Historically, there’s no shortage of negative press surrounding equine deaths during the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon races. Whether having to be euthanized due to catastrophic injury or horses succumbing to heart attacks, every July the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” loses equines during this particular competition.

As the Calgary Stampede continues this week and runs until July 14, some new research out of the University of Calgary (U of C) faculty of veterinary medicine is trying to prevent horse fatalities through research and meaningful change.

“We are working with the Calgary Stampede on improving the safety of chuckwagon horses,” said Renaud Léguillette, a profession at U of C, at a Stampede media event.

He told reporters that his team developed a test that measures how a horse’s heart muscle copes with the effort of the races, “then we can red-flag a horse that would have a little bit more cardiac stress,” he explained.

A portion of the testing and research is being conducted at the university’s W.A. Ranches, a 19,000-acre working research ranch about 30 kilometres northwest of Calgary. The program is in its third year, after two successful pilot years.

According to Léguillette, ahead of this year’s Stampede these heart tests were performed on all of the chuckwagon horses. “The vast majority of these horses are doing really well in terms of fitness, preparation, cardiac stress,” he said at the news conference. “We are really looking for the needle in the haystack, the very, very few horses that may be in trouble. Those are like a handful out of the 500 samples we do. My interest is really helping the horses do well in the races.”

It may come as a surprise to Horse Canada readers to know that previously, animals who competed at rodeos, including the Stampede did not have access to water before or after their turn in the ring. Instead, they were hauled back to whatever ranch or farm they came from to be watered there. This was one practice that animal welfare professor and director of W.A. Ranches Ed Pajor wanted to study and change.

“We asked the Stampede if we could test providing animals with water, would they actually use the water?”, Pajor told the CBC. “It turns out that after the event, they all take a drink, and now the Stampede, all the pens that hold animals after the events, all have water available.”

The Calgary Humane Society, perhaps not surprisingly, wants to see more dramatic changes to how rodeo all rodeo animals are treated.

“Calgary Humane Society fundamentally opposes high-risk rodeo events like chuckwagon racing, calf roping and steer wrestling, as historically they result in the highest number of animal injuries and deaths,” director of public relations, Anna-Lee Fitzsimmons, said in an email statement to CBC. “While other organizations may wish to intervene to change rodeo and the Calgary Stampede through protest or other advocacy means, CHS has found it can best protect the interests of the animals involved by working with organizations that put on such events.”

For his part Léguillette welcomes all parties to weigh in on how to protect the animals. “Those horses are prepared almost like Olympic athletes. They have diet programs, fitness programs, training programs, and they are monitored very closely,” he said to the pubcaster. “They monitor their tendons, legs, ligaments, joints, cardiac and respiratory. So they are really like athletes in a serious training program.”

He also noted that the U of C research is unique and has been picked up by other horse sports including the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which is developing its own cardiac program.

“What we hope to do is develop the tools this year and then use it next year to evaluate new animal-welfare assessments,” Pajor added. “We will look at a number of behavioural indicators the animals demonstrate, environments they are kept in, how they are moved, injuries and health statuses of the animals.”

(Ed. note) Despite the new measures, two chuckwagon race horses had to be euthanized because of injuries sustained on opening weekend.