Central Alberta rodeo fans are blasting animal rights activists who say the sport is unsafe in the wake of four animal deaths at the Calgary Stampede.
Longtime members of the industry say rodeo livestock and chuckwagon horses are treated royally and that changes such as making cowboys wear helmets, are unwarranted.
The Stampede has seen four horses die this year.
A horse in a chuckwagon team suffered a fatal heart attack while training, another chuckwagon horse was euthanized after injuring its shoulder, a saddle bronc horse was put down after breaking its back during competition, and another horse died of a heart attack during a cattle penning event.
Next Wednesday, pony chuckwagon races will begin at Westerner Days Fair & Exposition in Red Deer. Jack Stott, a chuck driver from Gull Lake, said his sport is safe.
“It’s no different than driving down the highway and something happens,” Stott said on Wednesday. “Nobody wants to lose a horse or an injured horse. They’re like our family.”
Dale Young, president of the All Pro Canadian Chuckwagon & Chariot Association, said he’s owned one horse for 17 years that he considers as family. He recently spent thousands of dollars on one horse that stepped on a rock, injuring its ankle.
“We don’t want to put our horses in danger, if the track is slippery or anything,” said Young who resides in Olds. “You don’t want your horses to get hurt because it affects you in more than just racing.”
The Calgary Stampede has made improvements in the last decade, including having collapsible barrels for the chuckwagon event, which have spilled over onto events across the board, Young said.
But some organizations would like to see rodeo either banned completely — or at least some of its events.
The Vancouver Humane Society is calling for an end to calf roping while the Calgary Humane Society said it would also like to see changes at the Stampede. More than 50 British MPs have signed a motion tabled in the U.K. House of Commons, condemning rodeos and calling on the Canadian government to “take steps to end the immense cruelty to animals in events such as calf-roping.”
Jack Daines, an Innisfail auctioneer who has been involved in rodeo for more than 50 years, said rodeo and chuckwagon participants love their horses.
“These animal rights people think they are doing so good and yet people will leave dogs in cars (in the heat) and you see these tom cats running all over,” Daines said. “I think the animal rights people are so far off base — it’s blowing a mountain out of a molehill.”
Daines said the Calgary Stampede organization should be saluted for the great job they do on the track and rodeo grounds, and how they handle livestock.
“There’s nowhere in the world that looks after their livestock better,” he said. “Animals drop dead, people drop dead.”
The recently held Ponoka Stampede saw one horse breaking its leg, while another suffered a heart attack and died before competition.
Dr. Gary Harbin, a Ponoka Stampede board member and a veterinarian who has been on call at the Stampede chuckwagon races for 40 years, said rodeo stock is the best cared for livestock in the world.
Chuckwagon drivers take a lot of pride in their animals too, Harbin added.
“Rodeo is part of the heritage of Western Canada and the Western United States,” he said. “The problem we have is people from the coast, where this (Vancouver Humane Society is coming from) and Eastern Canada who don’t have any clue about this history, how the West was developed and that people couldn’t have done it without horses.”
When it comes to making the rodeo safer for cowboys, Daines frowned on mandatory helmets.
“Those helmets put you off balance,” Daines said. “If you want to wear them, that’s a personal opinion. I wouldn’t wear one. If you’re a good enough bronc rider, you don’t need one.”
Todd Herzog of Penhold is currently leading in the saddle bronc category at the Calgary Stampede. He wears a helmet after being kicked in the head from a bucking horse about 15 years ago.
Harbin said cowboys pay their own entry fees, their own hospital bills, so they are unlike professional players of other sports.
“We cannot tell them what to do,” he said.
He believes it would be up to Canadian and American professional rodeo associations, which have rule books, that would have to call for changes regarding helmet use.