Barbara Kay on the Calgary Stampede: The chuckwagon races must go on
Saturday July 14th, 2012
Marni Soupcoff says the chuckwagon races at the Calgary Stampede should be cancelled because the latest accident, in which three horses died, prove that the sport is just too inherently risky to the horses involved to justify continuing the tradition.
All horse sport is risky, because for all their size and power, horses are actually quite fragile animals in crucial parts of their bodies — mainly in their feet and leg tendons and ligaments. Chuckwagon races may exhibit somewhat elevated risks, but there is no horse sport that has none (including Dressage, where overtraining can produce injuries, and where one could argue that horses’ natural need for liberty is so curtailed at the upper echelons of the sport in order to protect these valuable animals that it is a form of abuse).
My daughter was involved at a fairly high competitive level in the sport of Three-Day Eventing. Part of that discipline requires the horses to jump over huge, fixed jumps on a cross-country course. That is, unlike jumping in a stadium, where the rails fall down if the horse doesn’t clear the jump, three-day event horses meet an irresistible force. They often fall as a result and sometimes hurt themselves badly. Sometimes on hot days they get so dehydrated they “tie up” and experience great pain, or even die.
Many a horse has also died on racetracks. They have heart attacks or experience sudden ligament or bone injuries that are so serious they have to be put down. It isn’t because people who own them are careless, irresponsible or uncaring. These are all extremely valuable horses. They are the best cared-for horses in the world. Perhaps 1% of their lives is spent working at full capacity under difficult conditions. The rest of the time they are fed, housed, exercised, groomed and loved like no other creatures on Earth. Apart from dressage, elite competition horses are doing what they love to do: run and jump. They are the equivalent of working Labradors, who may sometimes be covered in mud, exhausted and hungry, but are the most contented creatures you’d ever find.
When you consider the number of horses that are involved in all these sports, and then look at the number of horses that have actually died as a direct victim of the sport itself — that is, not from an unanticipated heart attack, or some inherent physical deficit nobody could have known about — the ratio is not statistically alarming.
Marni says we are enlightened enough about humane treatment of animals to stop using them for entertainment. But if we stop doing that, we’d basically have to stop breeding horses. Because horses are bred to be used to their working potential, not to dot a bosky landscape so people can watch them graze, frolic and nibble grass. Some people will only ever want to ride for the fun of it. But most horse lovers are excited by what this glorious animal can actually do. And to find out when they can do, they must compete.
I am betting that if horses could talk, and you polled high-competition horses for their opinion on their fate, they would say — in between bites of the best oats money can buy, standing on their fresh, clean pallets of straw, then being groomed to a lustrous gleam before being taken out for their daily fun canter around the track or through the woods — “Man, this is the life….”