A hair-raising, high-velocity ode to a vanishing frontier way of life, the chuckwagon race first wowed audiences at the 1923 Calgary Stampede. The event, later dubbed the "half mile of hell," pits four wagons, each pulled by four horses that whip through figure-eight turns before tearing down a dirt track. Horses carrying cowboys known as outriders gallop behind toward the finish line.
Chuckwagon races remain the highlight of the Stampede, but they have been hit by a series of blows to their image as horses suffered heart attacks, breakdowns, crashes and simply dropped dead on the track.
Now scientists and rodeo aficionados have teamed up to make the thrill-seeking sport safer. At the forefront is a new study designed to detect potential heart problems and remove animals from competition before it's too late. Already this summer, dozens of horses have been wired as part of an electrocardiogram monitoring project that will run through the duration of the 10-day Stampede, which kicks off July 6, and beyond.
"Nowadays, in veterinary medicine there's very much a push on for evidence-based decision making," said the Stampede's chief veterinarian, Greg Evans, who is a partner with Moore Equine Veterinary Centre in Calgary, "We want hard scientific data."
As the Stampede celebrates its centennial year, it will play host to 7,500 animals on the grounds. A few may be injured or killed.
There have been years with no deaths recorded, but since 1986, about 50 horses have died in chuckwagon racing – evidence enough for animal-welfare activists to take aim at rodeos, particularly the world-famous Stampede, in an attempt to kill the sport altogether. In 2010, six horses died, four of them in chuckwagon races, while there were another 40 injuries to animals during the 10,000 times animals saw action at the Stampede.
Since then, the Stampede organization has tried to invest in animal-welfare research, while calling in external auditors, welcoming outside veterinarians and changing rules. Last year, two chuckwagon horses died during events.
The Vancouver Humane Society has been pressing the Stampede for years to ditch events such as calf-roping, which it considers cruel, and chuckwagon racing, which it deems too risky. Its pressure resulted in the Cloverdale rodeo in Surrey, B.C. dumping a number of events in 2007.
Peter Fricker, humane society spokesman, said the combination of speed, wagon proximity and tight turns conspire to make chuckwagon racing dangerous.
"If they can prove they can overcome all of those issues, then we wouldn't have the same concern," he said, before adding: "We just think it's wrong to subject animals to abuse for entertainment."
At the High River, Alta., rodeo grounds south of Calgary on a recent evening, Renaud Léguillette, a veterinary professor at the University of Calgary, was at work on what he hopes will improve the sport's safety record.
His research team places four electrodes near the hearts of two teams of horses competing in the chuckwagon event. A box with a Bluetooth transmitter is affixed to each harness and linked to a cellphone in the wagon. Data sent back to a computer set up in a nearby trailer shows real-time speed, electrical activity of the heart and the heart rate before, during and after races. The researchers also check blood samples before and after for electrolyte levels and lactic acid.
Dr. Léguillette said he conceived the electrocardiogram monitoring after watching chuckwagon horses suffer heart attacks at the Stampede. "I wanted to see if something can be done," he said. He rustled up grants from the university and equipment donations worth about $30,000, not including research time, in order to see if there are warning signs or abnormalities that might predict heart attacks. The Stampede isn't contributing to the independent project financially, but will welcome the researchers on the grounds daily.
So far, Dr. Léguillette said the 90 horses in the study have been impressive: "The fitness of these horses is incredible."
His researchers were able to watch the reaction of one of their teams as the animals warmed up on the track in High River that evening. Even before the race horn sounded, another team got into trouble, one of its four horses becoming tangled in its rigging and going down on the rain-drenched track. Cowboys worked to free the trapped animal as the horse harnessed in front of it reared anxiously, nearly stomping on the animal pressed into the slop.
Lodged between that troubled chuckwagon team and the rail was local driver Jordie Fike, 25, and his four-horse crew. His animals stood motionless as they occasionally cast blinkered eyes to fans watching the frantic efforts to unhook the other team. Mr. Fike's animals, at least, were stress-free as the others were released, uninjured and ready to race.
Dr. Léguillette's data showed the Fike team's heart rates hovering around 60 beats a minute, somewhere just above resting speed and far below a top race pace of 220 bpm. Mr. Fike had real numbers to back up what he had to eyeball in the past: Calmness and fitness. He figures science in the stable can only help his horses – and his sport.
"Anything that can better our sport and educate us, we want to take full advantage," said Mr. Fike, who went on to win his heat, and finish 11th overall at the North American Chuckwagon Championships, a stop on the pro rodeo circuit in advance of the big show.
"They are our livelihood," he said, "We want to keep them as happy and healthy as we can."
The Stampede is also doing more to monitor animal care practices and make improvements, according to its head veterinarian, Dr. Evans.
In 2010, it called in an external auditor to assess its rodeo events. It adopted every recommendation. In 2011, the Stampede also introduced a number of rule changes related to calf-roping and chuckwagon racing.
Now, all horses receive vet checks when they arrive, before they compete and after. The number of outriders was cut to two from four. Mandatory rest days call for at least one day off in four.
Last year, Dr. Evans also embarked on a "Fitness to Compete" program, which aims to follow every animal involved in the chucks, starting by implanting a tiny microchip into the animal's neck. Almost 1,000 horses now have chips to ensure proper vet checks, drug-testing and rest days – things that couldn't be guaranteed in the past. Dr. Evans figures it has cost the Stampede up to $100,000 in both equipment and workload.
"We can have a social debate about use of animals for entertainment, but I can tell you, the Stampede is at the very pinnacle of animal care welfare in the sport," Dr. Evans said.
This year, the Stampede will allow Ed Pajor, a veterinarian at the University of Calgary, who has been working with a U.S. animal behaviouralist, Temple Grandin, to observe bucking events. Last year, they watched animals in the chutes for fear responses such as whiteness in the eyes, defecation and tail flicking.
"We were surprised at how calm these animals were in the chutes," Dr. Pajor said, "The majority of animals showed very few fear responses."
Back in High River, Gordon Atkins, the voluntary vice-chair of the Stampede's chuckwagon committee and another veterinary professor at the University of Calgary, took in the rodeo to observe the EKG project. He has also helped work on the microchip program and applauded the efforts both by the Stampede and outside veterinarians.
"The Stampede wanted to rise above and beyond some of the criticisms," Dr. Atkins said, "I think that they've done this."
Nearby, as Troy Flad washed muck from his wagon, the 37-year-old driver from Warburg, Alta., talked about his 40 horses as not only part of his business, but also his family. His sponsor, Lyle Schmidt, president and chief executive officer of Ironwood Building Systems, who always dreamed of seeing his name on a chuckwagon tarp, wandered over to chat about the sport's image.
"You can have 20 great heats and one accident, and everyone thinks horses are dying," he said.
He hoped the ongoing research could help show how the sport is changing, while Mr. Flad said he's participating in the EKG study because it could benefit his animals.
"When you're sitting behind these guys, it's like sitting behind four vehicles in traffic," he said, "But you don't know what's under the hood. Now we do."