July 14, 2023

100 years in, horses remain the key to chuckwagon races

Annual Rangeland Derby provides ample ground for vet med researchers to study equine health
Chuckwagon racing at the Calgary Stampede
Chuckwagons and outriders race to the finish line in front of a crowded grandstand at the Calgary Stampede, date unknown (1935-1945?). Courtesy of Calgary Stampede Collections & Archives

Have you ever wondered what it might look like for a cowboy in the wild west to break camp and rush home? Well, the Calgary Stampede’s Rangeland Derby might give you your best idea.

Now celebrating their 100th year at the Stampede, the chuckwagon races are a true throwback to that cowboy tradition, and their most important aspect has remained the same over the past century.

“The horses have always been priority number one,” says Dr. Renaud Léguillette, DVM, PhD, a professor of equine internal medicine and Calgary Research Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

“No horses, no racing.”

While the horses and their welfare have always been vital to the competition, the measures of their welfare and safety have improved greatly in recent years.

“I have seen the difference, even in the last 15 years, in all the measures that have been taken to make this activity safer for the horses and the drivers,” says Léguillette.

Renaud Léguillette

Renaud Léguillette.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Hosting the world’s most famous chuckwagon race with a grand prize of over $2 million, the Stampede has been a leader in implementing safety policies.

For example, the Stampede pioneered reducing the number of outriders per wagon from four to two, ensuring more space around the horses and less risk of accidents.

The Stampede has also introduced a fitness-to-compete test which the horses must pass every morning before they are cleared to race at night.

“They need a clean bill of health from a veterinarian before they can touch the track at night,” explains Léguillette. “Every year there is an additional level of safety introduced.”

Physiologically speaking, these horses are also quite unique. Compared to flat track racing, where the horses might race until ages two to five, chuckwagon horses can race to the ages of seven to 12 or older.

Léguillette says this indicates that the horses do physiologically well in chuckwagon racing compared to flat track.

Another indication of this is chuckwagon horses have less tendon injuries than other racing horses. Léguillette says this difference is explained by the chuckwagon horses not having a rider or jockey directly on their back.

“Sometimes I joke that chuckwagon races made me realize that maybe horses aren’t completely designed to be ridden by a rider,” he says. “In terms of injury, they do so much better by themselves pulling a wagon than with a jockey on their backs.”

However, the horses still face some physical challenges. Since the race is neither purely a sprint or a long duration, it cannot be classified as purely anaerobic or aerobic exercise for the horses.

“We are very interested in the cardiac and respiratory impacts of this,” explains Léguillette.

He says since these horses are outliers in the length of their careers and how well they do, more can be learned from them about other parts like tendons and joints. There may be no better place than the Stampede to collect this data, as the 10-day event brings hundreds of horses to one place.

“It’s like having a big lab with 550 horses in it. It’s very unique in the world and it allows us to have a greater impact in our research.”

- Renaud Léguillette

Typical equine research is done in a controlled environment with a dozen horses, so the sheer number of horses available to researchers like Léguillette presents great opportunity.

The uniqueness of the chuckwagon horses in terms of their longevity has also taught him a lot.

“The big challenge in my field is longitude, following horses year over year,” he explains. “With the careers of these horses, I get to see them again year after year.”

This research is all made possible thanks to the co-operation of the Stampede and the individual wagon drivers, who Léguillette says have always been welcoming and interested.

In fact, he has built such a trust with the drivers in the chuckwagon community that if he needs horses for a lab study, they are the ones he turns to.

“They are extremely welcoming to us, they are very keen to help us, and they are very interested and supportive of the research,” he says.

“We all have the same goal: to keep the horses healthy, safe and fit.”

Top photo courtesy of Calgary Stampede Archives, Our Future, Our Past: The Alberta Heritage Digitization Project Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

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