Busting Rodeo Myths at the Calgary Stampede

Poor horse, or poor rider?
Poor horse, or poor rider?

IN MY EARLY TWENTIES, I was quick with my opinions about many things I didn’t know, understand, or have any experience with. My conclusions about the world were based, primarily, on what I felt to be right and wrong — sometimes with the aid of a timely book, article, or comments from friends. Many years and 100 countries later, I’ve learned that you have to earn, not assume, an opinion. The earning is accompanied by learning — on the ground, with actual people, who live and breathe the very thing you might have spent 15 minutes reading about.

Child labor is a terrible, outdated practice. Yet in the slums of Managua, I visited an NGO that takes kids off the streets and teaches them to read, write, and support themselves by making arts and crafts that are sold to gift shops.  Is this “child labor,” the terrible, outdated practice? Not when there’s a benefit to all parties concerned. Which brings us to these 7 myths about the Calgary Stampede rodeo.

Myth 1: Rodeo animals are beaten and mistreated to make them buck and kick.

Animals have always been bred to encourage qualities. This is why you can pet a huskie, but should steer clear of a wolf. Bronc horses, together with bulls, are regarded as athletes in the sport of rodeo. They are bred and prized for their aggression, their “wild” natures, and trained to not allow anyone to ride them. The animals are proud and healthy, and their behavior is radically different from any animal that’s abused or unhappy. The owner investment is significant, and top veterinary and nutritional care is a necessity.

It’s nobody’s interest to hurt or harm these animals, which are cared for by those who live, love, and work with animals every day of their lives. Riders, meanwhile, view horses and bulls as athletes to be respected. It’s they, not the animal, most at physical risk from the competition. Strict regulations ensure animals are not beaten or harmed, with steep fines and expulsion from competition awaiting any transgressors.

Myth 2: Rodeo animals are strapped tightly by their testicles.

Perhaps the most enduring myth, and one that’s easy to propagate: Hell, I’d also go berserk if someone tied up my nuts! The reality is that the flank strap sits in front of the hind legs, and it’s a physical impossibility for it to come anywhere near the genitals of an animal. The strap is designed to irritate the animal much like someone gripping you below the armpit. You want them to stop, sure, but you’re not in any pain. The competition lasts seconds, and the animal is trained to kick, jump, and spin. Once the rider releases the flank rope, the tension is released. Most importantly, an animal simply will not buck or bronc if the flank rope is too tight, which is not the desired effect.

Final debunk: Prize animals are used to breed future competitive animals in a very lucrative industry. Great attention is paid to ensuring the genital area remains unharmed.

Myth 3: The flank strap is sharp or spiky.

Flank straps are lined with sheepskin and are soft to the touch. It’s illegal for any sharp, friction, or rubbing material to be placed on the strap.

Myth 4: In the chute, riders prod or hurt the animals to get them angry.

Reality has the rider patting, whispering, and doing their best to calm the animal down, for it’s the rider most at risk of being crushed inside the chute. Both competitors are nervous for the battle ahead. Handlers calm the animal to prevent it from nervously smashing the rider’s legs against the gate. Although prods were once used to eject the animal from the chute, rodeo associations have since outlawed them.

Myth 5: Rodeo animals have hard lives.

Professional swimmers must lead very hard lives: training, competing, traveling, and not getting very well paid. In comparison, rodeo animals might compete for as little as five minutes a year. They receive excellent nutrition and care, and live healthy long lives. The Calgary Stampede has a special rodeo farm for retired animals, many of which live out their days grazing in open fields.

Myth 6: Horses and bulls don’t buck naturally.

Walk up to any untrained horse, throw a saddle on its back, and get on. Now try this with a bull. Bucking is a natural reflex for the animal, and their bodies are no more in pain than you would be arching your back. The physiology of the animal enables it to buck and kick without pain or discomfort.

Myth 7: Animals buck because they’re scared.

Trainers often comment that rodeo horses are tame. Just don’t jump on them! A rodeo bull shouldn’t charge you unless it feels threatened (all the same, it’s wise not to play with bulls). Rodeo animals strut like any champion athletes. They exhibit no signs of distress or abuse, which can easily be seen in animal behavior. Bucking is not a signal of fear.  There are events that still leave me uneasy. Calf roping, in particular, because the animals are young, the action abrupt, and the possibility of harming the calf might be higher than with horses and bulls. Yet roping is a common practice on farms. Hypocritical of a guy who enjoys a good veal schnitzel? Totally, but agribusiness and vegetarianism is another debate for another time.

Animal rights activists have done important work drawing attention to animal abuse, ensuring that standards are created and monitored, and unscrupulous practices are not tolerated. But to outlaw animals from performing tasks they are physically adapted to perform robs them of the very purpose for their being.  The happiest dogs I’ve ever seen are sled dogs, not wolfhounds living in one-bedroom downtown apartments.

Controversial?  What are your thoughts on the Rodeo?

This was published as part of a Stampede series I produced for Matador Travel

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