A driver from Saskatchewan will be the first female to compete in Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association races
History will be made in June when the 2019 Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association season kick offs in North Battleford, Sask.
Amber L’Heureux will be the first woman in the organization’s six-decade history to be in the driver’s seat at the sound of the horn.
“It’s pretty big deal. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a woman driver, and everybody’s excited to see what she’s going to do here this year,” said association president Dennis Ringuette.
At 25 years old, L’Heureux from Glaslyn, Sask., will also be one of the youngest competitors, but she’s certainly no newbie, having grown up in the fast and furious, adrenaline-packed sport.
“Since I was three months old, I was on the road with my parents. My dad ran pony chucks for 50 years. My grandfather back in the 1970s-’80s drove thoroughbred chariots. So did my mom,” she said.
“Other kids went to the lake and did that sort of thing, whereas my whole life every summer, every weekend we were on the road to a different small town and rodeo to go racing.”
And with racing in her blood, she said at age 12 it was a natural progression to climb into the wagon box, grab the lines and handle the spring training for her father’s team.
“Finally able to get hold of the line” happened at age 14 when she became eligible to race two pony chariots, followed by four pony chuck wagon racing a few years later.
“I wasn’t so worried about being competitive and winning when I started racing. I was more worried about being clean, not taking penalties and learning how to drive skilfully,” said L’Heureux, who consistently placed in the top five at many races.
It was during this time that she and her father were looking for gear to harness the horses and fit their budget.
She said her heart was set on “super flashy” electric blue and lime green colours for her brown bay horses.
“One day in the middle of winter, Dad’s friend called him that he had picked up a set of pink harness on trade. I just cringed,” she said.
“I’m a girl, but I’m not a girly girl, so pink wasn’t my thing. I just kind of sucked it up, and then after awhile it just kind of became my thing because nobody else had it. So it was distinctive and I became known as the girl with the pink wagon.”
“Lots of little kids around the track, half of them never know my first name. It’s always, ‘it’s the girl with the pink wagon.’ ”
And that’s just fine, said L’Heureux, who is determined to successfully compete in her rookie CPCA season.
Brad McMann used to race against L’Heureux and will be keeping a close eye on her during the upcoming race season.
“She’s always run hard and clean, fast all the time,” said McMann, who has been a driver in the CPCA for four years.
“She drove a competitive pony chuck wagon and was good her whole career. For her to transition to the big wagons, I don’t think she’s going to have any trouble whatsoever. She’s built like a man and she’s tough.”
He said having the first female driver will produce many positive spinoffs for the sport.
“It’s going to be a good sponsorship opportunity for a lot of businesses that may be a first time in the sport, whether it be from hair studios to nail places to generally more female type places that people go to,” he said.
“You’re going to see them jump on board and get involved because of the whole women thing. So it’s going to bring new fans and new sponsors to the sport, which is always a positive.”
Added Ringuette: “We’re hoping that it will bring more people out just to see what she can do. And for the sport, for them girls that are driving chariots, who knows? They might want to put a few more reins in their hand and drive more.”
At five foot, 10 inches, tall “without boots,” L’Heureux works out daily, routinely bench pressing 150 to 200 pounds.
She said one of the main reasons that women have not competed in the CPCA is because of the amount of physical endurance, particularly upper body strength, that it takes to race four thoroughbreds and a chuck wagon around a half-mile or five-eighths dirt track.
“You’ve got to have a fairly good connection with your horses because you’re hooking 1,200 lb. thoroughbred race horses to a chuck wagon and you have to have a lot of faith in them and a lot of trust between the two (driver and horses) and a lot of driving ability to know and be able to peg those horses and drive them to the best of your ability and know where to place those horses.”
Added Ringuette: “It’s a pretty intense sport, so usually the women aren’t strong enough to handle the horses and it’s something for the women to go on their own to make that commitment to do this. So kudos to her for doing it with the ponies and then trying with the thoroughbreds.”
L’Heureux said a love of the animals is why she endures the long days of training and sacrifices.
“There’s so much to be learned in life from a horse and from working with them,” she said.
“The bond that you build with the horse is amazing, really, especially in this sport.”