Rodeo horse

Whether it’s the Kentucky Derby or the Olympic Games, competitions involving animals can be dangerous for their nonhuman athletes. That’s why teams of veterinarians usually work at such events, doing everything they can to make them as safe as possible for the animals participating.

At rodeos, on-site vets work hard to ensure competing livestock gets the treatment it needs before, during and after.

Rules and Regulations

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), which sanctions rodeos across North America, sets forth a number of regulations for animal care at its events.

“There are 60 rules in place to govern the care of rodeo livestock, from horn wraps to weight limits on steers and calves, the use of spurs they have to be dull and roll freely [and the] movement of livestock,” says Dr. Douglas Corey, a veterinarian on the PRCA’s Animal Welfare Committee.

Dr. Corey wrote the Guide to Veterinary Services at PRCA Rodeos and has worked at rodeos in Pendleton, Oregon, and Walla Walla, Washington. He volunteers at the competitions not only as a way to contribute to the community but also because he feels that as a vet that it’s the right thing to do. “I like the event and want to see that the animals receive the best of care,” he says.

In fact, many rodeo vets are volunteers; they normally get paid only if they travel long distances to the event.

“Vets are required to be at the arena for every performance of PRCA-sanctioned rodeos,” Dr. Corey says. That includes “slack” events (in which contestants take part during off times, when they’re not participating in regular rodeo performances). There is typically at least one vet per rodeo, with several at larger competitions, he says.

Dr. Leslie Easterwood, clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, and Dr. Gregg Knape, head of Gulf Coast Large Animal Clinic and Veterinary Services, are responsible for the medical and regulatory veterinary work at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR). They have been the show’s official veterinarians since 2003. Dr. Easterwood, who received several scholarships from the HLSR during college, offers her time to the rodeo as a way to give back and help other students get the kinds of opportunities she had. Having grown up around the rodeo community and competed in horse events her entire life, she also likes assisting the animals associated with the sport she knows so well.

“The appeal of the rodeo community revolves around the family atmosphere that is pervasive to this way of life,” Dr. Easterwood says.

Even though HLSR is not associated with PRCA, it still has rules to protect animal welfare.

“Rules such as how far a roping calf can be dragged, how often the stock is used, etc., help to decrease preventable injuries. That accounts for our low number of injuries. Our horse athletes are cared for very much like human athletes, with support bandaging, regular exercise to maintain fitness, etc.” Dr. Easterwood says.

HLSR regulations are similar to those of the PRCA, she says, since having vastly different standards would make it difficult for competitors to take part in competitions held by different associations. “The animal welfare and animal handling rules are the same, for the most part, across most rodeos in the U.S. HLSR has a group of staff and committeemen who are committed to reviewing our animal welfare regulations,” she says.

Opposing Voices

Even with animal safety regulations in place, however, some people are not convinced that rodeos protect the welfare of the animals involved. One group that does not support rodeos is the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

“The HSUS opposes rodeos as they are commonly organized, since they typically cause torment and stress to animals; expose them to pain, injury or even death; and encourage an insensitivity to and acceptance of the inhumane treatment of animals in the name of sport,” reads a statement on the group’s website. The organization does not approve of the use of electric pods, spurs and other devices that cause the rodeo animals to react violently. They also “oppose bull riding, bronco riding, steer roping, calf roping, ‘wild horse racing,’ chuck wagon racing, steer tailing and horse tripping.”

National animal advocacy nonprofit Born Free USA also believes rodeos are inherently cruel. When it comes to the PRCA, specifically, it claims the organization does not always properly enforce its animal welfare rules. However, it does acknowledge that the group has improved its rules over the years.

Inspections, Injuries and Treatment

Before PRCA rodeos begin, vets inspect the arena and livestock pens for things like sharp objects that could injure an animal. Once the animals arrive, vets walk through the pens to evaluate them. If they find a problem, vets tell the stock contractor and judges. The animal will then be removed from the competition and treated. After that, it’s all about keeping an eye on the animals during the event.

“Injury rates at PRCA rodeos are .0005, so it’s lots of watching the rodeo and then dealing with the occasional and rare injury,” Dr. Corey says. The rates are determined by reports made by on-site veterinarians to the competition judges and PRCA. According to Dr. Corey, injuries can include sprains, strains and the rare fracture.

“The rodeo vet may make suggestions to the rodeo committee to make improvements if the injury is caused by something the committee could [prevent],” Dr. Corey says. “However, that is not the case most of the time. Injuries just happen and are rare and usually are not due to grounds conditions, depending on the location of the rodeo.”

At the HLSR, Dr. Knape arrives at least two hours before each performance to do a walk-through of the stock and perform examinations. During the event, vets keep an eye out for possible injuries. 

“Performance horses develop a variety of common injuries based on what events they do,” Dr. Easterwood says. “Most of our event horses commonly develop tendon and soft tissue injuries of their lower limbs. They also develop similar soft tissue strains and injuries to human athletes. Bucking stock can develop back strains or injuries, while roping stock can uncommonly sustain neck or leg injuries. All these injuries are extremely uncommon at HLSR.”

The greatest challenge for HLSR vets is the facilities.

“We can do most things that can be done in the field, but we do not have the facilities or personnel to perform tasks that usually require hospitalization. We will typically refer patients to veterinary hospitals if extensive treatments or diagnostics are needed,” she says.

Why Rodeo?

Despite the controversy surrounding rodeos, the dedication of the vets we talked with to keeping the events as safe as possible for the animals is clear.

Dr. Easterwood views rodeo as important. She believes it’s not just about how the event showcases traditions like western-style performance horses. More importantly, it represents our western heritage. “The family atmosphere, salt-of-the-earth core values and events of rodeo directly lead back to the western heritage and agricultural communities that we hold dear,” she says. “It connects us to that heritage like no other activity you could think of.”

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