Ever wonder if a bucking bronco enjoys its “job”? A new study out of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine wanted to find out. The results were published in January 2021 in a paper entitled, “Effect of animal’s experience and rodeo procedures on behaviour of bucking horses at a large commercial rodeo in Canada,” with the conclusion that horses with more “ring” experience displayed less reactive behaviours than newbie broncs.

The main author of the study is Dr. Ed Pajor, PhD, professor at UCVM, the Anderson-Chisholm Chair of Animal Behaviour and Welfare, the director of W.A. Ranches and a member of the Calgary Stampede’s Animal Care Advisory Panel. He and his two co-authors, Dr. Christy Goldhawk, a research associate at UCVM, and Dr. Temple Grandin, a globally-recognized animal welfare expert and professor of animal science at Colorado State University (fun fact: Claire Danes played Grandin in a self-titled biopic), had a single question to answer; “Do animals find participation in rodeos aversive?”

It’s a question that many horse people would like to know about any of the sports and events we train our animals to partake in, from a pony hunter to a race horse: do they really enjoy competition? Or at least, not hate it or us for making them do what we ask?

“It was a challenging question to answer,” says Pajor in an interview on the UC website. “It required observing the behaviours of competition horses over three years during the Stampede rodeo. We were lucky to have an expert like Temple who could help provide us insight into this question, as well as a partner like the Stampede that was willing to give us unfettered access to their animals and events.”

He adds that the Stampede was transparent and open in giving researchers access to the animals behind the scenes. As for the answer to the question, his co-author, Goldhawk, put it simply, “Horses with more exposure to a rodeo environment showed less signs of aversiveness than those that were less experienced.”

The authors want to make it clear that they could not know definitively if the lack of aversiveness displayed by more experienced horses was because they had grown used to the “job” or just resigned to their lot in life. However, Goldhawk comments that she noted a definite calmness in the horses.

“We found that most of the areas where animals do show signs of discomfort can be easily changed,” says Goldhawk. “For example, we know they often avoid tight spaces with lots of people — their behaviours show that. We made recommendations in our paper for how those areas can be modified to make the animals feel more secure.”

The tight spaces that the study observed were the chutes leading to the rodeo ring where horses are tacked up and then the chutes where they are mounted. These spaces also had multiple human handlers which increased reactivity such as balking, head tossing, tail switching and other behaviours associated with discomfort.

This type of “decreased reactivity with increased experience” is also noted in sport horses in dressage and show jumping, something that researchers say goes hand-in-hand with training the horses for these activities.

Of course there is another theory that “reduced behavioural reactivity with increased experience” isn’t training and experience, but what scientists and behaviorists call “learned helplessness,” which according to the definition in the UCVM paper is “a psychological condition whereby individuals learn they have no control over unpleasant or harmful conditions…no clear association between behaviour and outcome…(which) is likely to interfere with learning and performance – in addition to compromising welfare.

“The end result of learned helplessness is a horse with a motivational deficit to respond to stimuli, cognitive deficit for performance, and an emotional deficit similar to depression and/or withdrawal seen in humans. Learned helplessness is often associated with a decrease in both spontaneous behaviour and responsiveness to environmental stimuli.”

However, the Calgary Stampede rodeo bucking horses observed in the study displayed both spontaneous behaviours (no association with observed activity) and reactivity associated with environmental stimuli, something which the authors state is inconsistent with learned helplessness.

So while the results lean towards the horses not experiencing learned helplessness, that doesn’t prove they enjoy bucking in a stadium. “An animal might be getting excited to perform. Or an animal might be having a fear response,” Dr. Pajor told the CBC. “Understanding if animals like to do something is a tricky thing to do.”

He also told the media outlet that he gets that people are divided on the issue of rodeos and the use of animals in them. “People have very strong opinions on the use of animals for all kinds of reasons. I think no matter what we’re going to use animals for, we really need to make sure that we treat them humanely,” he added. “My job is to do the research to understand the animals’ perspective.”