Renfrew -- Beginning in May, it is not uncommon for those driving along O’Brien Road (Veteran’s Boulevard) in Renfrew to wonder if the rodeo is at the Renfrew Fairgrounds.
Every other Saturday morning until October, it appears from a distance all that is visible is a series of horse trailers and 80 head of cattle being corralled into smaller groups by male and female riders using their horses to direct the confused herd.
Although it may appear to be similar to a rodeo, the members of the Ottawa Valley Team Penning Association take great pride in pointing out the (OVTPA) has been established to promote and develop the sport of Team Cattle Penning.
The current OVTPA president and senior rider of the group, 72-year old Willie O’Rourke of Fitzroy Harbour, says one of the strengths of the 100-member association is its commitment to children and getting them involved at an early age.
“I think once again the membership of our young riders has grown and that is the best news for the future of our club and the sport itself,” he said. “We all take great pride in helping to coach and teach them the unique skills of penning. Believe me when I tell you that to the outsider it can all look disorganized trying to pen the cattle, but I assure you it is not.”
A large part of the bi-weekly events is to gain a rating which is determined by members of your own association. Mr. O’Rourke said the honest and open approach to scoring your members builds trust among the group and in a way it encourages everyone to excel and recognize their strengths and limitations.
“The purpose of rating each member is to provide a fair and level playing field for all our members,” he said. “No one should be riding with an advantage or be disadvantaged when competing with other members.”
On this perfect sunny Saturday afternoon, Mr. O’Rourke is seated in the temporary bleachers with some fellow members when he points to a young rider preparing for her team’s call to try and corral some of the cattle. Wearing a helmet and big smile, the 11-year-old is set for the horn to begin the match.
“That young lady and all the other kids are the future of our sport, and she has really come a long way and you can see that in how she approaches the cattle,” he said. “All kinds of sports and activities build up a young person’s self-awareness and lets them build their skills so they have fun out there.
“But in Team Penning, the kids not only have to be aware of what they are doing, but suddenly they are in charge of a horse that is a few hundred pounds more than they are.”
Mr. O’Rourke said the OVTPA is about 25 years old and the early days were spent in the South Mountain area before finding a 10-year-old home at the Arnprior Fairgrounds. However, the explosion within the housing sector in Arnprior had the fairgrounds replaced with row upon row of new homes.
“Four years ago we needed a new home so we began looking at potential sites like horse ranches and fairgrounds and then we made a proposal to the Renfrew Fair Board and this has been our home for those four years,” he said. “We lost almost two years because of COVID, but now we are back and our numbers are up as well. It is hard to find a better spot like this for team penning.”
Mr. O’Rourke draws on his 72 years not as an obstacle, but on his years of volunteering and helping others to help lead the OVTPA through the post-COVID era.
“Nobody knows what is going to happen but for our members, getting the chance to be outside and doing something they love will be a big part of it, especially our younger members.”
Early Sunday morning, the first few competitors emerge from their campers and after a morning coffee, they get to work. Although he may be president, Mr. O’Rourke is just like everybody else and he helps reposition the pen and prepare the grounds for the upcoming events.
After chatting with some fellow early risers, Mr. O’Rourke takes a moment to reflect on the good fortune his club received.
“The folks here at the fairgrounds have been absolutely incredible,” he said. “They don’t want to see a giant field like this go unused all year except for the fair and Team Penning is just a natural fit. They have the infrastructure our group needs and if we need something, all we have to do is ask.”
He is quick to point out they receive support from other sources as well.
“We have 80 new cattle for this year’s edition and it is going to be interesting because these are all new to penning,” he said. “They have never been here so they will be confused for the first while but by late summer they will be accustomed to the sport. But none of this would have happened if not for people like Bob Dick out on Highway 60 near Douglas. He transported all those cattle here from his farm and he will be back out here again on Sunday night to take them home.”
Being president of the OVTPA does not mean Mr. O’Rourke is afraid to get his hands dirty. He, like several other members, can be working the cattle gate for a competition and an hour later they may be up on their horse in the middle of an event or picking up what little garbage there is.
With the competition in full swing, one of the early morning teams is called to the “on-deck” section to ready themselves and their horses for their turn to try and pen the assigned cattle. One of the riders glances over and it is impossible not to recognize the big moustache and bright eyes.
When the exceptionally loud horn signals the beginning of the event, Willie O’Rourke and his two teammates dash towards the cattle. When this writer uses his zoom lens to try and get a close-up shot of him, it dawns on him he saw a near identical look previously. He realized the 72-year-old competitor had the exact same look of joy and confidence as the young rider he pointed out the day before.
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader