Corbella: Rodeo animals love what they do and wouldn’t exist otherwise





Chuckwagon driver Ray Mitsuing / Border Tribal Council makes his lap at the GMC Rangeland Derby at Stampede Park in Calgary on Sunday, July 14, 2019. Al Charest / Postmedia

A while back I spent a day hanging out in the chuckwagon barns at the Calgary Stampede. It was an eye-opening experience.

As the driver and crew of each team started harnessing each of their four horses that would pull their chuckwagon and prepared to saddle up their two outrider horses, a racket ensued — horses started kicking their stall walls, others stomped and some just moped and turned their backs on their owners.

“What startled the horses?” I asked.

“Nothing,” I was told. “The ones that don’t get to race are just angry, and they’re letting us know.”

In short, the racehorses that didn’t get to run were throwing a tantrum.

Chuckwagon horses are, invariably, retired racetrack horses. They are bred and born to race. It’s what they love doing most.

Kurt Bensmiller, a three-time world champion chuckwagon driver, says he always brings 22 of the 60 horses he owns to the Calgary Stampede to race during the 10-day event. Those left behind at his ranch in Dewberry, Alta., run after the truck as Bensmiller heads off to race.

“People don’t seem to understand that these horses love to race,” said Bensmiller. “It’s what they live for. It’s what they’re bred for.”

Kurt Bensmiller catches Vern Nolin at the finish in Heat 9 of the Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Ab., on Friday, July 5, 2019. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The 36-year-old father of three daughters recalls how several years ago at the Stampede, the GMC Rangeland Derby was cancelled one evening because of poor track conditions caused by torrential rainstorms. As race time approached, it sounded like a thunder-and-lightning storm had broken out in the stables even though it had stopped raining outside. The horses realized that they would not get to race that night and they started stomping and kicking the walls in protest.

Bensmiller chuckles at the memory but isn’t laughing at how every time an animal dies at the Calgary Stampede calls to ban its rodeo and chuckwagon races kick in as swiftly and violently as a bucking bronco. After the first deaths last week, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail published a column in its national editions calling for the Calgary Stampede “to evolve” and “modernize” and eliminate the use of animals.

Mixed in with these predictable comments online and by activists, there is often an undercurrent of anti-western sentiment.

“What do you expect from a bunch of rednecks?” goes the banter.

Those comments have ramped up now that six horses died during the course of the Stampede’s Rangeland Derby, including three on Sunday, its final day.

The first horse to die belonged to Troy Dorchester. It is believed to have suffered a heart attack. Before the 10-day competition was over, five more horses were euthanized — one death caused by driver error — which led to the unprecedented lifetime disqualification of Chad Harden from racing at the Stampede. On the final night, one horse is believed to have broken its leg, resulting in two others being put down.

“These horses, most of them, are destined for the meat plant because there’s nowhere else for these animals to go and there’s no one able to look after these horses,” explained Bensmiller, who was reached while packing up his team of horses to head home on Monday.

“These are thoroughbreds. They are all high-spirited, they want to run and they are not well-suited to become somebody’s riding horse at their house.”

Kurt Bensmiller/West Industrial Ltd. wins the GMC Rangeland Derby and a $100.000 at 2017 Calgary Stampede. AL CHAREST/POSTMEDIA Al Charest / Al Charest/Postmedia

Indeed, just this past week, one of his horses kicked a fella, broke his arm and knocked him out.

He recalls how one of his favourite horses ever, named It’s Gopher, which he raised from a yearling, was nearing retirement at the age of 12. Bensmiller left It’s Gopher at home as he headed off to the first show of the season in Grande Prairie a couple of years ago and four hours into his drive he got a call telling him that It’s Gopher had slipped on a hill and broken his hip. He had to be put down.

“If I’d taken him with me maybe he’d still be alive,” commiserated Bensmiller.

The rate of death of chuckwagon horses is 0.26 per cent, says Bensmiller, a statistic confirmed by the Calgary Stampede.

“If it wasn’t for the sport of chuckwagon racing the animal-rights activists are most certainly changing the horses’ chance of death from 0.26 per cent, in an abnormally high year, to a guaranteed 90 per cent chance of death. If (these horses) could be asked what they want to do, I know the answer,” argues Bensmiller.

Having seen what I saw that day in the barns, I don’t doubt what he says.

Calgary-based animal rights activist Alexandra Cuc told reporters that people’s minds are changing about rodeos.

“Every year there are more and more people who are not attending, either the Stampede at all, or are staying away from the events that use animals,” she said.

Nice try, Alexandra. The rodeo and chucks were often sold out this year and total Stampede attendance was 1,275,465, second only to the Stampede’s centennial year in 2012 that saw an all-time attendance record of 1.4 million.

J.P. Veitch, a stockbroker and former bull rider, says while he can’t prove it, he’s pretty sure that rodeo bulls love what they do.

“I would suggest they are beyond happy to buck rather than appear on a platter or being a steer,” said Veitch, who is married to Rona Ambrose, former federal Conservative party leader and cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government.

“These animals are treated like top athletes,” said Veitch, adding anything making the sport safer is a good thing, but the criticism reminds him of the refrains heard about Alberta’s energy sector.

Sage Steele Kimzey of Strong City, Okla., hangs on tight for an 91 on a bull named Nickle Package during the bull-riding event at the Calgary Stampede rodeo on Friday. Photo by Al Charest/Postmedia. Al Charest/Postmedia

Bensmiller says his horses are loved and pampered, receiving massage therapy, chiropractic care and injured horses are sent to a horse spa to soak in salt-water ice baths.

Most rodeo events mimic real life on a ranch — roping calves, wrestling steers, taming horses. It’s an important part of how the west was won and how many agricultural families still live.

Nobody likes to see such magnificent animals die, least of all their owners.

But life, as they say, is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. For many rodeo animals, it would literally be nothing at all.

Licia Corbella is a Postmedia opinion columnist based in Calgary.

lcorbella@postmedia.com


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