Bucking horse research finds that handler behaviour matters

K’s Thomson of Lundbreck, Alta., rides Ambitious Bubbles in the saddle bronc event at this year’s Calgary Stampede. A three-year study found that horses’ behaviour in the chute isn’t connected to their performance in the ring. | Reuters/Todd Korol photo

Over the years I’ve spent as a competitor and observer of rodeos, it seemed evident that the mature campaigner broncs were generally calm, loaded well into the chutes and stood for their equipment and rider, while the green stock were more likely to balk, head toss and kick.

New research from the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine led by Dr. Ed Pajor and research assistant Dr. Christy Goldhawk looked at these behaviours among bucking horses.

The study, published this year in the scientific journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, was also co-authored by notable animal welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin.

The researchers studied 116 bucking horses at the annual Calgary Stampede rodeo for three years in the novice bareback, novice saddle bronc, bareback and saddle bronc events.

Horses were recorded by video as they moved from holding pens into holding chutes and then into the bucking chutes adjacent to the arena. The researchers scored each horse for specific behaviours that included balking (refusing to move forward or turning away), charging, kicking or running into a gate or fence.

At the same time, the behaviour of handlers was evaluated as they moved the horses from pens into holding chutes, noting waving of arms/paddles, hitting animals or the fence, swinging gates into animals and using their voice or whistling to encourage movement.

Once in the bucking chutes, horses were assessed for behaviours such as moving back and forth in the chute, pawing, kicking, head tossing, rearing and bucking.

Researchers also recorded the number of performances and years a horse had bucked, age and how high they scored in the performance independent of the cowboy’s score.

There were several key results from this study. First, slightly more than 70 percent of all horses balked during loading with nearly 40 percent balking more than once.

Handler behaviour seemed to have an important effect on balking. Most of the time when a horse balked (84 percent), there was a person standing in front of the line of movement (outside the chute system) where the horse needed to go. There were also more balking events when there were more than four handlers.

A second key result was that experience appears to matter. When a horse had attended three or fewer performances, they were significantly more likely to balk. They were also more likely to have a high behaviour score while in the bucking chute (exhibiting more behaviours such as pawing, tail swishing, kicking).

Put another way, the experienced bucking horses balked less often and were less reactive in the bucking chute. Most reactions in the bucking chute were in response to tack placement (putting on halters, bareback rigging, saddle, flank strap).

There was no association between how high the horses scored during the performance with any of the behaviours noted. Horses that loaded well and stood calmly in the bucking chute bucked just as well as those that balked and had increased reactions.

The researchers suggest that this is a positive indication to continue pursuing ways to improve welfare and training of horses used in rodeos since it doesn’t seem to affect their performance but may improve their welfare.

The researchers propose that reducing the number of handlers could have a positive effect on horses by reducing balking. They also concluded that horses appear to learn from prior experience.

Professional rodeo organizations such as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association have published animal welfare standards. But thoughtful scientific studies such as this one have been lacking, which limits the evidence to back these standards and make informed decisions to improve welfare. The Calgary Stampede study brings scientific rigor to improve welfare of horses at rodeos. Knowledge and best practices derived from work at such a razzle-dazzle study site could permeate all levels of rodeo competition from the pro ranks down to youth rodeos.

What comes next? While not my particular area of research, I suspect that scientifically assessing the role of training to improve the experience of bucking horses would yield interesting results. What effect would positive reinforcement training have on these animals, particularly around movement into chutes and when tack is placed? Perhaps in the next few years we’ll see more results like this to inform best practices at rodeos.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger, DVM, MVetSc, PhD, DACVP, is a veterinarian who practices pathology and is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
Twitter: @JRothenburger

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