Each July when the Calgary Stampede rolls around, questions are raised about animal rights and the welfare of the animals participating in the rodeo events.
Since we’re not able to ask the horses for themselves, no one has had any idea how they feel about this controversial subject – until now.
A recent study by the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) explores the effect of animals’ experience and rodeo procedures on the behaviour of bucking horses at large commercial events.
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The team who authored the study was comprised of Dr. Ed Pajor, PhD, professor at UCVM, the Anderson-Chisholm Chair of Animal Behaviour and Welfare, the director of W.A. Ranches, and a member of the Calgary Stampede’s Animal Care Advisory Panel, Dr. Christy Goldhawk, a research associate at UCVM, and Dr. Temple Grandin, renowned animal welfare expert and professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
“Do animals find participation in rodeos aversive?” was the simple question that Pajor, Goldhawk, and Grandin hoped to answer, or at least consider, in their study.
The researchers studied the behaviours of competition horses at the Calgary Stampede rodeo over three years. Pajor, Goldhawk, and UCVM students observed the horses behind the areas where the animals wait prior to entering the arena, also known as the chutes.
Factors considered included the age of each animal, how many times they had competed at the Stampede, and actions of the handlers. Researchers studied a variety of reactive behaviours in the horses to gauge their response to these factors.
The behaviours included charging, kicking, running into the gate or fence, head tossing, the visibility of eye whites, rearing, and lip chewing or licking.
The report outlines that the amount and degree to which the animals reacted was associated with their environmental stimuli. This included physical facilities and handling methods during both loading activities and in preparation for performance while being held in the bucking chutes.
Active loading time of horses from holding pens into the loading chutes ranged from 13 seconds to 3.88 minutes, with total time from the exit of the pen to entrance to the bucking chute between one to 54 minutes. There was anywhere from one to seven handlers present during loading.
“Overall, 71.5% of horses balked during loading, of which 36.8% balked more than once,” says the study, “Humans were observed in front of the line of movement of the horses in 83.5% of the balking events.”
This led researchers to believe that the amount of handlers present during loading had a direct impact on the behaviour of the horse, with the animals feeling more comfortable when there were less handlers around.
Chute behaviour scores were associated with the amount of exposure to the specific rodeo. If exposure was below the average of three performances, there was an increase in the odds of a horse having a higher composite chute behaviour score.
Findings concluded that the horses who had more experience with rodeos displayed fewer reactive behaviours during both loading and holding in the chute prior to performance.
The study advises that the less handlers present while loading or in the chutes, the more comfortable the animal will feel.
For further details about the methods and analysis of this study and its findings, refer to the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine report.