The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine’s new equine research chair Dr. Renaud Leguillette, and PhD student Stephanie Bond look at the exercise physiology and performance and respiratory function of race horses.
Photo courtesy University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

U of C equine health expert talks safety and fitness at the Calgary Stampede

By Matty Hume, July 12 2018 —

During a highly celebrated 10 days each July, over a million people attend the Calgary Stampede to experience the entertainment and history offered by the event with roots dating back to 1886.

One of the biggest draws of the Stampede internationally is the rodeo and its plethora of equine-related sporting events, such as barrel racing, bucking broncos and the chuckwagon racing tournament, featuring a total of over $1.15 million in prize money.

These events offer a unique opportunity for veterinary medicine researchers, such as University of Calgary professor and Calgary Chair in Equine Sports Medicine Renaud Léguillette, who is spending the 10 days among the hundreds of competing horses. According to Léguillette, one of the best ways to mitigate equine health risks associated with these large-scale sporting events is the fitness of the animals themselves.

“It’s really the highlight of their season, so they definitely spend a lot of time to be at the peak of their performance for that event,” Léguillette said.

“It’s really like human athletes — it’s a little bit like preparing for some finals or the Olympic Games,” he continued. “Horses are different than humans, in the sense that they are by nature designed to be athletes and to run. If you condition and train them a little bit, they will respond very quickly by improving their cardiac capacity by definitely getting fitter much more quickly than humans.”

Léguillette’s focus at the Stampede largely surrounds the chuckwagon races and its equine competitors. He highlighted that chuckwagon is a unique equine discipline in that the horses engage in comparatively longer careers.

“These horses are not all young horses like you have in traditional races,” he said. “The chuckwagon horses are actually sometimes purchased from the racetrack and they keep going with their career so they have a much longer career. So you don’t have just two- or three-year-old horses, you have actually eight-, 12-, 14-year-old horses and more.”

This year, Léguillette’s lab is researching the blood ammonia levels of chuckwagon horses, with the help of hand-held blood ammonia analyzers traditionally used on humans from Calgary Laboratory Services (CLS).

“We’re basically validating and studying the ammonia level in chuckwagon horses because it’s a very good indicator of their anaerobic metabolism,” Léguillette said. “Anaerobic metabolism means when they run at their highest-level performance, it’s beyond their maximal oxygen capacity. So when you run without oxygen, for example, when you sprint, you’re using more energy than the oxygen can help you make. That’s where the anaerobic metabolism kicks in.”

The research is conducted with Léguillette’s team taking a blood sample from the horses before and after the chuckwagon races.

“We pull one small vile of blood — just a few millilitres — and run it through the analyzer right away,” Léguillette said. “Of course we analyze the samples in the labs, because we’ll use the samples with the CLS and we bank the samples at the lab. We have a station with a centrifuge, a freezer and dry ice, all those things, here at the Stampede.”

Léguillette has already submitted a few academic abstracts on the topic of blood ammonia and anaerobic metabolism in horses. He will be presenting his current research at an equine physiology conference in Australia in November. Outside of the Stampede, he is also working with veteran chuckwagon driver Mark Sutherland, measuring the VO2 max — the maximum amount of oxygen used by an athlete during intense exertion — in chuckwagon horses.

“The better your VO2 max, the fitter you are,” Léguillette said. “That’s a study that we’ve been doing for a month now and we’re going to finish a few weeks from now.”

Given his research, Léguillette acknowledged the risks associated with equine sports.

“Any time you run horses there are risks,” Léguillette said. “There are going to be some injuries and we know that, but the number of injuries is very low.”

Each year, the risks are apparent. Since the GMC Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races began this Stampede, there have been two significant incidents.

On July 10, chuckwagon driver Obrey Motowylo suffered a broken collarbone after falling off of his wagon and going under a back wheel. On July 12, a chuckwagon horse was euthanized after fracturing its lower left leg. However, the Stampede continues to receive input from experts to increase the safety of the animals.

“They’re inviting experts in many different fields to tell them what can be improved and they do follow up with some improvements,” Léguillette said. “Every year we see something is different at the Stampede.”

An example of the interdisciplinary input from the U of C at the Stampede is the work of engineering undergraduate student Sam Pollock, who was engaged in a project last year regarding the design of chuckwagon poles.

“That’s essentially the metal pipe that extends from the front of the wagon and serves as an attachment point for the four horses,” Pollock said. “Kind of think of it as an analogue to a drive shaft in a car because all the power that’s being transmitted through the engine, or the horses, is going through this one pipe before it gets transferred into the wagon.”

According to Pollock, the goal of his project is to help bring an engineering perspective to the design of the poles, which was lacking in the past.

“It’s a lot of farmers and drivers who have the experience and knowledge passed down but there’s maybe not as much rigorous engineering design in there as you would like,” Pollock said. “It’s a first step between the university and the Calgary Stampede implementing rigorous engineering in its chuckwagon racing. I hope to see more of that.”

According to Pollock, the Stampede is committed to equine safety and chuckwagon racing safety and they’re looking forward to further collaborations with the U of C.

“One of the big things that has been an issue in the past where poles have failed is weld quality,” Pollock said. “But you see more and more guys who are getting that done properly and getting a professional who knows what’s going on to do that.”

The Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race finals begin at 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 15. Find more information on Léguillette’s equine research here.

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