Chuckwagon races are well underway at the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” and organizers say they’ve implemented new measures intended to boost the safety of the event.
Calgary Stampede spokesperson Kristina Barnes said the most obvious change will be on the track in the number of wagons.
In previous years, four wagons would compete in each heat — that’s been decreased to three wagons this year.
“That’s the one thing people will notice as they’re watching from the stands and on television,” Barnes said.
Custom-built delineator arms have also been added to the track to create a buffer between the wagons and the rails.
“In the past, people would’ve seen some pylons out on the track. So we’ve replaced those with these arms that slide out for the races,” Barnes said.
“If there is contact between them and a wagon, they are made to swing back and break on the side of the rail. So not a trip hazard, but just to create that extra space on the track.”
The Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races return to this year’s Stampede after missing the past two years — in 2020, after the entire Stampede was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 2021, as organizers cited safety issues.
The chuckwagons have long been controversial among animal rights groups in Canada and the United States.
In 2019, the last time the derby was held, six horses died. That matched the second deadliest toll in the Stampede’s history.
The return of the event led some animal rights groups to push back.
When Kevin Costner was announced as parade marshal for this year’s Stampede, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, called on him to step away, citing the event’s history that reportedly includes the deaths of more than 70 horses over the years.
“Reducing a few of the dangerous aspects of the race is like cutting only one ear off a dog instead of two. It’s better than nothing but not good enough,” PETA said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
“The only way to stop horses from being hurt and from dying is to stop using them, and PETA joins every animal protection organization under the sun, and kind people across Canada, who want these reckless, barbaric races simply to end.”
The Stampede has repeatedly said the safety of animals and people is its No. 1 priority.
“As always, we welcome PETA for a direct discussion regarding our animal care practices,” it previously told CBC News in an email.
Drivers happy to be back
Kris Molle, a professional chuckwagon driver, said he’s excited to be back at the Calgary Stampede, even despite the changes.
“It’s definitely more exciting with four wagons, but it’s definitely going to be more room on the track to manoeuvre,” Molle said. “For safety reasons is the reason why they did it. So try it this year is all we can do.”
Molle said that in his view, chuckwagon races are no different than any sport when it comes to safety.
“You have your incidents. We have to take the precautions necessary to continue to improve to get better and safer. That’s with any sport,” he said.
The Stampede said it is undertaking an effort to do enhanced veterinary inspections, and pointed to ongoing studies at the University of Calgary focused on chuckwagon races.
Researchers at the university are trying to find ways to reduce the chance of horse injuries by studying track conditions and how they impact the hooves and bones of horses while galloping at full speed. Sensors were placed on horses’ hooves, cannon bones and radiuses using saddles fitted with devices to measure data.
Dr. Renaud Léguillette, a veterinary medicine professor at the university, told CBC’s The Homestretch that harder dirt is tougher on bones and joints while softer tracks are harder on tendons and ligaments.
Calgary’s weather changes on a frequent basis, Léguillette said, and that will change conditions.
“I’m really confident that even by next year they will probably do some changes and at least monitor, you know, the hardness of the track and apply some changes on the track as needed,” Léguillette said.
The races this year are scheduled to take place over nine heats per night. Twenty-seven drivers are competing for prize money, along with their 162 horses.