Every year at this time, we hold our collective breath in anticipation of the deaths that will inevitably come at the Calgary Stampede and it usually involves a horse in the Chuckwagon races. Since 2000 nearly 40 horses have been killed during theses races – the only year that didn’t have a death was 2003.
Today, halfway into the Stampede, two horses have died. The first on Monday night, a horse who appeared injured during the second heat of the chuckwagon races and fell to the track and later died of a currently unknown 'medical condition'. The second horse sustained a leg injury during last night's chuckwagon race and was euthanized.
We have shared a long and beneficial history with horses in Canada. It is arguable that without the work of horses, Canada would not be what it is today. This relationship is something that should be celebrated.
However, as Canada has evolved from a primarily rural country dotted with a ragtag collection of towns, into, an urbanized, respected and powerful nation with some of the most incredible cities in the world, our relationship with horses has also been revolutionized. Urbanization has signalled the decline of the working horse and the rise of both the companion animal and the entertainment horse.
Many will tell you that the rodeo celebrates our Western heritage. However, the modern rodeo is actually a departure from tradition.
Traditionally, it was vitally important to preserve the safety and well-being of horses: for those who depended on their animals, jeopardizing their life could result in dire consequences. Rodeos reflect a shift in tradition from protecting the welfare of horses to profiting from their stress and suffering.
The modern rodeo relies on adrenaline and excitement. The fans in the stands have come for the exhilaration. This translates into animals being driven beyond their capacity. The Chuckwagon races at the Calgary Stampede are an excellent and controversial example. Not only is racing chuckwagons not an everyday ranch event, it’s not even an officially recognized event of the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association. Its sole purpose is excitement, show and entertainment even though each year we can reasonably expect at least one horse will be killed during the event.
Legend has it that the first rodeo was held in the United States in the 1860s to settle a claim between competing cowboys to determine who was the best at everyday ranch work. However, since that first rodeo, we have taken what is natural and made it unnatural. It’s natural for horses to run. They have a natural grace and agility that is truly sublime to watch. It’s not natural for horses to be tied together and urged to race on a track, pulling a wagon behind them in intense competition. We’ve done this just for our own entertainment.
The defence of these activities routinely includes an illogical argument that some suffering is acceptable, or even expected, and that these horses are incredibly well treated off the track. However, pampering a horse year round and then pushing it beyond its limits to the point of collapse and potential death doesn’t actually demonstrate a high level of guardianship or value.
Instead of highly dangerous events in which horses risk significant injury and possible death, just for our entertainment, rodeos should showcase the close connection between the rider and horse without causing unnecessary stress, suffering, pain or risk.
After all that horses have done for us and our country, our events celebrating them should go back to the tradition of preserving their safety and well-being.