Six horses died competing in the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon races this year, bringing the total to more than 70 in the event since 1986 and reigniting a debate about the safety and welfare of the animals involved.
Stampede officials said in a statement Monday there will be review of safety surrounding chuckwagon racing, but it’s unclear what form the review will take.
“This is as upsetting to us as it is to our community, and is challenging for us. The Stampede’s commitment to the safety of animals and the conditions of their participation in our events is paramount to our values and brand integrity,” the statement said.
“In light of these events, we are committed to initiating a thorough review process surrounding chuckwagon safety. At this time we don’t know what form that process will take, and we ask for your patience and understanding.”
Three horses went down Sunday evening when a horse on the wagon driven by Evan Salmond broke a bone in a hind leg. Two others on the same team were also injured in the incident and all three animals were euthanized, according to officials.
Stampede officials suspended driver Chad Harden for the crash that caused the third death Thursday evening, after they found he impeded another wagon leading to the collision and the death of a horse belonging to driver Evan Salmond. Harden faces a $10,000 fine in addition to a lifetime ban. However, he can apply for reinstatement in the future as early as September.
A total of six animals died this year during the annual Rangeland Derby event.
A statement from GMC, the company with naming rights to the GMC Rangeland Derby, said: “We are deeply saddened and our condolences go out to all of those involved. We are supportive of the Calgary Stampede initiating a thorough review process surrounding chuckwagon safety.”
The Stampede — billed as ‘the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’ — has faced almost yearly calls from animal rights advocates to ban the chuckwagon racing event due to the number of horses killed.
According to statistics from the Vancouver and Calgary Humane Societies and media reports, 73 horses related to chuckwagon racing have been either killed or euthanized since 1986.
LISTEN: Calgary Stampede communications manager Kristina Barnes joins Calgary Today to discuss the incident that marred the final night of chuckwagon racing
Roughly 30 other animals, including calves and steer, have died during that same period in all other events, according to the statistics. This includes the 2005 tragedy when nine horses became spooked while galloping across a city bridge and jumped, falling 10 metres into the Bow River.
However, Stampede officials say the chuckwagon races have had a 0.025 fatality rate per 1,000 starts over the last six years. This is compared to the 1.68 fatality rate per 1,000 starts in thoroughbred, according to stats from the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID).
Dubbed “a half-mile of hell” by the World Professional Chuckwagon Association, the Stampede’s chuckwagon event features teams of four thoroughbred horses pulling wagons in figure-eight formations around barrels, who then race down an oval track.
Peter Physick-Sheard, an emeritus professor of population medicine at the University of Guelph, said that intense exercise is always an inherent
hazard to racehorses, but chuckwagon racing creates a unique set of circumstances that can be catastrophic.
“You have very fast horses that are relatively finely built, working closely together in a very confined space,” he told Global News. “It’s a very intense, high-pressure situation.
“The possibility of something going wrong is much greater.”
Physick-Sheard said that creating more room for the horses during the event, and using a different breed of horse, could help reduce the number of fatalities.
“A slower horse might be less prone to injury, but in chuckwagon racing the emphasis is placed on speed,” he said. “If greater emphasis was placed on manoeuvering the team through obstacles, there is potential for less serious damage.”
In 2011 and 2016, the event’s safety commission made a number of changes to reduce injuries, including reducing the number of outriders, increasing vet checks, changes to barrel placement to reduce wagon contact, and increasing scrutiny on drivers’ safety records.
WATCH: Alberta chuckwagon driver fined, facing lifetime ban from Calgary Stampede
The changes came after four horses were killed in 2015, but animal rights groups say the changes haven’t done enough to stem the fatalities. The’ve also called for the elimination of rodeo events such as calf-roping and steer-wrestling.
“Horses die in this event virtually every year,” Vancouver Humane Society communications director Peter Ficker told Global News.
“It really needs to stop.”
Ficker suggested reducing the number of teams on the track, or reducing the number of horses on each team.
“The problem is there are just too many horses and too many teams going at high speed, taking tight turns at close proximity,” Ficker said. “Those are all things that could be looked at and perhaps the race could be made safer.”
The executive director for Animal Justice, a group that works to strengthen legal protections for animals, said Monday that she believes “law enforcement — including the Calgary police, Calgary Humane Society and Alberta SPCA — urgently need to investigate and bring these animal welfare concerns before the courts.”
“Rodeo events are not above the law and should no longer be given a free pass to kill animals,” Camille Labchuck told The Canadian Press.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, better known as PETA, issued a news release on Monday to say it was planning a protest outside Alberta’s premier’s office in Edmonton on Tuesday to raise its concerns about the Calgary Stampede.
“A group of PETA supporters will gather outside Premier Jason Kenney’s office to push for an end to the Calgary Stampede’s chuckwagon races,” the news release said.
“The deadly chuckwagon races are an ugly throwback to a more ignorant time and are staining Calgary’s reputation,” said PETA President Ingrid Newkirk. “On behalf of its 6.5 million members and supporters worldwide — including hundreds of thousands in Canada — and every kind person, PETA is calling on Premier Kenney to end these devastatingly cruel races.”
The deaths of horses at the Stampede come amid a deadly year in thoroughbred racing in North America.
LISTEN: Chuckwagon driver Chance Bensmiller joins Zack Hewitt to discuss caring for, living with horses as a driver
More than 30 horses died at the Santa Anita race track, owned by Toronto’s Stronach family, in Southern California this year. Deaths also jumped at the Woodbine racetrack in Ontario from six in 2017 to 11 in 2018, according to the EID. Statistics on horse racing deaths are difficult to track as those which occur during morning workouts and training are not counted.
Stampede officials told Global News they are consistently looking for ways to make the races as safe as possible for both riders and animals.
“Obviously we have some very fundamental disagreements in animals participating in sport,” Barnes said. “But I think the one thing we can agree on — us and them — is that we want these animals to be as safe as possible.”
— With files from The Canadian Press’ Lauren Krugel and from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich