The Piikani program changes the lives of young people through horseback riding and rodeo

When Tyrone Potts started the Piikani Youth Riding program, he wanted it to be a way to give back to his community, which helped get him started in the rodeo industry. Now, over a decade later, it continues to grow.

Over the years, he has seen children come and go, but his passion to see young people flourish and develop the confidence to succeed remains.

“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing and I think it’s very rewarding, if you can change the lives of the kids now and they can go on and live their lives,” he says.

Tyrone currently runs his program at the Pincher Creek Farm Lodge every Wednesday. In the summer, when the weather warms up, he organizes riding lessons in a self-built arena on his property near Brocket.

Tyrone usually receives around 25 attendees a week, he says, but can have up to 40 when the weather is good.

A member of the Piikani First Nation, Tyrone developed the program, in part, to help alleviate some of the problems he saw happening on the reserve.

“I saw a real need for something for young people,” he explains. “I find that we have far too many children who use alcohol and drugs and we lose a lot of our young people. So if I can change lives, I’ll do anything to help.

He points out that the program is not just for aboriginal youth, but for all members of the community who are interested in horseback riding. It is also a free program, so parents do not need to pay for their children to participate.

So far, he has seen suicidal teenagers and children from troubled families thrive in his program and go on to lead very successful lives. He had four students who competed in the Indian National Final Rodeo in Las Vegas and another who is currently one of the top five bull riders in Canada.

A girl who started riding lessons shortly after losing her mother, father, grandfather and aunt to drugs has finally started to feel joy again thanks to the program.

She “never smiled or spoke for two years until she got on a horse,” Tyrone recalled. “That’s what makes it all worth it.”

Another traveled all the way from the United States to participate in his riding program. She was blind and with help she was able to ride a horse for the first time.

Tyrone teaches barrel racing, pole bending, roping breakaway, and bull and steer riding in addition to basic riding skills. He has two full-time instructors and brings in instructors from other regions to give specialized workshops and a Piikani elder who participates in discussions with the students.

He also organizes hiking on the trails in the summer, which he hopes to expand to include overnight teepee camping.

One instructor, Kaylee Hann, has been with the program for nearly a decade.

She helps drive the horses and prepares them for lessons each week. Sometimes she does chores around Tyrone’s farm.

Now 19, Hann discovered horse riding through Tyrone when she was 11 and quickly fell in love with the sport. It was thanks to the program that she was able to launch her career as a horse trainer.

She also really enjoys teaching children.

“I really love seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they run home,” she says. “That’s probably the best part, and when they listen, they just see how much information people can take away.”

Tyrone says the program is just as therapeutic for him as it is for the students.

After working for the RCMP for decades and witnessing many traumatic injustices, he now suffers from PTSD.

“Horses, they heal you,” he says. “Whatever you feel when you ride, that horse will win. If you’re anxious, the horse is going to be anxious, so I always tell people to breathe and relax.

Like many in his class, Tyrone had a tough upbringing. He was dropped out at the age of 10 and left school after finishing 9th grade so he could earn money to survive.

He was lucky enough to get a job at the CY Ranch in Brocket, which provided him with housing and a place for his horses, and it was there that he developed his passion for rodeo.

He was a bull rider for seven years, until he broke his foot, after which he changed careers and became a constable.

He worked for the RCMP for 34 years and participated in the Musical Ride in the 90s, touring across Canada and the United States.

Although his experiences took him far from home, he never forgot his rodeo roots.

He judged the Indian National World Rodeo Final in Las Vegas and is responsible for introducing the Indian Relay to the Calgary Stampede.

The Indian Relay is a traditional Aboriginal sport played by various tribal nations located near the Western Rocky Mountains. A rider runs bareback on a track for three laps, jumping from one horse and onto another for laps two and three. Teammates support the rider and help control the horses at the starting line. Several teams, each composed of four members, compete against each other.

“It’s the suicide bomber,” Tyrone said. “It’s the best thing you’ll ever see.”

Horses are sacred animals to the Blackfoot, who used them to hunt buffalo more than a century ago, and Tyrone says he runs the riding program, in part, to connect his people to his legacy.

He intends to raise awareness of his culture, teach society about the customs of his people, and help young people in the process.

“It’s my life,” he says. “I’ll do it as long as I can.”

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Clyde P. Johnson