Sask. family stands by chuckwagon racing despite losing 4 horses at Calgary Stampede

Despite the loss of four horses at the Calgary Stampede, Neil Salmond says he has no plans to reconsider his participation in the sport of chuckwagon racing as he believes people are doing everything they can to make the sport safe.

The Salmond family lost 4 horses during the 2019 Calgary Stampede

Teams compete in a chuckwagon race at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, on Monday, July 12, 2010. A serious crash at the Calgary Stampede Rangeland Derby Thursday night has left an unknown number of horses injured. This is the third incident at the chuckwagon races this week. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The death of six horses at the Calgary Stampede has spurred calls for change around the sport of chuckwagon racing, but the family who owned four of those horses are standing by a sport they love.

Neil Salmond is the father of Evan Salmond, who lost four horses during the 2019 Stampede. The first horse died last Thursday, after Evan's lead horse hit a guard rail and stumbled to the ground. 

Then, on Sunday, a horse from Evan's wagon went down during a turn in the Rangeland Derby. A news release from the Calgary Stampede indicated the right lead horse of Salmond's wagon fractured its left hind cannon bone while running, while two other horses on the team also suffered injuries.

All of them received care on the track, according to organizers, but the medical team determined they could not be treated. 

Salmond, who is from Hudson Bay, Sask., said the loss of the horses has been hard on his whole family, but noted incidents like this aren't making him rethink his participation in the sport.

"I've never witnessed anything this harsh," he said. "I've raced since I was 15 and I'm 61 now. I guess we have to thank the good lord for safety, because I've ran around the track a lot of times and I guess I can say that I've never lost a horse in my life." 

A tarp covers an area where at least a horse went down during a chuckwagon race at the Calgary Stampede on July 14, 2019. Organizers say in the end, three horses had to be put down. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

He called the death of his family's horses an "isolated case" and said these types of situations don't happen very often, noting when accidents do take place, it's hard on everyone involved.

In some cases, Salmond said, the horses are raised from a colt and are developed into a competitive animal over time, noting there's "definitely a bond."

"You're with them every day and you just learn to love them and love the sport for what it is," he said. 

Salmond explained since his time racing, there have been numerous improvements made to the sport, saying everything from equipment to safety checks before the race have evolved. 

He said sometimes, dangers are just part of the sport, saying he feels people are already doing everything they can to make the sport safe for the animals and their riders. 

"Personally I think about everything is done that could be done. It's a high-speed sport and to say it couldn't be dangerous would be putting your head in the sand. Accidents do happen," he said. 

"But as far as safety, I think every town, every association has professionally put things in place to make it as safe as it could be."

That argument doesn't resonate well with Peggy Larson. 

A veterinarian from Vermont who used to participate in rodeo events, Larson has become a vocal opponent to rodeos and similar events.

She feels there needs to be more focus on the animals involved in these events, noting while she realizes sport does sometimes involve injury, unlike humans, the animals don't have a choice. 

"They're put in there by people who use them to make their points, to make their scoring, to make them famous and all that," she said. "When you have a chuckwagon race, yes there is a man who might be driving it, but the horse is the one doing the racing." 

She believes people should be focusing more on the welfare of the animal, as opposed to the sporting event itself, noting people have come to expect crashes as part of the spectacle. 

"If we're watching auto racing here in the United States, many people are much more excited when one of the automobiles crash," she said. 

"What is that saying about us?" she asked. "Is that saying that we have to see this destruction in order to enjoy a sport? It seems to me that we have enough shooting, enough violence in this country now, we shouldn't be exposing our children to violence against animals."

However, Deanna Johnson, a vet from Hudson Bay who knows the Salmond family, said people forget that horses were used as a method of transportation long before the sport of chuckwagon was created.  

"When you think about the origins of this sport, the men and women who drove the teams of horses were very highly skilled and they had to be able to co-ordinate and control all of these horses," she said. "People forget that these are skills we used for thousands of years." 

Johnson noted that now, these skills are largely disappearing, but they still exist in the men and women on the chuckwagon circuit.

Johnson said with many horses coming from thoroughbred race tracks, if they weren't a winning horse, they could end up being slaughtered.

"What these chuckwagon guys do, they pick up these horses," she said. "The horse still gets to run and do what he enjoys. They're well looked after, they get good nutrition, good medical care when they need it, good treatment." 

"Every one of them has a name and is well cared for," she said. "These owners do love their horses."

She said she treats more horses for injuries obtained in the pasture than on the race track, but noted they do happen, despite being rare. 

"No one likes to see the animal injured, or the people driving them, because in the past, usually the driver is injured as well," she said. "But there's nearly always, especially at the major events like Calgary, there's veterinarians present there all the time, so that if something does happen, then those horses and the drivers can receive immediate vet care."

Chad Harden, 2009 Rangeland Derby champion, has been disqualified from the Calgary Stampede after the death of a horse. That means he won't be invited back to compete again. (CBC Sports)

The death of Salmond's horse on Thursday resulted in a $10,000 fine for chuckwagon driver Chad Harden after a review of the incident determined he got in the way of another driver, causing Salmond to hit the rail.

Harden has also been banned from competing in the 2019 Calgary Stampede and future ones for his part in the incident, due to a zero-tolerance policy for "preventable accidents and injuries."

Earlier this week, the Calgary Stampede said it is "committed to initiating a thorough review process" around chuckwagon safety, though the organization said it did not yet know what that review would look like

"This is as upsetting to us as it is to our community, and is challenging for us," the Stampede said in a statement. "The Stampede's commitment to the safety of animals and the conditions of their participation in our events is paramount to our values and brand integrity. We will continue to be open in our communication with our community."

With files from CBC Radio's Blue Sky and CBC Calgary


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