As the sun began to set on the Stetson Bowl on a warm Tuesday evening, Sheila Hicks reflected on her horsing history in Cloverdale.
For nearly two decades, she’s been a fixture there on the Victoria Day long weekend, so this certainly won’t be Hicks’ first rodeo – but it will be for her newbie horse, Lev.
“It’s kind of a cool history with her,” explained Hicks, a co-leader of the Bit-A-Bling grand entry team. “I rode her mom in the rodeo for 11 years and then took time off to breed her, because I really liked her mom. And then I rode the sire, her dad, for two years in the rodeo while (Lev) was getting bred, and now she just turned five and this will be Lev’s first year here. It’s cool lineage – I rode the mom and then the dad and now their baby, so we hope she holds up to it. She’s still trying to decide whether she’s impressed or not, so we’ll see.”
Such family ties are special to the team, which adds a bit of bling to Cloverdale Rodeo every year thanks to a dedicated group of flag-carrying women and their faithful steed.
Hicks, a commercial pilot who lives in Vancouver, captains the team in partnership with her husband, Joe.
“We run it together,” Joe said as Sheila and a couple dozen other riders prepared for practice. “It takes many people to make it happen, but we’re just the two chief victims who volunteer, help co-ordinate and put it all together. It’s a lot of scheduling and stuff, but we make it work. Sheila does a lot of it, and I just kind of fill in where needed.”
To start each rodeo show in Cloverdale, the grand entry team parades around the Stetson Bowl and adds a good amount of pomp and ceremony to the occasion. The precision, synchronized routines require a lot of practice starting in January each year, both in an indoor arena and also outdoors at the fairgrounds.
This year, 25 women are on the team, 17 of them as riders.
“Four girls will do meet-and-greet, which is greeting audience members as they come in,” Sheila noted. “Two others will do victory or championship laps at the end of every performance – the winner of bull riding, barrel racing, all the kind of stuff, so two of our girls will ride around them with them and present them with their winnings.”
This is Sheila’s 19th year at the rodeo, and 11th with the Bit-A-Bling team she co-founded.
“I’ve been on several other teams,” she added. “Prior to this team, Cloverdale Rodeo had their own team and then it kind of branched off to a few others, and then myself and my girlfriend Corrie Bokenfohr, who has moved away, formed Bit-A-Bling.”
Sheila took control of the team eight years ago, with the help of others.
“I’ve been really lucky because there are eight or nine girls on the present team who have been with us since the beginning — we call ourselves the ‘originals,’ and there are girls who go to school, come back, go and be moms and then come back to be on the team, so we have a couple members who are returning this year after having kids and going to school.”
With “practice” flags in hand, the team makes the most of its twice-weekly rehearsals at the Stetson Bowl, where the trotting and galloping starts for real on Friday, May 18.
The team has tryouts every fall, but those are pretty much “word of mouth” because there isn’t much of a turnover of team members every year. “We cycle about two new girls a year, so there’s not a lot of turnover, which is good, a lot of us have worked together for the duration of the team,” Sheila explained.
“It’s really fortunate,” she added, “because a lot of us girls wouldn’t have met each other if it wasn’t for horses and if wasn’t for rodeo. We’ve got paramedics, flight attendants, nurses, office managers, property managers, there’s welders, so yeah, some pretty strong girls on this team, which is good because anybody who rides 1,200-pound animals for fun, right, you’ve got to be able to hold their own.”
Most of the team members gather every summer for camping trips, birthday parties and other social events.
“Everybody’s like, ‘How do 25 girls get along?’ I don’t know, it’s because we’re all buddies, so we’re lucky. We’re friends inside rodeo and outside of rodeo, which makes it easy,” Sheila said with a smile.
This year, the team is working to add a couple of new patterns to its routine, including a “Clover Leaf” of four intertwining circles. The team’s “signature moves” will return, of course, with a few changes thrown in to keep things fresh.
During practice sessions, warmup maneuvers get the horses bending and flexing in preparation for the drills.
“Like any situation, right, the horses aren’t really used to being in an arena with 20 other horses, so it takes a little bit of time to get them comfortable with that,” Sheila said.
Behind a metal fence, Joe looked on as the riders warmed up wearing casual clothes. That all changes come rodeo time.
“The uniforms, that’s Sheila’s thing,” he said, “and we have lockers full of uniforms that are brought out, cleaned up and arranged, and there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes.
“There’s a rotation of uniforms every year,” Joe continued, “and we change it up here and there. Sheila will sometimes look at footage from previous years and say, ‘Oh, on the Friday night we wore that, so let’s do this instead, let’s not wear that colour until Monday,’ that kind of thing. She’s up until the wee hours of the morning planning all this, and it’s impressive.”
On rodeo weekend, Joe helps out with the grounds here and there, drives a truck and serves as a team liaison on the production side of things.
“I ride, yes, but this team, it’s strictly a women’s team,” he explained. “This discipline, the grand entry team, is generally a female thing. People want to see good-looking girls go fast on horses, so it’s perfect for that. When I describe to my friends what this team is, what my wife does and how I help, I bring up the RCMP Musical Ride – it’s like that, but replace the police officer with 30 good-lookin’ girls and replace the national anthem with AC/DC, and they’re usually, ‘Oh yeah! I’d love to see that!’. That kind of puts the right idea in their brains, you know.”
Every spring, Joe says some challenges always materialize as the team comes together for the start of rodeo season.
“You can have a lady with a great personality, but you have to have the right personality with horses as well,” he said. “Anything in equestrian outside of this is usually just one rider, one horse, and for some of the riders, that’s all they do and then you throw them in something like this and say, ‘OK, now work together as a team.’ That’s not always so easy. It’s like a hockey team out here, and as a hockey player you need to work as a team member, not just be a good individual player, right? It’s not figure skating, right, so that part of it is unique. And the horses, too – some of them just can’t handle the loud music, the flags and the other horses being around them. This isn’t just riding in the park and being relaxed, there’s a lot going on.”
When the Now-Leader witnessed the team practice, rodeo general manager Mike MacSorley was also at the Stetson Bowl to greet the Bit-A-Bling team members.
“Sheila’s been running it since before I got here, and they’re really good ambassadors for what we do,” MacSorley said. “They work to promote our rodeo and they’re local and it just seems to be a really nice fit for us.”
This year’s Cloverdale Rodeo will host 96 of the world’s best cowboys and cowgirls in an “Invitational” format, starting May 18 at 7:30 p.m. The rodeo action continues on May 19 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., on May 20 at 2:30 p.m. and May 21 with the finals, also at 2:30 p.m. For event details, visit cloverdalerodeo.com or call 604-576-9461.
The grand entry team is online at bit-a-bling.com.