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Rodeo Horses
 By Winniefield Park   •   25th Jul 2018   •   2,125 views   •   0 comments


The Calgary Stampede has just ended as I write this, and although its promoters claim it is the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”, the controversies around the rights of the animals performing always swirl. Those controversies haven’t seemed to dampen the spirits of the people who attended that Stampede. This year’s event attracted 1,271,241, attendees, up more than 56,000 from 2017’s show, and exceeded only by the centennial Stampede held in 2012.

But not everyone is so enthusiastic. One Canadian humane society called the Stampede ‘a spectacle of animal abuse’. Most of the outcry has been against competitions like calf roping and other chasing and roping sports, and chuck-wagon racing continues to be a controversial sport, often with multiple horse deaths in all but one Stampede since 1986.

Unlike horse shows or racing, the individual animals in rodeo seem to take second billing to the human competitors. Few of us will remember the names of famous bucking or cutting horses the way we will Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Big Ben or Stroller. But of course, it wouldn’t be much of a show without them, however controversial their participation may be. Just what sort of horses are used for things like bronc riding and chuck-wagon races?

Chuck-wagons, the rolling kitchens of the cowboy era, used to be pulled by mules, oxen or horses. Chuck, of course was a slang for food. The wagon would be loaded up with long-lasting foods like sourdough and flour, dried beans, potatoes, salted meats, coffee beans, and preserved fruit and tinned milk that might be supplemented with fresh game, eggs or vegetables found out on the range. Also on board would be all the pots and pans, utensils even wood or buffalo or cattle manure for burning, all needed to cook up a simple, but hearty meal.

By comparison, today’s chuck-wagons are pared down and built for speed. And today’s chuck-wagon horses are a far cry from the slower, heavier, smaller horses used back then. Instead, Thoroughbreds, often retired race horses, provide the power to get the chuck-wagons around the course with speed and agility. Therein, says Temple Grandin, might be why there are so many injuries and deaths in these competitions. An overemphasis on breeding solely for speed, with large muscles and fine bones means TB’s legs are simply more prone to injury. It’s an interesting opinion, but unless someone is willing to run something other than a TB, it will be hard to prove. And of course not all horses are breaking down. Some chuck-wagon race horses are still racing into their late teens and early twenties.

And where do bucking horses come from? Bucking a horse out used to be the normal way to ‘break’ a horse for riding and ranch work. So what started out as job became a sport as cowboys challenged each other to stick on as long as they could. Today some bucking horses might come from the riding horse world. They might be former race horses, show horses or trail horses that have learned to launch a rider. And many bucking horses will be bred to buck. One source states that 60% of the horses used in bronc riding are from breeding programs that strive to produce top bucking horses. Many will be Draft crosses, Quarter Horses or QH crosses. Saddle broncs tend to be heavier, taller horses. Bareback broncs tend to be smaller and lighter.

Bucking horses are kept just like any other performance horse, with an eye towards their health, fitness and attitude. It isn’t unusual for horses to have a long and illustrious career until they are in their twenties. And really, having a job of getting ticked off for nine seconds every now and then doesn’t sound like such a bad deal if you are otherwise treated well.
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