Article originally published in the Daily Hive.
The Calgary Stampede’s 100th anniversary of chuckwagon racing is getting a lot of attention this year, with commemorations of those 100 years being splashed across the Stampede website.
A book on the centennial was even published in March. The mood is downright celebratory.
But here’s something no one is proud to commemorate: more than 100 animals have died at the Calgary Stampede since the Vancouver Humane Society started tracking fatalities in 1986. Nearly three-quarters of those were horses used in the chuckwagon races.
The prospect of another 100 years of horse fatalities is certainly not worth celebrating.
The chuckwagon races are the most popular, and by far the most deadly, animal event at the Calgary Stampede. Event organizers and participants are well aware that any given race could quickly turn fatal in an event openly deemed the “Half-Mile of Hell,” as accidents are inevitable.
In fact, in the last two decades, there have only been three years in which the races did not result in horse fatalities: 2003, 2004, and 2016.
According to Stan Church, the chuckwagon safety commissioner of the Stampede in 2015, that risk has long been a draw for crowds. “A lot of people were disappointed if at least one wagon didn’t roll over” in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he said.
The thrill of the risk seems to continue to entice many. In fact, a disturbing pattern has emerged in recent years: each time organizers introduce a small change to improve the races’ safety in response to mass casualty events, those changes are vocally opposed by participants.
Reacting to a change that limited the number of wagons on the track for safety reasons, an anonymous veteran driver confided to the Calgary Sun, “I’m going to tell you, it’s boring watching three wagons compared to four wagons.”
The change came in response to the deaths of six horses in 2019. Safety is clearly not a top priority for all those involved in this sport.
Sadly, despite minor safety changes, horses continue to die in pain and fear nearly every year. That’s because changes to the number of horses and examinations of the track, while well-intentioned, fail to address the inherent dangers of the event: the fast pace, the close proximity of horses and wagons, and the fragile skeletal structure of the thoroughbred horses who are used, the latter of which has been the subject of criticism from animal scientist Temple Grandin.
Thankfully, the tide of public opinion seems to be turning on the use of animals in entertainment events like the Calgary Stampede. Sixty-one per cent of Canadians and 49% of Albertans are opposed to the use of animals in rodeo, compared to 29% and 40% in favour, respectively.
A Research Co. poll conducted during last year’s Stampede revealed the removal of the rodeo and chuckwagon events from the Calgary Stampede program would have virtually no impact on attendance rates.
The poll found that 64% of Calgarians asked indicated that they had attended or were likely to attend the Stampede last year, while 63% indicated they would be likely to attend without the inclusion of the rodeo or chuckwagon races.
What’s more, polling results indicated that the removal of controversial animal events would pique the interest of new crowds, with 24% of non-attendees from last year expressing interest in attending a Stampede free of rodeos and chuckwagons.
Without including the suffering of animals, the Stampede could truly become the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth by highlighting the vibrant arts and culture of Calgary and beyond, bringing people together with festivities all Canadians can be proud to claim as a major national event.