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Ice, ice horsey; Calgary Stampede says keeping horses, bulls cool a priority

CALGARY — Biz doesn't like a spray of water in the face, but isn't adverse to a soaking everywhere else according to the horse's owner.

CALGARY — Biz doesn't like a spray of water in the face, but isn't adverse to a soaking everywhere else according to the horse's owner.

Chuckwagon driver Jamie Laboucane says he'll give the horse a cooling bath before and after each race of the Calgary Stampede, which got underway Friday when the temperature reached 32.

In the constant tension between animal rights groups and the Stampede, the rodeo made a point this year of communicating what they're doing to keep chuckwagon horses and bucking stock cool.

With temperatures of 30 degrees and higher predicted for opening weekend and the mercury not dropping until next week, the Stampede's veterinarian says the animals are monitored and steps are taken to ensure they don't overheat.

"If there's any animal exhibiting any signs of metabolic distress or dehydration, they're not going to be eligible to compete on those days," Greg Evans told media Friday outside the chuckwagon horse barns.

The chuckwagon horses get ice baths, blankets and booties, fans or misters in the barns as well the equine equivalent of Gatorade, said Laboucane.

"We've got a big fan here that's about 50 inches wide and it blows all day," said the driver from St. Walburg, Sask. "We keep the alleyways wetted down.

"I'm putting electrolytes in the water twice a day. They get electrolytes after they race as well. We bath them before they run, get them cooled down and feeling good, and then as soon as they're done off the wagon, they get in and get their harness stripped off and back to the wash bay."

The bucking stock, which doesn't compete every day of the 10-day rodeo like chuckwagon horses do, is trucked from the ranch and back the same day to limit time spent in the pens behind the arena, said Evans.

"They're usually on the grounds for four hours and then trucked back to a pasture situation where they're turned out and allowed to have shelter and rest there," the vet explained.

"The idea is to minimize their amount of time that they're in the sun or unnecessarily in the sun, and give them rest and recovery before their next competition, which for those animals would be several days."

Evans added that horse owners and veterinarians watch for the same signs in animals that humans exhibit when they're headed for heatstroke: lethargy, dry mouth, lack of urination and sweat.

"We may provide intravenous fluids for those animals," he said.

The chuckwagon horses are the lightning rod for animal rights groups as they account for most animal fatalities in recent years. No animals died in 2016, according to the Stampede.

But the Vancouver Human Society keeps a running tally and says of 19 fatalities since 2010, 17 were chuckwagon horses for reasons ranging from injuries requiring euthanasia to an aortic aneurysm.

The VHS calls the Calgary Stampede "a spectacle of animal abuse" on its website.

"It's not just lip service when we say the safety and welfare of the animals is of paramount importance," Evans insisted.

"Anyone who knows horses, or anyone how has ridden a horse, could challenge them to come back here and see an unhealthy or an unfit horse or a horse that's not cared for."

The chuckwagon races are in the evening and not during the heat of the day, Laboucane pointed out.

"There's no shortage of care here," he said. "These barns are nice. We keep the doors closed during the day with the fans and the coolness.

"I've never seen a horse too hot to race, especially in Calgary."

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press