The Triple S Fair and Rodeo in Selkirk, Man., is amending its rulebook after a horse broke a back leg and was euthanized by a veterinarian who was not officially on call.
The incident is now being investigated by the province’s Animal Health and Welfare Branch.
The horse was out of the gate for seconds before it fell backward during a bronc riding event — where a rider has to stay atop a horse that’s trying to throw them off — as seen in a video shared with CBC.
In the video, audience members are heard gasping as the horse thrashes on the ground, its leg appearing injured, as it tries to get up.
“I didn’t see what happened after the horse broke its leg,” said Ilona Borovlova, a Ukrainian newcomer who shot the video on her phone. She said she’d never attended a rodeo before, and the accident sent her running away in tears.
A member of the rodeo’s board of directors said crew members immediately sprung into action.
“I tried to help because you don’t want a horse to hurt itself further,” said Tim Airth, who also competes in cattle roping events.
He said the horse was placed on a platform and sedated in the arena, then he drove the animal behind the stands with a skid steer, out of view of the crowd, where it was assessed and ultimately euthanized.
Vet was a competitor
However, the veterinarian involved was at the rodeo as a competitor, said Airth, and did not have a medical kit nor Euthasol, a barbiturate formula commonly used to put animals down.
“Only a licensed vet can carry that,” said Airth, who said he can’t comment on how the horse was euthanized.
Manitoba’s Chief Veterinarian’s Office said it would not comment on the incident until it completes its investigation.
Airth said organizers asked the competitor veterinarian to help since the vet officially on call would have taken at least an hour to arrive.
“We were all very upset,” said Airth, who said most of his crew are experienced livestock handlers.
“I’ve had horses for over 45 years and the loss of a horse is terrible to us.”
Airth said the accident prompted Triple S Fair & Rodeo to change its rules to require a qualified veterinarian be on site throughout the competition.
“The decision is made, we will have a vet on hand next year,” said Airth, following a meeting Monday with the rodeo’s board.
He said the committee is already in contact with two large animal clinics that are considering sponsoring the event. Airth said other small rodeos in Manitoba have also been in touch and are contemplating following its lead.
Vet not legally required at rodeos
But Triple S’ decision is voluntary, as rodeos are not legally required to have a vet present, and are largely unregulated by governments.
A provincial spokesperson told CBC that while federal and provincial animal welfare laws outline standards of care and prohibit deliberate mistreatment, they do not specifically mention rodeos.
The City of Selkirk said Triple S has a 99-year lease on its fairgrounds at Selkirk Park and does not have to obtain any municipal permits. As an independent, amateur event, Triple S is also not required to follow rules of a rodeo association.
The Manitoba Stampede in Morris is the province’s only professional rodeo. It belongs to the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association whose office said a veterinarian is always present during its competitions.
The semi-pro Canadian Cowboys Association and Heartland Rodeo Association require events to have a veterinarian on call, but not necessarily in attendance.
A difficult prognosis
Former Canadian Veterinary Medicine Association president Dr. Chris Bell said horses that break a long leg bone are euthanized more often than not.
“Bigger bone fractures tend to have a higher rate of complication,” said the veterinarian, who practices at Elders Equine Clinic, west of Winnipeg.
Bell wouldn’t comment on the recent incident in Selkirk since it’s under investigation, but pointed to famed racehorse Barbaro, who was euthanized in 2007 following extensive treatments to repair three fractured leg bones.
“Even with infinite monetary and technical abilities,” said Bell, “Barbaro still ended up succumbing to that injury.”
He said while an injection of barbiturates is the preferred method of euthanasia, death by bullet or exsanguination (draining of blood) are also quick and humane techniques when drugs are not available.
“Unfortunately, in those emergency situations, we try to have conversations with the owners in a relatively short time frame,” Bell said, adding that these injuries cause immense suffering for horses.
Number of deaths unclear
Airth said it’s been over 15 years since a horse died at the rodeo in Selkirk, following an injury during a chuckwagon accident — a competition Triple S no longer includes.
The CPRA told CBC it tracks animal fatalities at rodeos across Canada, but would not share that data for this story.
Animal rights activists say a lack of public information on rodeo animal deaths highlights a lack of oversight.
“The only way we tend to find out about events like this is when someone in attendance lets us know or shares video footage,” said Kaitlyn Mitchell, director of legal advocacy with Animal Justice.
The attorney said her group filed a complaint with Manitoba’s Animal Health and Welfare branch and chief veterinarian.
“Anyone who’s seen the footage knows this horse suffered tremendously in their final moments,” said Mitchell.
She said while article 3(1) of Manitoba’s Animal Care Act prohibits inflicting “acute suffering, serious injury or harm, or extreme anxiety or distress” on an animal, the province does little to monitor the treatment of rodeo livestock.
“Manitoba is basically the Wild West when it comes to rodeos,” said Mitchell.
“If we’re going to be using animals as entertainment, in high-risk settings, someone should be looking out for them.”
Airth said rodeo horses “are well looked after and loved,” and said they can twist and injure their legs even during low-risk activities.
He said updating the rodeo’s policies should help make it a better experience.
“I don’t wish this on anybody — the animal owner, the spectators or ourselves,” Airth said.
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