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Stampede Stars: The Princess

Meet Kateri Cowley, a former Stampede princess who’s returning to beat the boys in a new riding competition

By Derek Neumeier

Kateri Cowley and her horse Kokanee are set to race in the Stampede's first-ever Cowboy Up Challenge. Photographer: Brian Buchsdruecker.

In western culture, it’s often men that are pictured masterfully mounted atop their trusty stallion, galloping across rugged terrain. But if horsewoman Kateri Cowley has any say, this image will be given a swift kick in the Wranglers at this year’s Calgary Stampede.

Cowley, 24, is the epitome of a true cowgirl. Born and raised on the Rafter Six Ranch Resort near Exshaw, Alberta, she was riding horses with her mom before she took her first steps. Growing up on a tourist ranch—surrounded by horses and guests from around the world—gave her the riding abilities and social poise to be a Calgary Stampede Princess in 2009.

Now, one year later, she is coming back as an early favourite in a new equestrian event called the Cowboy Up Challenge.

The Cowboy Up Challenge is based on the sport of Extreme Cowboy Racing that was created by acclaimed Texas horseman Craig Cameron. It features a rider and horse navigating an obstacle course against the clock; obstacles and tasks can include jumps, crossing bridges, speed control and roping.

At a demonstration hosted by Cameron in Calgary in March, Cowley took home first place and guaranteed herself a spot at the Stampede.

“There were quite a bit of people interested in this challenge,” she says. “Some amazing riders and horses. I was kind of shocked that I got first.”

With the sport having such a strong emphasis on teamwork between horse and rider, Cowley is quick to note that she shouldn’t take all the credit. She has no shortage of beaming praise for Kokanee, her 10-year-old partner who she has rode with for seven years and considers her best friend.

“It’s a competition that involves so much with yourself and your horse,” she says. “There are things that you do that involve the horse getting scared, things that are a bit unusual. The horse has to completely trust you as a rider to want to do these things. We’ve always had a strong connection of trust with each other.”

Cowley grew up at the Rafter Six Ranch Resort, and has no plans to leave ranch life behind.

Riding ability isn’t a skill that everyone would associate with pageant contests. But don’t be fooled: proficient riding abilities are a necessity for the Stampede Queen and Princesses, making it an honour reserved for cowgirls.

“I think that people don’t understand that the Queen and Princesses have to go through  a lot of riding competitions to qualify,” she explains.

In spite of this, Cowley insists that  she didn’t face any added pressure during the Cowboy Up qualifiers because of her regal past. “Some people were a bit skeptical, but I hope I proved that the Stampede royalty has really good riders.”

She’ll be able to prove that again when she saddles up Kokanee for the Cowboy Up Challenge. Though determined to do her best, Cowley says that she’ll be content with her life as long as she’s still home on the range.

“I never take it for granted,” she concludes. “I love the lifestyle of a cowgirl, having the horses here every day as my coworkers and sharing that with other people. It’s where I’m meant to be.”

Where to see her: The Cowboy Up Challenge takes place July 10 – 12 at 3 pm at the Saddledome. Admission is free.

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