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livestock graveyard

Raymond Goodman, the ranch manager at the Calgary Stampede Ranch, stands in the cemetery at the entrance of the 8800 hectare piece of land where they raise some 450 horses and 80 bulls in central Alberta.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

The number of prairie dogs scampering over the graves probably outnumbers actual human visitors.

Very occasionally, a bunch of flowers is left at a headstone. But as the smell of freshly cut grass lingers in the air, it is clear that someone cares about those buried beneath a dozen simple white markers.

This is where elite rodeo animal athletes are laid to rest.

"It's like losing friends" said Raymond Goodman, manager of the Calgary Stampede Ranch, about 200 kilometres northeast of the city, where some of the best bucking stock in the world is raised.

"It's important for us," he said of the ranch's graveyard. "It's a small part of our program; to show them honour and respect even in their death."

Folks at the Stampede Ranch – and horse lovers beyond – are mourning Papa Smurf, a "top end" saddle bronc that died on Aug. 14 at the age of 28. He will soon get a memorial here.

The Calgary Stampede bought the ranch in 1961 for $200,000. The property, which extends over 8,800 hectares of owned and leased land, is valued these days at $3.4-million.

The land, rich with vegetation, is also blessed with oil and gas deposits, and has about 30 wells.

Officials with the self-styled Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth wanted a home base to produce high-quality rodeo bucking stock. Starting with 50 mares, they embarked on the "Born to Buck" breeding program.

Now, it has about 450 horses and 80 bulls. The bulls are raised elsewhere first. It costs about $10,000 to raise a bucking horse from birth.

Of all these animals, maybe 165 are called into rodeo rings each year, and of those, a couple of dozen are the busiest, working for perhaps 30 days. Actual bucking time amounts to 120 seconds, according to the Stampede.

Mr. Goodman, a 48-year-old former rodeo clown, knows each animal by name. As he drops a load of oats for the morning feed he points out three mares, all stars in their own right, that are granddaughters of world champion bareback horse Cindy Rocket – an animal buried in the graveyard.

Cindy Rocket lies beside Wanda Dee, another "foundation mare," responsible for so much of the Stampede's success.

Established about 25 years ago, the cemetery is the size of a small park, placed at the entrance to the ranch and bounded by a white fence overlooking rolling native grasslands. There are gravestones for 10 horses and two bulls.

"Every one of these horses and bulls were stars," Mr. Goodman said. "But it's not only being a super star or a champion."

Among those buried here is Rebel, a reliable ranch pickup horse, noteworthy only because he represents all the saddle horses that have ever been through these gates.

But then there is Outlaw, a speckled bull that in 74 romps out of the chutes, was successfully ridden only once, by cowboy Justin Volz, a Canadian champion who managed to hang on for the full eight seconds. The massive Brahma-cross bull was selected to trigger the closing bell for the New York Stock Exchange in 2004. Little more than a month later, the seven-year-old animal got into a fight with another bull and suffered injuries so serious he couldn't be saved.

Papa Smurf lived to 28, a good long life by working horse standards.

Bought for $375 as a youngster, Papa Smurf grew into a champion saddle bronc, earning cowboys who were able to ride him rodeo purses of more than $466,000.

Rider Rod Hay described the horse as a "coveted draw" that held "a special place in many cowboys' hearts."

Since 2005, the chestnut gelding had lived out his retirement teaching up-and-coming broncs the basics.

This summer, he was in a pasture with yearlings a few hours from the ranch when he was found dead on a hill.

Laid to rest in the pasture where he died, Papa Smurf became the first prized animal not to be buried at the ranch.

Markers will be placed in the pasture and at the ranch. But it's clear where Mr. Goodman's heart lies.

"He belongs in the graveyard down here," he said.