The ‘klaxon’ horn blares loudly, sending 24 horses, four drivers and eight riders into instant motion as they navigate the figure-eight around two barrels and then straighten out onto the track in what has become known as the ‘half mile of hell’.

For its fans, chuckwagon racing is an adrenaline-rush, filled with visual and auditory excitement. The GMC Rangeland Derby at the Calgary Stampede outsells the rodeo itself; in 2014 a total of 172,000 spectators attended the Derby, which runs nightly for all 10 days of the Stampede. For those who oppose it, chuckwagon racing is a dangerous activity that jeopardizes the welfare of horses. There are many people, both within the horse community and beyond, who would like to see the history books finally close on chuckwagon racing for good.

There is no more polarizing event in all of horse sport in Canada than chuckwagon racing. Emotions run high on both sides; but as is the case with most controversies, it’s not a simple matter of right or wrong. The more one understands the complex issues, the less clear it becomes whether chuckwagon racing is a legitimate remnant of Western heritage, or a hell race that should be banned forever.

The Original Food Trucks

When the West opened up in the 19th Century, chuckwagons were a common sight across the prairies, bringing food to far flung cowboys across western Canada and the US. The ‘chuck’ in chuckwagon referred to the food that the wagons carried, along with cooking supplies, a stove and a simple tent structure to shelter the ‘cookie’, the man in charge of the wagon. The image of a canvas-covered wagon is woven deeply into the pioneer history of western North America.

The origin of chuckwagon racing is less clear. According to the Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association (CPCA) website, racing is as much a part of the chuckwagon’s history as its provisioning duties. At the end of a work week out on the prairie, cowboys would pack up their chuckwagons and converge at the nearest saloon. “The last one in would have to buy the first round at the saloon, so the cowboys would be anxious to load up and head out. A fast team and efficient packing were the name of the game, and still are in today’s races.”

This story has not been historically substantiated, though it does explain why modern chuckwagon races include the loading of a rubber container at the start of the race as a stand-in for the historic stove. Whether or not the CPCA’s version is accurate, one firm historical fact is that the first formal chuckwagon race took place at the 1923 Calgary Stampede. Guy Weadick had founded the Stampede 11 years earlier, and he was responsible for the creation of the sport.

Note that with all the various historical theories about chuckwagon racing, curiously absent is the idea that Greek and Roman chariot racing may have served as the inspiration. Chariot racing was one of the main events at the Ancient Olympics. Chariots were pulled by four horses and the sport was legendary for being dangerous to animals and drivers alike.

Chuckwagon racing quickly became a popular spectator draw at the Stampede; over the next 50 years, the sport became more organized, with rules, racing circuits and formal associations. The sport has evolved into an almost entirely western Canadian phenomenon, though there are small numbers of races held in Ontario and in a couple of parts of the U.S. Two separate associations, the CPCA and the World Professional Chuckwagon Association, grew out of different geographical areas, but today their territories overlap and converge at the highlight of the chuckwagon racing year, the Rangeland Derby at the Stampede.

Repurposing Racehorses

There was a time before Thoroughbreds were the breed of choice for chuckwagon racing, but nowadays chuckwagon horses come exclusively from that gene pool. They are also virtually 100 per cent geldings. Brian Laboucane drove chuckwagons for more than 40 years before retiring in 2014 due to having reached the driver age limit of 65. He said even if he saw a mare that would make a good chuckwagon horse, he wouldn’t buy it. “We used to use mares, but when they start cycling [go into heat] it disrupts all the geldings. And if you are going to sell horses, no one else uses mares so there would be no one to sell them to.” Mares have a better after-market from the racetrack as well, since they often go back into breeding programs. Geldings have much less chance of surviving retirement from the track, and their generally low prices reflect a limited market value.

Dr. Gordon Atkins is the chair of the Calgary Stampede Chuckwagon Committee and a long-time veterinarian for chuckwagon horses. When asked if chuckwagon racing is saving horses from the slaughter house, his reply is unequivocal. “Absolutely. These horses are bred to run, which doesn’t make them great pleasure horses,” he explained. “There is a limited opportunity for them to move into other activities that will prolong their lives. Those that make good chuckwagon horses begin a whole new career. Many will race until upwards of 17 or 18 years old. They have 10 to 15 years of new careers.”

A gelding purchased from the racetrack for chuckwagon racing usually costs between $1,500 and $5,000, according to Dr. Atkins. A chuckwagon horse’s value can dramatically increase once the horse has proven itself. A record price of over $90,000 was paid for the horse of a driver who auctioned off his team upon retirement a couple of years ago. Two other of his horses sold for $80,000.

Laboucane, who comes from the northern Saskatchewan town of St. Walburg, spends a lot of time at the race track when he’s shopping for horses. Not surprisingly, the qualities he looks for in prospective chuckwagon horses are an intelligent temperament and strong physical substance. “Height isn’t as important as horses that are a bit thicker bodied and easier keepers,” he said. “We start training them the first of April and start racing at the end of May. They are racing and being hauled somewhere every weekend.” Horses with more bone and bigger hooves are also likelier to stand up to the rigors of chuckwagon racing.

Contrary to the beliefs of many who oppose chuckwagon racing, the horses are not treated as if they were disposable. Drivers invest considerable time and money into developing their teams. Laboucane, who likes to buy his horses between the ages of four to seven, expects to spend a year training them before they become consistent chuckwagon horses. He estimates that of all the horses he has bought and trained over the years, a minimum of 10 per cent didn’t turn out as chuckwagon horses. “Some will develop as lead horses, and if they don’t work there they will work as wheel horses. And if they don’t turn out to be good in either of those positions, we can make outriding horses out of them.” Critics of chuckwagon racing often fail to appreciate that the health of chuckwagon horses is a top priority for most drivers. “Races are won and lost on hundredths of a second,” said Laboucane. “In order to perform the horses have to be well taken care of. They are top level athletes.”

Dr. Atkins, who has spent 37 of his 42 years as a vet involved with chuckwagon horses – in both a regulatory role at races and delivering vet services – says that the sport’s detractors often don’t have much of an understanding about how well the horses are managed. “Most of those people are ill-informed. They don’t really appreciate the great care, concern and wonderful management that goes into training and preparing these horses.”

A driver like Laboucane would typically start out in the spring with between 25 and 30 horses, most of which would be expected to have chuckwagon careers of at least 10 years. “I could count on one hand the number of horses I’ve had to put down in 45 years of racing,” said Laboucane. But with that number of horses to feed, shoe, deworm and keep fit, however, few of them retire to lives of leisure after their chuckwagon careers are over. “The majority end up going to the meat plant,” said Laboucane.

Lightning Rod

The high profile and extensive media coverage at the Stampede has been a double edged sword for chuckwagon racing, and for several other events that humane societies have identified as cruel, such as steer wrestling and calf roping. But the Stampede is big business, and chuckwagon racing is a major contributor to the bottom line. From $275 in prize money offered by Weadick in 1923, the GMC Rangeland Derby currently awards a total of $1.15 million each year. Every spring an event known as the tarp or canvas auction raises an impressive sum when sponsors vie for advertising space on a preferred driver’s wagon. The 2015 canvas auction raised almost $2.8 million. “The proceeds of the auction are split, with 80 per cent going to the drivers to pay for transportation, feed, animal care, etc. and 20 per cent to the Calgary Stampede,” explained Kurt Kadatz, the Stampede’s director of Community Engagement and Communications.

All that bidding for canvas space gives some idea how many eyes are on the chuckwagons at the Stampede, both in the stands and through the media. The races aren’t cheap entertainment, either. Ticket prices for an evening at the chuckwagon races start at $56 and go as high as $129 for the best seats. Even if the average ticket price were near the bottom of that range at $70, a turn out like the 172,000 spectators in 2014 would generate more than $12-million in ticket sales for the Stampede.

Peter Fricker, the projects and communications director for the Vancouver Humane Society, is one of the stronger voices speaking out against chuckwagon racing. The Vancouver Humane Society is actively working to eradicate the inhumane use of animals at rodeos. One of the Society’s recent victories was the decision by the Cloverdale Rodeo (B.C.) in 2007 to drop four events that were identified as inhumane. Fricker said the Cloverdale Rodeo, one of the bigger rodeos in Canada, did not experience a drop in spectators after eliminating those four events. He believes Cloverdale sets an example of how dropping controversial events can actually attract more visitors. “Some people believed it would be the end for Cloverdale,” he said, “but it continues to attract record crowds. Families go to these events for a lot of other reasons, such as the country fair aspect. When we look at all the things that take place at the Stampede we believe it would carry on and remain successful without events like chuckwagon racing.”

In response to negative pressure that spikes every time a chuckwagon horse is killed at the Stampede, the Stampede produced a fatality statistic along the same lines as those produced annually by the Jockey Club. The number the Stampede produced was the following: in 78,440 starts in chuckwagon races over 28 years there were 61 fatalities, which is a rate of 0.78 per 1,000 starts. (If one takes just the past five years – 2010 to 2014, a period in which 13 horses died at Stampede chuckwagon races – the fatality rate is higher, at 1.1 per 1,000 starts.)

Compared with Thoroughbred flat racing, whose fatality rates the Jockey Club reported as 1.89 per 1,000 starts in 2014, that number is relatively low. But there is one factor that makes these numbers something of an ‘apples and oranges’ comparison. Thoroughbreds on the track race once every week or two. A chuckwagon horse at the Stampede is permitted to race as many as eight times in the 10 days of races. In other words, 1,000 starts in Stampede chuckwagon racing involves considerably fewer horses than 1,000 flat racing starts. A more meaningful number would be the fatality rate per horse, and not per start. Chuckwagon horses would almost certainly fare worse than horses on the track in such a comparison.

Mitigating Risk

The position of the Vancouver Humane Society is not that the horses used in chuckwagon racing are subjected to cruelty in the way that a terrified and lassoed calf is. Fricker said it has to do with undue risk. A similar sentiment is echoed by the much less assertive Calgary Humane Society, whose spokesperson, Sage Pullen McIntosh, said that the Society takes only a general position on the Stampede at this time. “The Calgary Humane Society is opposed to the use of animals in any form of entertainment that puts the animal at risk of suffering stress, pain, injury, or death,” she said. Pullen McIntosh was anxious to distance the Society from a position paper it produced in 2003, in which a number of recommendations were made regarding the Stampede’s chuckwagon racing. The recommendations included adding a second driver to each wagon to reduce the chance of a runaway team, and to halve the number of horses pulling each wagon from four to two. The rationale behind the reduced number of horses in the team is that when a horse goes down, fewer others would be put at risk. The position paper made only vague reference to the fact that having only two horses pull a wagon would necessitate modifications to the wagon size and design in order not to put even more stress on the horses. Unfortunately for opponents of chuckwagon racing, the accusation that they fail to fully understand the sport is reinforced by recommendations made without evidence of thorough research.

The Vancouver Humane Society’s current position on chuckwagon racing is not to push for its immediate removal, but to conduct a thorough review. “Our current position is a call for the Stampede to establish an independent panel of experts to conduct a review of the event to see if it can be made safer,” said Fricker.

The Stampede management are clearly not planning to drop chuckwagon racing from the schedule, but that doesn’t mean they have ignored the complaints. In 2011, the number of outriders was reduced from the traditional four per wagon to two, in order to reduce congestion on the track and, therefore, risk of injuries. Dr. Atkins has been part of a rigorous ‘fitness to compete’ program, which has been implemented at the Stampede. The program is focused on safety and horse welfare. A total of 216 horses will race every night during the nine heats of the Rangeland Derby (there are four teams per heat). All of them undergo a veterinary inspection that includes trotting up for soundness. “With that many horses, we have to have a good horse ID program,” said Dr. Atkins. “All the horses are microchipped and scanned into the system every evening before racing. To my knowledge it’s the only racing jurisdiction where all horses are microchipped.”

The microchip ID helps race management keep track of which horses are racing, so that any horse that has raced for four consecutive days (including outrider horses) is sure to get the mandatory two rest days before racing again. The microchipping also aids in tracking the results of drug tests. Random testing is done before races, as well as afterward. Testing is done pre-race for a practice known as ‘milkshaking’, which involves giving a horse baking soda to reduce the build-up of lactic acid. Horses are also tested for performance enhancing drugs after races. Drivers are tested for drugs and alcohol. There is no .05 threshold, either. It’s zero tolerance.

There are two main causes of wrecks in chuckwagon racing: catastrophic injuries – such as a broken leg or a cardiac event – and equipment failure. When wagons are weighed (they must weigh at least 1,325lbs with the driver), they are also inspected for safety. As for the risk of a horse causing a wreck through injury, Kadatz pointed out that there is risk inherent in all horse-related activities. “There is always risk of injury. We recognize that people have differing views on how society interacts with animals – all kinds of working animals. We understand that what is acceptable to most people is unacceptable to others. We do believe we are working hard to minimize the risk.” The Stampede takes a poll every year in order to learn whether the event is supported by the community. “We ask subjects a series of questions about animals participating in various competition, exhibition and education events and then have a blended result of those who agree,” said Kadatz. “Our research shows about 83 per cent of Calgarians agree it is acceptable for animals to participate in competition, exhibition and education programs at the Calgary Stampede.”

Where Do You Draw Your Line?

It doesn’t take much research to understand a few basic truths about chuckwagon racing. Its participants, for the most part, care for their horses to a standard that most horse owners would deem acceptable. The community of chuckwagon racing is a closely knit one, with multiple generations of men following in their fathers’ footsteps as drivers; entire families spend months on the road together in a shared purpose. A horse that is picked up off-the-track to become a chuckwagon horse is probably eluding an early trip to the slaughter house, but that same horse will very likely get there eventually, once its chuckwagon racing career is over. Chuckwagon racing is a high risk activity for the horses, higher than most other equestrian activities. But it’s still less lethal than flat racing. And as long as the racing industry continues to produce thousands of horses into the marketplace after their racing careers have ended, chuckwagon racing remains viable.

When asked why the Vancouver Humane Society has not targeted Thoroughbred racing, Fricker said the Society doesn’t have the resources to tackle such a large adversary. If, as one might argue, flat racing is worse on welfare standards than chuckwagon racing, why would one focus on chuckwagon racing? Public pressure is one factor, but there is another more philosophical reason: the Vancouver Humane Society takes an absolute view of what is right or wrong when it comes to the treatment of animals. If it can successfully put pressure on a group with the result that fewer animals are harmed, the cause must be pursued, even if the target group is not the worst offender.

There are people who believe that horses should not be ridden, should not have bits in their mouths, and should not be imprisoned in box stalls. From that extreme view is a long path through levels of acceptance to chuckwagon racing. Everyone involved with horses sits somewhere on that scale. Few people are in the position to take an absolute position like the humane societies. The important thing is to make sure that when we take a position for or against chuckwagon racing, that our position is consistent with what we do and approve in other equestrian activities.