see too many of those among the rodeo competitors.

The Calgary Stampede is known world wide for it's symbolic white hat hospitality and this year, it took that theme to new heights. To promote the Stampede, it launched a 'Get Your Head in a Hat' campaign, by handing out over 13,000 cowboy hats to Calgarians. Another 12,000 are being distributed during the Stampede. And over $2.6 million dollars worth of prizes are being handed out to people spotted wearing a cowboy hat during the Stampede. Officials say it's all designed to challenge Calgarians to uphold the western values and traditions the city is famous for.

Calgary Stampede President George Brookman calls the cowboy hat one of the most powerful icons of the city's community, reflecting the city's farming and ranching heritage, and the very identity of the Stampede.

It's so sold on what the hat stands for, it even commissioned Alberta country singer, Gord Bamford to write a song about it. He called it 'This Old Hat', and it's been getting plenty of radio airplay this week. I like how the lyrics of his chorus sum up the role of the cowboy hat:   It keeps us warm in the cold wind Cool in the hot sun Sheltered from the rain And steady in our tracks A long line of cowboys Good guys and bad guys Rode across this country With everything they had on their backs And this old hat

And finally, a couple of insider tips for those new to wearing the cowboy hat.

  • Make sure you have it on the right way! (label to the back)
  • Don't leave it on the bed with the brim down (all your luck will run out!) Always store it upside down, on the crown, to help keep the shape intact.
  • Keep your 'mudder' hat handy. That's the one to be used in the rain. It's usually a cheaper variety, and you won't cry if it gets muddy or stepped on.
  • Most importantly, don't mess with a cowboy's hat! So when you watch CBC's Stampede coverage, check out the western crowns on the cowboys' heads. They speak volumes, and rodeo competitors wear them with pride.

BEHIND THE CHUTES: Four-time Calgary Stampede saddle bronc champion Rod Hay had to make one of the toughest decisions of his career. After separating his shoulder at a rodeo in Cody, Wyoming on the fourth of July run, it gave him plenty of grief here at Calgary. He respects the advice of the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sports Medicine Team, and after examining it closely, they told him it needs some rest. So he opted to withdraw from the Stampede without taking his last several horses. He's not a quitter and it was a painful decision, but one that will likely help prolong his career in the long run. But this is one rodeo you just don't want to depart early from. Bull rider Beau Hill won the round, but was bathed in ice following the rodeo, trying to treat a sore groin. He's got one day to try and heal up before his appearance in the Sunday Showdown.

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!)