Friday, July 10, 2015

About Horses Dying During Chuckwagon Races

As of July 12 a total of four horses have died as the result of chuckwagon racing during the Calgary Stampede, including a three year old horse.  I live in Alberta and have many chuckwagon families in the area, but want to tell the full story of chuckwagon racing and the risk to the horses.

I saw many comments to posts on Facebook and most of these comments contained some errors in thinking that I wanted to clear up as well.

First of all chuckwagon races are not really based on cowboy history but were created specifically for entertainment; the first race was held in 1923 at the Calgary Stampede.  In a race the chuckwagons are pulled by four horses, and each chuckwagon racing team also has two outriders (it used to be four outriders) who load the wagon before the driver takes it on a course, the riders then mount their horses and race too.  As such each "team" consists of 3 people and 6 horses.

Since 1986 at least 50 horses have died (or been euthanized) in relationship to the chuckwagon races.
2009 chuckwagon race at the Calgary Stampede

On the Facebook post following the most recent death one of the most common comments was people saying "Horses break legs running in the wild too".  I want to point out that this is true, but there is really no comparison.  In the wild horses rarely run at full speed.  They are more likely to walk, trot, or canter.  They are not forced to run in the situation that they are presented with during any type of race.  Wild horses tend to be extremely surefooted and because they are outside all the time their bone density is much better than most domestic horses, particularly those that are stabled a lot.

I have also seen comments about the fact that the horses are having fun and doing what they were bred to do.  Yes this is true to some extent, but horses at play (having fun) do not race each other as they do when they are being exploited purely for human entertainment.

Another comment was that the media loves it when there are crashes and injuries to horses in chuckwagon races but why don't they also show crashes at Spruce Meadows (a popular show jumping facility also in Calgary).  In truth they do show crashes that occur in show jumping events during the broadcast of that event, but the news rarely covers these crashes because typically no horses are killed (although the crashes can be spectacular to watch).  Show jumping horses suffer fewer injuries because they are not running at full speed, only one horse is on the course at a time, and these horses are not often ridden until they are 4 years of age, as such their legs are not subjected to stress early on.  

As for the care of the chuckwagon horses in general, I will say that most are cared for better than your typical thoroughbred race horse.  Most thoroughbred race horses (in North America) are kept stabled for weeks at a time, with only an hour or two out of their stalls every day, this causes bone density problems which makes a leg break more likely.  Chuckwagon horses are stabled a lot while at the track but most have time outdoors when back at their farms.

Do the owners of chuckwagon horses love their horses?  Yes, probably more so than the owners of most thoroughbred race horses for whom the horse is not really a part of their life in general but something they own to show off and have fun with.  Many thoroughbred race horse owners could not even pick their horse out from a group of horses in the field.  They do not know how to clean a hoof, and do not really have much contact with their horses.  Chuckwagon drivers, on the other hand, are usually actual horsemen that have a passion for equine sport.  To them the horses are part of their lives, but not necessarily "pets". 

In some cases the chuckwagon horses are horses that were rejected from the regular racetrack and would have been sent to slaughter had the chuckwagon drivers not purchased them.

For sure I do feel these races are putting horses at risk, and certainly the risk is greater than they would face in the wild, or if they were just pleasure riding horses.  I think it is ignorant to deny that there is a risk.   Horse racing in general is very risky as it pushes horses to their extremes.  You can decide for yourself if you want to watch these races or not.

Please note as well that when a horse breaks its leg it is not a simple fix.  They can recover but only with a lot of time and high expense, for most owners the expense is just too high for a horse that might not race again. 


  1. Is there a statistic on horse injuries, notably, broken legs or fatalities?
    Wag and Walk

  2. Is there a statistic on horse injuries, notably, broken legs or fatalities?
    Wag and Walk