Vet med researchers continue important work with Stampede on animal safety

Ranch hand Marcus Brauns at W.A. Ranches media tour. Riley Brandt, University of
Ranch hand Marcus Brauns at W.A. Ranches media tour. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
News media tour W.A. Ranches before ’largest outdoor rodeo’ to learn more about ongoing research projects

A long-standing collaboration between the Calgary Stampede and UCalgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) aims to improve animal welfare and inform policies that create a safer environment for both animals and people at the well-known outdoor rodeo.

With the 2024 Stampede underway, UCVM researchers are on site putting new animal welfare protocols to work, with hopes of enhancing the welfare, safety, and performance of chuckwagon horses and rodeo stock, including bulls, horses and calves. 

"In previous years we have identified some movement concerns for rodeo animals such as pinch points and the number of people in loading areas that they (the Stampede) have addressed and made better," says Dr. Ed Pajor, PhD.

Pajor, a professor of animal behaviour and welfare and director of W.A. Ranches at UCVM, says a key focus of his research this year is developing a new animal welfare assessment tool for animals used in rodeo events. W.A. Ranches is a 19,000-acre cow-calf operation that was generously donated to UCalgary by the Anderson-Chisholm family in 2018.

The research will focus on animals in holding pens before the actual rodeo event. Previous published peer-reviewed research has examined the fear and stress of bucking bulls and bucking horses immediately before their arena performance, and researchers found most are quite calm.

"Seventy per cent of the bulls showed almost no signs of stress prior to the actual event," Pajor told reporters at a pre-Stampede event held at W.A. Ranches on June 28.

"Yes, there were animals that showed signs of stress - a lot of those were animals that hadn’t been to the Stampede previously. In general, horses and bulls became more reactive when the number of people near them in the bucking chutes increased."

At the Stampede chuckwagon event, UCVM researchers will be taking blood samples from horses after their initial race, to measure how the animal’s heart muscle reacts to the races.

"We are working with the Calgary Stampede on improving the safety of chuckwagon horses," Dr. Renaud Léguillette, PhD, told reporters.

"We validated a test that allows us to measure how the heart muscle is dealing with the effort of the races, then we can red-flag a horse that would have a little bit more cardiac stress."

Pajor says everything learned at this year’s Stampede will help with new protocols for future years.

"What we hope to do is develop the tools this year and then use them next year to evaluate new animal-welfare assessments," he says.

"We will look at a number of behavioural indicators the animals demonstrate, environments they are kept in, how they are moved, injuries and health statuses of the animals." 

This year the Calgary Stampede is supporting applied work (Leguillete’s chuckwagon project) to have an immediate impact on chuckwagon horse health and welfare, as well as testing theoretical models of animal welfare assessment (Pajor’s rodeo project) to contribute to animal-welfare science and develop new assessment tools that can be used in the future at the Calgary Stampede and other rodeos.