Calgary Stampede chuckwagon horse’s death reignites debate over animal cruelty

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

It's unlikely that news about what killed a chuckwagon horse at the Calgary Stampede on Tuesday will satisfy animal welfare advocates who want the exciting races made safer, if not abolished altogether.

Denny, a 12-year-old thoroughbred, collapsed during a training run. A post-mortem has determined he died of a ruptured aorta near one of his kidneys, according to a news release from the Stampede organization.

The University of Calgary veterinary school's Dr. Gord Atkins, who chairs the Stampede's chuckwagon committee, explained to reporters Denny was afflicted with a common to horses parasite that can damage blood vessels, creating an aneurysm that is undetectable until it lets go. The ex-race horse died quickly from massive blood loss.

But the horse's death, and the injury of a chuckwagon driver in a separate incident, brought renewed calls this week from a prominent rodeo critic to improve safety at the Stampede's marquee event.

[ Related: Stampede chuckwagon incidents result in hurt man, dead horse ]

The Vancouver Humane Society wants the Stampede to suspend chuckwagon racing and appoint an independent panel of veterinary and horse experts to review the event with the goal of making it safer.

The Stampede has made some improvements in recent years in response to more than 60 horse fatalities since the mid 1980s at what's called The Greatest Show on Earth. It's instituted vet checks of horses before and after each race (known as Fitness to Compete), allowed fewer outriders – who sometimes get caught up in chuckwagon crashes – in each heat and paid more attention to the condition of the track.

"But we don't think they've gone nearly far enough," the society's Peter Fricker told Yahoo Canada News.

Fricker said the four-horse chuckwagon teams generally use retired racing thoroughbreds, which have heavy, strongly-muscled bodies on thin legs and are more likely to suffer stress fractures. And we know what happens to horses with broken legs.

Grooming the track more carefully reduces that risk, but Fricker said these changes are minimal. Fricker said the society wants a fundamental "root and branch" review of the sport.

The Vancouver society has had some success targeting rodeo events it considers cruel. It pressured the Cloverdale Rodeo, a major competition staged in the Fraser Valley just east of Vancouver, into dropping four events, including calf roping and steer wrestling, in 2007.

But it's hit a brick wall with the Stampede.

“If you look at the stats per thousand starts, our equine fatality rates are relatively low compared to industry standards," Stampede communications director Kurt Kadatz said in an interview.

Indeed, the Calgary Herald reported on Monday, before Denny's demise, that 61 horses had died in 78,440 Stampede races in the last 28 years, a rate of 0.78 per 1,000 starts. Jockey Club statistics for North American race tracks for 2009-2013 put the overall fatality rate at 1.91 per 1,000 starts, the Herald said. The rate is highest in steeplechase racing, at six per 1,000. On average, 24 horses die each week at U.S. tracks.

“I think we realize there is some risk involved in animals participating in any kind of activity, whether that’s a horse taking part in a race, a pet in the city in a park or what have you," said Kadatz. "There’s always going to be some level of risk to an animal that’s alive, some risk of death.”

[ Related: Research aims to reduce horse deaths at Calgary Stampede’s chuckwagon races ]

You might wonder where are Fricker's Calgary counterparts in this debate.

Calgary Humane Society executive director Carrie Fritz told Yahoo Canada News its enforcement role does not allow for the same public advocacy as Vancouver. But don't misread that silence, she said.

"We do have regular discussions with the Calgary Stampede Board about their animal welfare and we try to keep those conversations very professional and respectful," said Fritz.

"However, we are very clear on our position, and it is our long term goal to end those risky events. But because Vancouver is an advocacy agency, they definitely are more vocal.”

A position statement on the Calgary society's website spells things out.

"As indicated in the Society’s position statement on animals in entertainment, the CHS fundamentally opposes high risk rodeo events like chuckwagon racing, calf-roping, and steer wrestling," the document states.

"While other organizations may wish to intervene to change rodeo and the Stampede through protest or other advocacy means, the CHS has found it can best protect the interests of the animals involved by working with organizations that put on such events."

Fricker noted the Calgary society submitted a report to the Stampede in 2003 that recommended cutting the number of chuckwagons in each race heat to three from four, reducing the risk of collision, adding a co-driver to each wagon for added control and, importantly, dropping the number of horses to two per team from four.

“One of the fundamental problems is if one of the horses goes down in a team it’s likely all the others are going to go down and you’re going to end up with a crash and a wreck that may involve the other wagons," said Fricker.

None of those recommendations were taken up by the Stampede.

Kadatz, reflecting what appears to be the prevailing view in the Stampede organization, said the problem with the Vancouver group's criticism of rodeo events is that it has no expertise in large-animal care.

"We have in the past invited them to come out to Stampede Park and they have declined the invitation," he said.

An invitation was extended to tour Stampede Park facilities during a meeting with executives a few years ago, Fricker confirmed. But the society isn't concerned about what happens in the Stampede's barns, he said. It's in fundamental disagreement with the nature of some of the rodeo events themselves.

“Our point is with calf roping and some of those other events, like steer wrestling, these things are just for entertainment," said Fricker.

"So how can you possibly justify subjecting an animal to that kind of stress, that kind of fear, that kind of pain, just for the sake of amusing a crowd?"

Rodeo animals, especially cattle, are subjected to treatment that would be illegal if you did them to your pet, he said.

"The reason that doesn’t happen with rodeos is because farm animals are effectively exempt [from] animal cruelty laws in Canada," Fricker said.

You don't have to be an expert to see that, he said. The Vancouver society's position is identical to national humane societies and SPCAs in the U.S., Britain, New Zealand and Australia, all of which oppose rodeo events they deem cruel.