Study of track conditions seeks to improve safety of chuckwagon horses

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Before this year's Calgary Stampede, researchers used sensors to monitor chuckwagon horses galloping with a rider at full speed to measure acceleration and the impact on the horses’ legs. Photo: Calgary Stampede
Before this year’s Calgary Stampede, researchers used sensors to monitor chuckwagon horses galloping with a rider at full speed to measure acceleration and the impact on the horses’ legs. Photo: Calgary Stampede

Researchers have been experimenting with footings in the hopes of optimizing ground conditions at the Calgary Stampede to reduce the leg fracture risk among chuckwagon horses.

The key goal of the University of Calgary study is to improve the safety of the chuckwagon horses, who are a major drawcard at the internationally recognized annual Stampede.

Dr Renaud Léguillette, a professor at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, has a passion for these equine athletes. He has spent years researching ways to improve the health, safety and performance of horses at the Stampede.

“We are looking at track conditions and the effect of different footings — at varying depths and levels of hardness — on the impact on the legs,” Léguillette, the Calgary Chair in Equine Sports Medicine, told UCalgary News.

For the study, he worked with an expert in exercise-related human tibial fractures, Dr Brent Edwards, in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and with Dr Thilo Pfau, who studies high-performance equine biomechanics. Pfau is jointly appointed in the faculties of Kinesiology and Veterinary Medicine.

Rounding out the study team was Olivia Bruce, a biomechanics scholar, and a PhD candidate in the university’s Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program.

“It’s a great collaboration,” says Léguillette, “with the goal — the big picture — being to improve the safety or help prevent what we call catastrophic failure during racing, which is where the horse gallops hard and then suddenly there’s a fractured bone. Which happens also in humans, by the way, not just horses.”

Before this year’s Stampede, the researchers ran chuckwagon horses on different levels of footing depth and firmness over distances of 100 and 200 metres. The horses galloped with a rider at full speed with sensors to measure acceleration and impact on the legs.

“If you punch your fist on a wall, that’s deceleration, going from high speed to zero. That’s exactly what happens when they run.”

In the prevention of leg bone fractures during racing, the track is one of the parameters that can be controlled. To collect data on different track conditions, sensors were placed on the horses’ hooves, cannon bones, and radiuses, using saddles fitted with a device measuring all the data.

“Right now, it’s an observational study, meaning when you change the track condition, we are looking at what happens to the legs of the horses. I’m not saying we’ll immediately find the perfect track condition, but we are measuring and documenting and will be publishing our results.

“It’s cool because it’s a collaboration with human kinesiology, veterinary medicine, the Stampede, and the chuckwagon horse owners are absolutely behind this project and are really great to collaborate with. They just want to make it work,” says Leguillette. “This is a nice, nice project.”

Reporting: Collene Ferguson

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