It has happened again. Three horses were euthanized on the backstretch at the Calgary Stampede after the fourth chuckwagon race on Thursday evening of the Rangeland Derby series. All sides have wade in on the controversy pro and con as to whether or not the races should continue. There are always two sides to every story and somewhere in between lies a truth or solution. It is not an east versus west, or animal rights versus drivers and owners.It is much more complicated that than. The heart of these tragedies is of course the horse; the true victim.There is an old adage - "speed kills" and I believe from a personal viewpoint that that is the precursory factor leading to these untimely deaths.
The light built Thoroughbred has replaced the more common homebred heavier horses that were used to pull these wagons when chuckwagons rolled over the grasslands during roundups. Thoroughbred race horses off the track provide the speed that ultimately adds to the excitement for fans watching these swift horses pour their heart out on the track as their drivers compete for big dollars. This latest incident was literally that. The lead horse died of a ruptured aorta.
Some may justify their actions by stating that by harnessing off-track race horses they are saving them from a worse fate, i.e. the slaughterhouse. It is a sad truth that Thoroughbreds are quite disposable when their careers have ended. However, the demands of the racetrack is just as hard on these horses with the added burden of making sharp tight barrel racing turns right out of the starting gate. Then they are straining against the harness to pull weight which they are not intended to do. Run fast yes, but pull a heavy wagon and be tethered to another competitive horse fighting for the lead - no. I surmise it is a recipe for disaster.
In recent interviews, many owners admit to purchasing these horses off the track for little money. Other ex-race horses come with bowed tendons and other maladies that seem acceptable under the guidelines of race ready. Age is not considered either. The lead horse that died was 18 years old. That is old for any equine athlete regardless of breed, especially an ex-racer. They have endured extreme physical demands on their once immature bodies when they raced as youngsters; a serious assault on a young growing horse.
Horses are one of the most courageous animals on earth. They will push themselves past pain and limit to do what is asked of them. I've witness this so many times. It still amazes and humbles me.
In defense of the owners, I feel that they do take great pride in the care and condition of their horses. Sometimes the thrill of the race, cheers from the fans and the tempting large purse to the winner overshadows caution and reason. With so many deaths in this event each year it begs to question why?