When rodeo rides east this fall, pet lovers will complain
Growing up, someday soon
When rodeo rides east this fall, pet lovers will complain
Professional rodeo in Canada may still be a toadstool beside the tall oaks of hockey and football on the sports pages, but it is definitely growing up. In September, three major rodeos offering a $150,000 purse will take place —not out west, but in Moncton and Saint John, N.B., and Charlottetown, P.E.I. More than $77,000 in advance tickets have already been sold in Moncton. When the Canadian Finals Rodeo was held in Edmonton last November, for the first time professional bull riders and steer wrestlers wore flowered shirts and deep-scallop boots in a western fashion show. Several years ago, this idea would have been laughed right out of the tack room.
At the annual meeting of the 500member Canadian Professional Rodeo Association, President Bob Robinson urged the members to “get out there
and sell yourselves a little.” Rodeo is attracting sponsors now—the National Tobacco Co., which makes the tobacco that cowboys prefer to chew, has contributed $82,000 toward 1981 purses— and a tiny bit of show biz has crept in. “For instance,” said Robinson, “GWG is one of our sponsors now, and they were a little upset when a lot of you guys wore Wranglers to their press conference. Things like that.”
When a professional rodeo comes east, there is bound to be the usual reaction from untutored non-western audiences: sport fishermen will object to the sight of calves being jerked off their feet for fun and money; pet lovers who
knit sweaters for their corgis will become indignant about how the stock are “made to buck” with electric prods and tight flank straps (see Maclean's, Sept. 1,1980). But the sport of rodeo is a stylized version of skills that any working cowboy uses on a cattle ranch. Critics of rodeo would be better off taking up the cause of market hogs, or feeling sorry for the cowboy who, for mysterious reasons, feels compelled to ride a bull for the wages of a bank teller.
In Alberta, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) has five constables assigned to the rodeo circuit. Although they don’t sanction rodeo, over the years the organization has made its peace with it. “To tell the truth, we get very, very few direct complaints about it,” said Neil McDonald, executive director of the Alberta SPCA. “Rodeo certainly uses animals, and in a sense exploits them, but the animals are well cared for. I see worse things in the course of our normal investigations.
“One week last year, 30 hogs died in
transport as a result of mishandling, and there was no outcry from the public. The same week, we reported 20 dobermans that were half-starved and people were outraged. I find the public reacts more to the type of animals than the actual incident.” McDonald has only one reservation about rodeo. “Personally, I don’t like to watch chuck wagon races. There are a lot of wrecks, where horses get injured and sometimes killed. To me, it’s the only rodeo event that seems obviously hard on the animals.”
Wayne Void is a conspicuous figure in the Canadian rodeo world. At the finals in Edmonton in November, he did everything but sell popcorn; a stock contractor who owns the top bull (Hagar) and the top bucking horse (American Express) of 1980, Void provided some of the action with his rodeo stock, watched his brother Doug work as “pick-up man” in the arena and every night he sang with his band Whisky River in the Silver Slipper saloon, where the partying went on.
As a cowboy, a performer and a businessman, Void can defend rodeo from any number of angles. “If rodeo is so hard on bucking horses,” he says, “then how come they live so long? A working horse might last 15 years on a ranch; I have bucking horses that are 22 years old. People think you train a horse to buck, but that’s just the kind of horses they are. I’ve paid $12,500 for a good rodeo horse—it makes no sense to abuse an investment like that.”
Another familiar figure on the North American circuit is rodeo producer Stan Steen, whose three daughters, the trickriding Steen Sisters, travel from rodeo to rodeo with their parents all year long. “Most people think the flank strap, a piece of leather covered with sheepskin, is pulled snug against the horse’s genitals in order to make it buck,” says Steen. “But the flank strap doesn’t injure a horse; for an experienced horse, it’s a signal to go to work, like a boxer putting on his gloves. An old horse will often stop bucking as soon as he hears the eight-second whistleflank strap on or off.
“The other aspect of rodeo that upsets people,” Steen continues, “is the use of the electric cattle prod, or ‘hot shot’, on the horses as they come out of the chute. When I go to a humane association meeting, I sometimes take one of these things along to let people try them. Properly used, they aren’t harmful, and they don’t make an animal buck harder. The ‘hot shot’ is used to ‘untrack’ the horse, to move him out of the chute fast, because that’s where the worst injuries to rider and animal happen in rodeo.”
“Iron before silver” means that a cowboy has to spur well to earn trophywinning points. But bareback and saddle-bronc riders use rodeo spurs that are dull and thick as two nickels back to back. According to Steen, the rider uses his spurs to grip the horse’s neck, not to cut or scratch the animal. “You’ll see more hair flying off a loose-coated horse when he’s being curried than when he’s being ridden,” says Steen.
“There are definitely risks in rodeo,” he acknowledges. “I’ve seen calves break their legs and green horses run into a railing and get hurt. Although studies have found no evidence that the calves are injured, I admit that calf roping is hard to defend. But according to the American Humane Association, less than one-tenth of one per cent of professional rodeo animals are injured each year, which is the lowest rate of any animal-oriented event.” When you consider that a bucking horse only worksbucks, that is—for a total of maybe 2l/¿ minutes a year, it’s not a bad life. If I had to come back as an animal, I’d be a rodeo horse, myself.”
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