The deaths of three horses in a chuckwagon-racing accident at the Calgary Stampede has ignited renewed demands by animal-welfare advocates to ban the exciting but dangerous event.
"We think that all the changes that the Calgary Stampede has been publicizing over the past few months that were supposed to make this race safe obviously haven't worked," Peter Fricker, a spokesman for the Vancouver Humane Society, told the Globe and Mail on Friday.
Going into this year's centennial edition of the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth," some 50 horses have died since 1986 in chuckwagon racing, four in 2010 and two last year.
The GMC Rangeland Derby is the highlight of the Stampede's daily rodeo events.
The fourth heat of Thursday night's racing card was underway when the lead horse in Chad Harden's wagon collapsed in the back stretch, CBC News reported. That caused a chain-reaction that brought down three other horses on the team and sent one of the team's two outriders and his horse toppling over the wagon. The outrider was not hurt, nor was Harden despite being flung from his wagon seat, the Globe reported.
The outrider's horse and the other lead horse on the wagon rig were badly injured and were euthanized.
"It's just devastating for our whole family," a sobbing Harden said after the crash, which he called "just one of those bad accidents.
"We try our best to make sure they're all healthy. The outriding horse was 18 years old, and I've had him for 13 years. He's part of our family."
Veterinarians were to perform a necropsy on the horse that collapsed to try and determine why it went down.
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Animal researchers had equipped a number of chuckwagon horses with wireless electrocardiogram-monitoring gear to try and detect heart problems in horses before they run. The Vancouver Humane Society, which has led the fight to ban rodeo events such as chuckwagon racing and calf roping because they are seen as cruel, had been skeptical about the work to make the frenetic race safer.
Yet, Stampede spokesman Doug Fraser dismissed Fricker's call for an end to chuckwagon racing. The Vancouver Humane Society is an "activist group with an activist agenda," he told the Globe.
"We rely on the advice from heavy animal experts. We don't rely on the advice from organizations like VHS."
The Vancouver society's Calgary counterpart said it's against using animals for entertainment but concedes events like the chuckwagon races aren't going away.
"We think that working with the Stampede is the best that we can do to help make these events as safe as possible," Calgary Human Society's Christy Thompson told the Globe.
But Fricker said the nature of the race makes it hard to improve safety.
Up to four teams, including two outriders each, start the race by careening around a figure-eight section before charging onto the main track. The crush of wagons and outriders often leads to pileups.
"There's just not very much room," said Fricker. "They're making very tight turns and they're going at high speed."
Critics have also pointed to the selective breeding of chuckwagon horses, which are far removed from the cow ponies of yore. Fricker said research suggests some horses have legs too weak for their bodies. After four horses died in 2010, chuckwagon racing rules were changed, cutting the number of outriders to two from four and mandating pre-race vet checks and rest days between races. But Fricker told CBC News it's clear they haven't made the racing any safer.
"We think that there's something more fundamentally wrong with the race, and we're calling for a suspension of the chuckwagon races and a full and fundamental safety review to be conducted," he said.