A Canadian study has shown that rodeo horses become accustomed to their role in the high-pressure sport.
The findings of the study, published recently in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, involved observing the behaviour of rodeo horses at the iconic Calgary Stampede.
The researchers found that horses with increased experience of rodeo displayed fewer reactive behaviours during both loading and holding in the chute prior to performance.
This, they said, was likely indicative of habituation based on spontaneous and anticipatory behaviours.
The study delved into a controversial question in a sport often criticised by animal welfare advocates: How do the animals feel about their participation?
The research conducted by the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Stampede was the result of years of effort, explains Dr Ed Pajor, a professor with a specialist interest in animal behaviour and welfare. He is also a member of the stampede’s Animal Care Advisory Panel.
The study evaluated 116 horses over three years in the Bareback, Novice Bareback, Saddle Bronc, and Novice Saddle Bronc events. They observed the horses behind the chutes — the areas where the animals wait before being let into the arena.
Pajor and his fellow researchers, Dr Christy Goldhawk, a research associate with the veterinary school, and Dr Temple Grandin, an internationally renowned animal welfare expert and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, addressed a core question: Do animals find participation in rodeos aversive.
“It was a challenging question to answer,” Pajor says.
“It required observing the behaviours of competition horses over three years during the Stampede rodeo.
“We were lucky to have an expert like Temple who could help provide us insight into this question, as well as a partner like the Stampede that was willing to give us unfettered access to their animals and events.”
Pajor said the Stampede provided excellent access behind the scenes in order to tackle the question.
The researchers’ just-published paper is believed to be the first to evaluate the welfare of bucking horses at rodeos, and one of only four to published to date on the welfare of rodeo animals.
Pajor acknowledges there are many different views on rodeos.
“Some see the sport as a positive reflection of agriculture and rural life. Others believe animals should not be a part of any sport, and many sit somewhere in between. The reality is, there is no specific scientific data to help understand and inform the discussion one way or the other.”
The findings are written in a way that everyone can understand — something Pajor believes is important to ensure everyone can use the data to inform the discussion — found a low frequency of aversiveness among the rodeo horses.
Goldhawk said the study team found that horses with more exposure to a rodeo environment showed fewer signs of aversiveness than those that were less experienced.
However, she is quick to point out that there was no way of knowing in this environment if the lack of aversiveness shown by more experienced horses is because they are habituated or just resigned to the rodeo events.
But, from the start of the study, Goldhawk said she was really impressed by the calmness of the animals.
“We found that most of the areas where animals do show signs of discomfort can be easily changed,” she says.
“For example, we know they often avoid tight spaces with lots of people — their behaviours show that. We made recommendations in our paper for how those areas can be modified to make the animals feel more secure.”
The evidence gathered in the study indicates that the decreased reactivity seen in more experienced horses is a result of habituation — getting used to the sequence of events at the rodeo — rather than what is termed learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a psychological state in which individuals learn they have no control over unpleasant or harmful conditions.
For example, there was a positive association between the vigor of behaviours by both horses and humans during loading. This association points to the horses’ engagement with their environment, which suggests an absence of learned helplessness.
Pajor says the Stampede has always been receptive to findings and recommendations made from research conducted by the veterinary faculty, adding that they have made significant changes based on the results of previous research.
Robert Wise, the Stampede’s director of agriculture and western events, stressed the importance of using research and science in making decisions.
“We have over one million people looking for animal experiences each year. It’s important to us and to our community that we are constantly learning and building our animal welfare.”
Wise says the university research has provided countless insights and actionable recommendations for improving animal welfare.
“For example, when we learned that animals appeared to show some uneasiness when they could see spectators above them in the loading area, we added a tented structure to prevent this from occurring.”
Summer student projects were also used to confirm that animals were provided enough water after performance events and they discovered additional water troughs were not required.
“Sometimes it is not about new changes but collecting data to critically analyze existing practices.”
He says the changes they implement based on study recommendations have a positive ripple effect at other rodeos, providing a comprehensive guide, through both rule changes and guidelines for best practices.
Effect of animal’s experience and rodeo procedures on behaviour of bucking horses at a large commercial rodeo in Canada
Christy Goldhawk, Temple Grandinb, Ed Pajor
Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 234, January 2021, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2020.105199