CALGARY - New chutes have been installed on the rodeo grounds at the Calgary Stampede in an attempt to make dangerous events a little bit safer for man and beast.
The state-of-the-art chutes have higher bars, rubber safety pads and less spacing between bars — which minimizes the risk of bucking broncos and bulls rearing back and getting legs and hooves stuck in the gates.
The events affected by the changes include bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding where cowboys attempt to stay aboard 700 to 1,000 kilograms of pure dynamite for the necessary eight seconds to record a score.
The new equipment is supposed to ensure that riders and their opponents get that far.
"If something goes down and they need to get the rider out, you can get him out easier," said Jennifer Woods, an independent livestock handling specialist who advised the Stampede on the chutes. "The overall design — just keeping the animal safer and calmer — keeps your riders safer. That's a huge thing," she said.
"When you're not dealing with a horse having issues, your riders are going to be just fine."
Woods said the flooring has also been replaced with grooved cement, which will be packed down with infill. That should reduce the chance of bulls and horses slipping and falling.
The rodeo has been the target of animal rights groups for decades. They say it is cruel and endangers innocent animals. Similar criticism has been levelled at the chuckwagon races where a crash can lead to horses having to be destroyed.
The Stampede has made a number of changes to its rodeo safety rules as a result, including closer monitoring of the health of chuckwagon horses.
The director of rodeo and chuckwagons for the Stampede said it was time to upgrade the grounds and the latest changes had nothing to do with complaints from riders.
"Absolutely not. We just want to eliminate the risk as much as we can," said Keith Marrington.
"Our older structure was still very functional. We did a lot of maintenance on it, but it was time. It was 30 years old."
The cost of the new chutes, along with work on the infield and track, was close to $500,000. The chutes were built by Priefer Rodeo, an animal-handling facility design company based in Texas.
Woods said horses and bulls have only become caught up in the chutes occasionally over the years and the same can be said about riders getting injured.
"It's rare that they do, but the risk is always there and you want to eliminate that risk as much as possible," she said.
"It's also rare that a horse or bull gets hurt in there, but you need to do your best to eliminate that risk and get it close to zero per cent."
This year's Calgary Stampede runs July 5-14.