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Disclaimer: These words are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Stampede or its affiliates.

There has been a huge uproar in the media, of late, around the sport of chuckwagon racing. Most of this hullabaloo came as a result of the tragic accident that occurred on the track last week at the Calgary Stampede. Driver Chad Harden lost three of his valued team members; three horses – “members of the family” as he referred to them. It was a sad day for the Hardens and a sad day for the Stampede.

Before I go any further, I want to clear up some facts. Many sites are misrepresenting the details around the accident.

  • FACT: The left lead horse collapsed and died on the track due to natural causes (a ruptured aortic aneurysm, a pre-existing condition that couldn’t have been detected prior to the race)
  • FACT: The collapse of the left lead brought down the rest of the team and, subsequently, the horse and his outrider who were following behind
  • FACT: Two of the horses (right lead and outrider horse) had to be euthanized due to the extent of their injuries
  • FACT: One horse was to undergo surgery and is expected to survive. One is doing just fine.
  • FACT: Chad Harden’s close attention to his team and his expert driving prevented what could have been a much worse on-track disaster.
  • FACT: Yes, the loss of the animals was tragic but no human life was lost. For that, we are all grateful.

I had the opportunity to visit the chuckwagon barns at the Stampede last week and witnessed first-hand how well these magnificent horses are cared for. Chuckwagon drivers spend hours every day with their horses – feeding, grooming, washing and caring for them. They get to know their talents as well as their limitations. They take time to consider who should be positioned as leads or in wheel positions based upon their individual skills. They instinctively know which horses love each other best and, as a result, who would work well together as a team. These horses have incredibly distinct personalities, you can see it in how they relate to humans and to one another. A friend of mine refers to thoroughbreds as the “unruly teenagers”. They are high energy animals, they are athletes and they are always ready to run. That’s what they are born and bred for.

The sport of chuckwagon racing has an extensive history (with the Stampede and beyond) and there are incredibly strong familial links in the chuckwagon community. These people work together, play together and have developed working and sporting protocols that are dedicated to maintaining high standards in the sport and in animal care. And these protocols and standards are constantly improving and evolving. Horses are a chuckwagon driver’s life. I don’t know any cowboy (or cowgirl, for that matter) whose thoughts don’t often return to their horse(s) throughout the day. These people love their horses. They, like all people that bring their animals to the Stampede, care deeply about animal welfare and well-being.

What really burns my britches is when celebrities adopt a cause, push a political agenda (amplified by ego or other personal motivations) and see fit to misrepresent or malign good people and good practices (I see it in agriculture all the time). Flanking her friends at PETA and another Stampede-critic Bob Barker, Pamela Anderson has hit the headlines and airwaves of late, criticizing the sport of chuckwagons and petitioning the Premier of Alberta to ban the sport. This is my letter to her.

Dear Pam:

You stated that horses are “routinely killed” in chuckwagon races. What do you mean by “routinely”? Only 50 horses have died out of an estimated 75,000 at Stampedes in the past 26 years. This number represents ‘a percentage of a percentage of a percentage’ based upon total starts. This number is NOT statistically significant. Just so you know, Pam, more women died in the United States last year (2011) going under the knife for cosmetic surgery. This latter statistic, although relatively higher, is not significant either – so you can rest easy. The practice of cosmetic surgery will carry on.

So, you want the sport of chuckwagon racing banned? Let’s say, Pam – in all your infinite ‘equine wisdom’ – that you are able to somehow shut down the sport. Are you prepared to accept the consequences? Presumably, Pam, you wouldn’t want to see these animals euthanized. If you (and your friends at PETA and we can’t forget Bob Barker, of course) plan to move forward, you better be prepared to make some major investments. These thoroughbreds that are no longer working will require new homes. Yours, perhaps? If so, grab a pen and paper ‘cause this is what you will need:

  1. A minimum of two acres of pasture per animal so that you watch your magnificent creature frolic, prance and nibble grass in the setting sun (cue: elevator music)
  2. You will also have to seed this pasture acreage on occasion in order to sustain it
  3. You will need a truck and trailer to transport your new pet (plus other acreage maintenance equipment)
  4. Hay, on average, will cost ~500$ per horse per year (plus cost of supplements, etc, if you choose)
  5. Vet bills will run you $500-$800 per year at a minimum and that’s with NO accidents or significant health issues (good luck with that)
  6. Hoof trimming will run you at a minimum of $400 per year (if you are tempted to ride your new pet for “your amusement and entertainment” (God forbid), then add on another ~$1000 per year for shoeing)
  7. The horse will require some form of shelter which can cost anywhere from $1000 and up depending upon how extravagant you want to get (don’t forget maintenance costs)
  8. Then there’s fencing which will run you anywhere from $7000 to $10000 (you would want post-and-rail and not barb-wire, correct? Yeah, save the barb-wire for your tattoos).
  9. You will need tack (you will only require a halter and blanket or two but if you plan to ride for “your amusement and entertainment”, you will need a saddle, bridle and other tack) plus some grooming tools. This could easily cost $3000 or $4000.
  10. As this pastoral animal will no longer be a ‘working’ animal, it will not be in top physical condition and its life expectancy will be greatly reduced. It will also be vulnerable to more health issuses. This means higher vet bills (see #5).

Conservatively speaking, we are looking at variable costs of well over $2000 per animal per year and don’t forget your fixed / capital outlay costs for shelter, fencing, land, truck, trailer, equipment, etc (thousands and thousands of dollars). Multiply all this by the number of horses that would be ‘out of a job’ if the sport of chuckwagon racing was banned. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Wow, either way, this is adding up. Perhaps not all will find homes, Pam (imagine that). Then you would have to factor in another $700+ to euthanize, remove and dispose of each horse. Whew. Where are we at now? *franticallytappingcalculator*

In short, political motivations, optics and actions today can carry some serious long term implications, Pam. Although those retired thoroughbreds would look magnificent grazing in your back 10 acres just outside of LA, all that they would end up being is mere ‘eye candy’. Oh wait, that might work for you. Bad argument. At any rate, ‘eye candy’ does not justify the perpetuation of a breed. If these animals don’t work, there is no incentive to breed or raise them. The breed, as we know it, would eventually disappear (AKA “extinction”).

What happened at the chuckwagon races the other day was a tragic accident, Pam. Nothing more. If those horses weren’t out running there, they could have been just as easily running in some pastoral setting somewhere and have broken a leg in a gopher hole. In 2007, my husband and I lost two horses when they got out and were hit by a car (ironically, it was a Mustang). It’s difficult to estimate how many horses (and other animals) die in vehicular mishaps alone. Much of these incidents go unreported. Should we ban cars and trucks as well?

One final note, Pam. Did you know that the sport of chuckwagon racing also operates as a pseudo rescue organization? They adopt ex-race horses. You know – those same horses that you used to watch race every year at the Kentucky Derby until you boycotted the event in 2006. The sport of chuckwagon racing saves literally thousands of thoroughbreds each year from the abattoirs, often extending their lives for ten years or more! …Think about it.

Pam, honey, you have no jurisdiction here. You can no more tell the Stampede – or the Premier, for that matter – to shut down the chucks than any of us can tell you to stop getting cosmetic surgery. Stick to what you know.

Signed,

A meat-eating, leather-boot-shoe-wearing, horse-back-riding, rodeo and chuckwagon-supporting, agriculture enthusiast. :O)

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