Tough questions asked after horses die during Calgary Stampede event

At least nine of the Calgary Stampede's rodeo horses have died after plunging off a bridge in Calgary.

Just days before the Calgary Stampede is set to open organizers are struggling to deal with a public relations nightmare, after nine horses were killed while being herded through the city to the event grounds.

The horses were spooked while being brought across a bridge over the Bow River Sunday, and some plunged 10 metres into the water. Some died when they hit the embankment and others drowned in the swollen river. One was put down because of injuries suffered in the fall. One horse is missing.

The tragedy has left the Stampede reviewing the ride, which was being held to commemorate the province's centennial, and dealing with criticism from those who say they never should have tried to move 200 unbroken horses through the city in the first place.

The highest death toll at the Stampede was in 1986, when 12 animals were killed in competition, including six horses in a chuckwagon accident.

Keith Marrington, who organized the 206-kilometre ride from the Stampede Ranch near Hanna, says the six-day ride was uneventful until the last few minutes. The outriders, mostly professional ranch hands, except for 20 people who paid $15,000 to ride along, had stopped the herd in a grassy area to settle them, Marrington said.

The herd was then brought through an underpass under Deerfoot Trail.

Marrington says he believes the horses were spooked by a combination of events – being brought through a dark tunnel, where shadows played in front of them, and the sound of a train travelling overhead.

"It was literally the light at the end of the tunnel, and they couldn't get there quick enough," said Marrington, who also is the head of racing, the rodeo and the ranch for the Stampede. "You could have had 200 riders, you could not have stopped them. It was that intense."

Former Ontario premier David Peterson, who had paid to take part in the ride and was in front of the herd, said "there was just a mad stampede across the bridge. They split and went to both sides."

Police had blocked off the roads so that the horses could pass traffic-free and people were lining the street to catch sight of the animals. Marrington credits the ranch hands with protecting the spectators along the route.

"It was their first thought. They risked their own safety to stop the herd," he said, adding they stopped the animals about a half-mile before they reached people.

"It's a sad day," he said. "They were our friends. We get very emotional, get passionate, we're attached to them. They're like your kids."

The trail ride has been held twice before, without incident, in 1987 and 2000.

Cheryl Wallach, with the Calgary Humane Society, says her office was flooded with calls Monday from people outraged by the horses' deaths. She said the society had concerns about this year's ride, but were assured by the Stampede that every safety precaution was being taken.

"That they'd done it twice before and they were very confident and assured us that they had really experienced people and that they're managing it and there would be no issues," Wallach said.

The Calgary Exhibition and Stampede opens on July 8.