Researchers check for signs of stress in rodeo animals

Researchers recently watched rodeo animals for signs of stress before, during and after performances.  |  File photo

LEDUC, Alta. — Events like the Calgary Stampede are often criticized for the treatment of rodeo animals, so to help quell the complaints Stampede officials have invited University of Calgary researchers to see what goes on behind the chutes.

The focus is on the 10-day rodeo but the use of animals for display, performance and competition happens year round on the grounds, said Ed Pajor, animal welfare researcher at the university.

“If we are going to use animals for any purpose whether it is companionship or these events, we have an obligation to make sure that we take good care of them and make sure they are treated well,” he said at the Alberta Farm Animal Care annual meeting held in Leduc March 22.

The Stampede approached Pajor and a team of graduate students to monitor activities and help develop a welfare program for the livestock appearing there.

The research team has assessed animal treatment when loading, care in holding pens and during performances. It is the first time this kind of research has been conducted anywhere.

Pajor is also part of a four member animal care advisory panel that meets regularly with Stampede executives.

In recent years, the Stampede has developed a code of practice and rules for each event and 10 veterinarians are on site throughout the 10 days to evaluate animals for soundness.

A signed code of conduct is part of stock contractors’ contracts, and Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization auditors are also present to provide a third party opinion of the events and facilities.

In his research, Pajor wanted to know if performance animals liked the activities. He also observed their behaviour before and after events.

“Owners tell me their animals like to perform. I don’t know whether that is true or not but they tell me it is,” he said. “That is a question I really want to understand. However, it is very difficult to actually understand if animals like to do something or are motivated to do it.

“It is tricky from a scientific situation in an uncontrollable situation like a live rodeo.”

Certain behaviours in bucking bulls and horses can be observed. For example, rolling eyes, tail flicking, defecation and kicking indicate stress but the researchers did not see that.

Infrared thermography was also used to measure increased eye temperature, which occurs when an animal is upset. They noticed novice animals showed higher eye temperatures or stress than experienced horses.

“I thought I was going to see them very agitated prior to the performance. That is not what I saw. We saw animals that were pretty calm,” he said.

They also observed handlers’ behaviour during loading or unloading. Nothing adverse was witnessed. Animals seemed to be calm, cool, collected.

However, Pajor questioned whether the animals were exhibiting learned helplessness, in which they give up because they are habituated to the treatment and do not respond because they have no choice.

“What we are not seeing is a whole bunch of crazy animals in the chutes before the event,” he said.

The Stampede rodeo stock tended to be shy around people because they spend most of their time on pasture at the Stampede ranch in Hanna.

“We felt that was having more of an impact because when there weren’t people around they were fine. When people came around they started to get a little more agitated.”

Other work is ongoing with chuck wagon horses that receive thorough fitness examinations before a race. This includes a heart exam.

A blood sample may contain a biomarker that shows muscle damage to the heart and that horse is not allowed to race.

The Stampede has made changes to event rules to protect animals regardless of the cost or inconvenience, said Christina Barnes, who works for the Stampede communications team.

“Everyone is watching and that means you have to do the right thing and you have to be seen to be doing it,” she said.

About 7,500 animals are on the park during the fair when more than a million people visit. This may be the only interaction they ever have with farm animals, she said.

Structural changes have been made to equipment, event rules were changed and codes of conduct must be signed.

New steel panels were installed at the chutes to prevent animals’ feet from getting caught.

Barrel racing and tie-down roping rules were also changed for the benefit of the animals. Other rodeos are starting to make similar changes based on what the Stampede has done she said.

“We have zero tolerance for any preventable injury,” she said.

In the past, nothing was checked so benchmarks are being created now to see if improvements for animals and equipment are real.

The stampede has created a YouTube video about rodeo myths and facts that can be seen at

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