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Lac La Biche teen cowboy geared up for upcoming rodeo season

Rodeo season kicks off in April with St. Paul rodeo

Shuffling his scuffed, square-toed Roper cowboy boots along the rec centre floor as he lugs his hockey bag and stick into the Lac La Biche Clippers dressing room, Kacen Nowicki wears a baseball hat on his head that says, Cowboy "Stuff." The weekend before, the 15-year-old from Lac La Biche was wearing a hockey helmet with a face cage on his head — and the same Ropers on his feet, as he strapped onto a 700-pound steer at a Central Alberta rodeo.

So —  is he a cowboy who plays hockey? Or a hockey player who rides rodeo?  

Both, says the lanky teen with a wide smile — adding that he plays some summer baseball too. But it's the rodeo life that is the teen's most recent passion. He likes the adrenaline rush of the ride, the links to ranch-life, and the support of the rodeo community

"I like the work ethic that it gives you," he said, adding that every time he rides, he knows there is a support system involved. "Its an entire family of support."

That family involves his own immediate family and friends, sponsors, other riders — and just about anyone in and around the rodeo arenas at each event.

Kacen's dad Tony says he felt that support from Kacen's first interest in the events. That 'rodeo family' helped him to feel comfortable about his son's decision to cowboy up.

"I think it's awesome. It's a good sport with great people involved, they call it a rodeo family, because that's what they turn into being, no matter where you are," he said.

Part of that extended rodeo family is local stock contractor Billy McDonald. Kacen considers McDonald a big reason he loves the sport. "He's a mentor. He has helped me a lot. I"ve been ranching at Billy's place and I enjoy that a lot."

With all that support behind him, Kacen finished his first full season as a junior steer rider in the Lakeland Rodeo Association and the Wildrose Rodeo Association last year in the top six of both associations. The young rider was selected to read The Cowboy Prayer at the start of both Final events — the LRA in St. Paul and the WRA in Barrhead. His opening season was also highlighted with championship belt buckles for junior steer finishes at three events — the Buffalo Lake Rodeo, the Panee Native Classic in Maskwacis, and the Fort Assiniboine Rodeo.

Helicoptered, head-butted ... and loving it

Sporting one of those shiny championship belt buckles, and a jacket featuring a colourful Indigenous headdress from another first-place finish prize pack, Nowicki says the awards from his first year — including about $5,000 in earnings — are highlights. He's tasted victory — but he's tasted some dirt too. Officially, the young rider was only bucked off one steer over his season, but the hits can come before and after the eight-second scores. 

He's been 'helicoptered' (kicked and spun in the air), head-butted and drop-kicked on his way to the ground. He's had his wrists, elbows, knees and shoulders stretched and pounded. His protective helmet has a screw or two loose as well.

But what about him? What makes a 15 year old (14 when he first got interested) decide to get onto the back of an animal that doesn't want him there?

"Once you've been around it for awhile, it becomes normal, I guess," he says with a grin.

Admitting that it's definitely not a sport for everyone — Nowicki says it is for him.

"I do it for the adrenaline rush — and it's fun. If you're not in the right head space you are not going to do that well," he said. "I'm getting to do what I love every time I go out there."

Building on last year

Nowicki rode in two Lac La Biche open rodeos contracted by McDonald in 2022, plus 22  sanctioned rodeos across the province. With another handful of entrance at other open rodeos over the year, the youngster figures he's been roped to more than 50 animals in his first full season. In 2023, he's expecting more, setting his sights to junior bull, saddle bronc and novice horse categories.

He's been getting advice and experience for the upcoming season from his rodeo family and rodeo training schools across the province. His own advice for anyone else looking to start a rodeo career is to learn from the people around you.

"The best advice?  Ask for help, and go to school for training," he said, adding that some of the best advice he hears comes in the heat of the moment from other cowboys — shouting at him from the chutes as he launches into an arena. 

"I hear the fans sometimes, but mostly I hear friends and buddies at the back of the chutes yelling to do stuff like 'lift' or 'spur," he said, adding that one of the biggest misconceptions of the sport is the physical strength needed. "You're not just holding on — nah — you have to be fit, with a strong upper body, a strong core, because you are lifting all the time.  Not holding, lifting and squeezing your legs."

Nowicki will be taking all he has learned from his first full season, along with advice from his rodeo family, into the 2023 circuit.

"My goal for 2023? To keep having fun ... and not get helicoptered," he said with a grin.

April rodeo in St. Paul

The rodeo season is almost a year-round schedule, with many Central Alberta communities hosting indoor events and training sessions in the cooler months. The Lakeland Rodeo Association has 32 rodeos in its tentative 2023 rodeo schedule with the first one slated for April 22 in St. Paul. 

Last year, the Billy McDonald Rodeo Company hosted its first of two open rodeos in Lac La Biche in late May. They do not have a tentative schedule posted yet.



Rob McKinley

About the Author: Rob McKinley

Rob has been in the media, marketing and promotion business for 30 years, working in the public sector, as well as media outlets in major metropolitan markets, smaller rural communities and Indigenous-focused settings.
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