The Wild West, complete with cowboys in full regalia and bucking broncos, thrives on the North Shore of Riviere des Milles Iles, within an hour's drive of downtown Montreal. The towns of Mascouche, Terrebonne, LaPlaine and Lachenaie, which comprise the Region des Moulins in Quebec's Lanaudiere Tourist Region, have about 30 ranches in the region. There are thousands of Western riders who compete weekly in horse shows and rodeos, large and small.
Fast-paced Gymkhana competitions include barrel racing, "pony express" baton relays and two-person "pick-up" riding, all timed and raced at a full gallop in a ring. Riders, both men and women, wear cowboy hats, fringed chaps and prized silver belt buckles, often acquired as trophies in previous competitions.
The more sedate and style-conscious Performance Class events measure the style and grace of the Western horse and rider: In Reining, they move through patterns of circles at different speeds and demonstrate intricate maneuvers such as sliding stops, spins and rollbacks; Western Pleasure tests the horse's manners and different gaits; and Trail competitions simulate cross-country rides with obstacles in a ring, measuring the rider's control.
Among dates to watch for with equestrian events, (area code is 514):
Every Saturday night at 8 at the Tico-Smokey Ranch, regional riders hold a Gymkhana with barrel racing and a special practice of bareback bronc riding by local cowboys. Cowboys wait their turns silhouetted against the night sky along the corral fence, and the crowd in the stands hoots and hollers as horses gallop by, raising dust. (Admission, $3, 1201 Cote Terrebonne, St. Louis de Terrebonne, 471-9080.)
On July 28-29, from 9 a.m., at Ecuries E&F Beaupre, there will be a Gymkhana with barrel racing and Reining and Pleasure events. (Admission, $3, 2733 Chemin de la Cabane Ronde, Mascouche.)
On Aug. 4, at 9:30 a.m., at the posh equestrian center, La Seigneurie, there will be an international competition of Reining. (Admission, $5, 4500 Boul des Mille Iles, Laval, 666-0703)
On Labor Day weekend, there will be a rodeo and Gymkhana at Ferme Pancho, 1991 Chemin Barrette, La Plaine, 478-1798).
There are cowboy-style apres-rodeo activities, too, in the Mascouche and Terrebonne region. Spectators and riders meet for country and western dancing after 9 p.m. at Chalet de la Vallee, a raucous dance hall in a log cabin. Cowboys and their partners promenade and glide to the graceful two-step, strut to intricate line dances and twirl to the Western swing. On a summer's night, riders in Western gear arrive on horseback, tie their mounts to a wooden corral fence and saunter up to the bar for a beer. (Chalet de la Vallee, 1231 Chemin Pincourt, Mascouche, 474-2439).
Ranch Chez Herve is one of many stables in the area that rent Western-saddle horses for trail rides ($10 an hour) through the woods and sand dunes. Special moonlight rides on Friday and Saturday nights start at 8 p.m., continue for four hours and wind up at a campfire party. (Chez Herve, 600 Montee Masson, Mascouche, 474-2003). Another trail ride center is: Ranch Sourire or "Smiley's" (1163 Boul Ste. Marie, Mascouche, 474-2628.) The Region des Moulins, about 45 minutes from central Montreal, is an easy day trip. For overnight visitors, Hotel des Moulins is centrally located and modern, with 70 good-sized rooms (about $70 a night) decorated in pastel colors. (1425 Chemin Gascon/Route 337, 477-9434).
Vieux Terrebonne, a historic community along the Riviere des Milles Iles facing Ile des Moulins, is a charming quarter bustling with waterfront cafes and bistros, among them the popular L'Impression and Chez Phademus.
Try L'Etang du Moulin, in an 1810 stone house overlooking tiny Lac Masson, for classic French cuisine. ($30-$50 per person, 888 Rue St. Louis, 471-4018).