Amber L’Heureux sits in the driver’s seat of her pink chuckwagon.
She grips pink and white reins, pulling against the power of four thoroughbred horses hooked to her ride.
She’s wearing pink underwear beneath dirty blue jeans.
She doesn’t even care much for pink.
But pink is her signature colour and she’s on the racetrack in North Battleford, Sask., to make a statement. She is the world’s first female professional chuckwagon driver. This is her first race in the big leagues. Her first chance to prove that she belongs.
The bleachers are overflowing with 1,037 paying fans cheering before the announcer introduces Ms. L’Heureux. Scores of spectators wear pink, watching a sport that can have deadly consequences.
“Glad you made it out here tonight to witness history," the announcer says as the crowd cheers.
The rookie steadies the four horses pulling her wagon. Her two competitors − one to the left, one to the right − do the same.
“Silence please,” the announcer says.
Four seconds pass.
The starting horn blares.
“Off we go!”
Chuckwagon races re-enact a Wild West myth: breaking camp to escape attackers. Two outriders − folks on horseback hoofing it with the chucks − accompany each wagon.
At the horn, outrider Basil Mosquito pulls Ms. L’Heureux’s horses to get the team going. In the rear, Chloe Studer throws a cookstove prop into the back of the chuckwagon. These outriders are wearing pink skivvies, too.
Ms. L’Heureux makes a Figure 8 around two white barrels while her outriders jump into their saddles to do the same.
Their challengers make 8s in neighbouring lanes. Three chucks, 12 wagon horses, and six outriders gallop away from invisible enemies.
Amber L’Heureux has the smile of a rodeo queen and the strength of a Teamster.
She lifts 100 pounds on a hand-me-down weight machine in her fading red barn. She needs upper-body strength to control the thoroughbreds hauling her wagon. She does squats with a barbell loaded with 90 pounds, keeping her lower body in proportion to her upper half.
She paints her toenails and gets eyelash extensions.
“It is the little bit of girlyness I get to keep,” Ms. L’Heureux says on her ranch outside Glaslyn, Sask.
Ms. L’Heureux’s grandfather and mom raced thoroughbred chariots and her mom and dad also raced pony chariots and wagons. In these events, the horses and wagons are smaller, although still rollicking. She jumped in wagons to play with the reins whenever she could.
“It’s all I’ve known,” she says, now 26. She joined the pony circuit as a teenager, winning racing buckles, respect, but not self-satisfaction.
“Racing ponies was never going to be enough."
Her parents worried about how she would be received on the pro-chuckwagon tour, even though she met the Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association’s speed and skill requirements last year. “My whole life, I’ve been an outcast for pursuing something that wasn’t cookie cutter.
“If you don’t believe what I can do, watch me prove you wrong,” she says. “I’ve let it fuel my fire."
Preston Faithful, a chuckwagon driver from Frog Lake, Alta., raced ponies with Ms. L’Heureux when they were younger. Plenty of chuckwagon stars get their start racing ponies, learning how to control powerful horses, make tight turns, and stay upright at wild speeds. Mr. Faithful scoffs at her detractors.
“Everyone was kind of skeptical," he says. “But I told people, I said: ‘She is not going to have a problem. She’s a tough girl and she knows how to drive.' "
Ms. L’Heureux started buying wagon horses and harnesses in 2014, eyeing the pro tour. Her 14 thoroughbreds are fed three times daily, with oats as the staple. Depending on the meal and horse, they also receive flax and specialty pellets ranging from protein supplements to anti-inflammatories. Every night, Ms. L’Heureux feels their legs, checking for swelling, inflammation and other troubles. She has a diploma in Animal Health Technology from Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alta.
The horses nuzzle their owner with their heads and necks. They hover around for kisses. They lick.
“This is the part I wish people could see,” she says. “There’s just a bond that people don’t understand.”
Instead, chuckwagons attract the most attention when horses, drivers or outriders are killed.
A stuffed unicorn decorated with ribbons dangles under the driver’s seat of her chuckwagon. The green ribbon is for Greg Smith, a friend killed racing ponies in Vermilion. The purple one is for Bill McEwen, a chuckwagon driver who died after a wreck at the Calgary Stampede in 1999.
“I was six,” Ms. L’Heureux says. “I still remember seeing that.”
A guardian angel from her grandparents is pinned to another ribbon.
“Death is never really something that scared me,” she says. “If it happens in a wagon box, at least I’m doing something I love.”
Ms. L’Heureux chases a veteran, with another rookie on her tail, as the three wagons charge around North Battleford’s half-mile track. She holds her ground, finishing second. Ms. L’Heureux changes six decades of history in one dusty minute.
She watches a replay of her heat until 2 a.m., looking for mistakes.
Ernest Checkosis remembers Ms. L’Heureux as a kid, when he was racing. He stands on the hill beside the packed bleachers on Day 2. Ms. L’Heureux places third.
“When I heard that she was going to drive, I wanted to see her,” he says. “Holy − she can handle them.”
On Day 3, her wagon crosses the finish line first.
“There’s a lot of fans out there screaming and hollering for her,” Mr. Faithful says. “She was clean. She didn’t hurt no horses. She didn’t hurt anybody. Your first race, your first year − you can’t do any better.”
Ms. L’Heureux disagrees.
“I’m at the bottom,” she says. “That doesn’t sit well with me.”
Ms. L’Heureux races this weekend in Dewberry, Alta.
“Opening weekend nerves are gone,” she says. “It’s go-time.”