When Tyrone Potts started Piikani Youth Riding Program, he intended it to be a way of giving back to his community, which helped him get a start in the rodeo industry. Now, more than a decade later, it continues to grow.
Over the years, he’s seen kids come and go, but his passion to see youths thrive and develop the confidence to succeed remains.
“It’s something I've always dreamed of wanting to do and I just think it’s very rewarding, if you can change kids’ lives now and they can go on and live their lives,” he says.
Tyrone currently runs his program at the Pincher Creek Agricultural Pavilion every Wednesday. In the summer, when the weather gets warmer, he hosts riding lessons from a self-built arena on his property near Brocket.
Tyrone usually gets about 25 participants weekly, he says, but can get up to 40 when the weather conditions are good.
A member of Piikani First Nation, Tyrone developed the program, in part, to help alleviate some of the issues he saw happening on the reserve.
“I’ve seen a real need for something for the youth,” he explains. “I find that we have far too many kids that are getting involved in alcohol and drugs and we’re losing a lot of our youth. So if I can change lives, I’ll do anything to help.”
He stresses that the program is not just for Indigenous youth, but for everyone in the community who has an interest in riding. It is also a free program, so parents do not need to pay for their children to take part.
So far, he’s seen teens who were suicidal and children from troubled families thrive in his program and go on to lead very successful lives. He’s had four students make the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and another student who is currently one of the top five bull riders in Canada.
A girl who started attending his riding lessons shortly after losing her mother, father, grandfather and aunt to drugs, finally began to feel joy again through the program.
She “never smiled or talked for two years until she got on a horse,” Tyrone recalls. “That’s what makes it all worth it.”
Another travelled all the way from the United States to take part in his riding program. She was blind and with assistance was able to ride a horse for the first time.
Tyrone teaches barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway roping and steer and bull riding in addition to basic riding techniques. He has two full-time instructors and brings in instructors from other areas to teach specialized workshops and a Piikani elder who participates in discussions with the students.
He also hosts trail rides in the summer, which he is hoping to expand to including overnight teepee camping.
One instructor, Kaylee Hann, has been participating in the program for almost a decade.
She helps drive the horses and ready them for lessons each week. Sometimes she completes chores around Tyrone’s farm.
Now 19, Hann was introduced to riding through Tyrone when she was 11 years old and she quickly grew to love the sport. It was through the program that she was able to launch her career as a horse trainer.
She greatly enjoys teaching the children as well.
“I really like seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces when they run home,” she says. “That’s probably the best part, and when they’re listening, just seeing how much information people can uphold.”
Tyrone says the program is just as therapeutic for him as it is for the students.
After working for the RCMP for decades and bearing witness to many traumatic injustices, he now suffers from PTSD.
“Horses, they heal you,” he says. “Whatever you’re feeling when you get on, that horse will take it away. If you’re anxious, the horse is going to be anxious, so I always tell people to breathe and relax.”
Like many of those in his class, Tyrone had a troubled upbringing. He was abandoned at the age of 10 and quit school after completing Grade 9 so he could make money to survive.
He was fortunate enough to secure a job at CY Ranch in Brocket, which supplied him with housing and a place for his horses, and it was here that he developed his passion for rodeo.
He was a bull rider for seven years, until he crushed his foot, after which he changed careers and became a Mountie.
He worked for the RCMP for 34 years and participated in the Musical Ride in the ’90s, touring all over Canada and the U.S.
Though his experiences took him far from home, he never forgot his rodeo roots.
He judged the World Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and is responsible for introducing Indian relay to the Calgary Stampede.
Indian relay is a traditional Indigenous sport that is practised by a variety of tribal nations located near the western Rocky Mountains. One rider races bareback on a track for three laps, jumping off one horse and onto another for laps two and three. Teammates support the rider and help control the horses at the start line. Multiple teams, each with four members, compete against one another.
“It’s the kamikaze,” says Tyrone. “It’s the best thing you’ll ever see.”
Horses are sacred animals to the Blackfoot, who used them to hunt buffalo over a century ago, and Tyrone says he runs the riding program, in part, to connect his people with their heritage.
He’s intent on raising more awareness of his culture, teaching society about the ways of his people and helping youth in the process.
“It’s my life,” he says. “I’m going to do it as long as I can.”
Gillian Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze