July 11, 2022

UCalgary research aims at improving chuckwagon horse safety

Study looks at how different track conditions impact stress on leg joints
Chuckwagon horse galloping with a rider
Calgary Stampede

Horses are a marvel of physiological engineering. With powerful lungs, large hearts and legs that can bear a considerable amount of weight, they have the potential to be top athletes.

But like their human counterparts in competitive sports, horses working at a high level of physical exertion have a risk of injury.

  • Photo above: Prior to the Stampede, the researchers monitored chuckwagon horses galloping with a rider at full speed with sensors to measure acceleration and impact on the horses’ legs.

Dr. Renaud Léguillette, DVM, PhD, professor at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM), has a passion for these equine athletes. He has spent years researching ways to improve the health, safety and performance of horses at the Calgary Stampede. This year, his research focuses on the surfaces chuckwagon horses run on, with a look at reducing the risk of leg fractures. 

“We are looking at track conditions and the effect of different footings — at varying depths and levels of hardness — on the impact on the legs,” says Léguillette, Calgary Chair in Equine Sports Medicine.

“So, the impact on the hoof and on the bones of the forelimbs in horses galloping at full speed on the Stampede track.”

Big picture goal: Improving chuckwagon horse safety

Léguillette is joined by some heavy hitters in the project, which aims to help the Calgary Stampede optimize track conditions to improve safety. He has teamed up with an expert in exercise-related human tibial fractures, Dr. W. Brent Edwards, PhD, in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and with Dr. Thilo Pfau, PhD, who researches high performance equine biomechanics. Pfau is jointly appointed in the faculties of Kinesiology and Veterinary Medicine. Rounding out the team of experts is Olivia Bruce, a biomechanics scholar, and a PhD candidate in UCalgary’s Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program.

“It’s a great collaboration, with the goal, the big picture, being to improve the safety or help prevent what we call catastrophic failure during racing, which is where the horse gallops hard and then suddenly there's a fractured bone,” says Léguillette. “Which happens also in humans, by the way, not just horses.”

Before the Stampede, the researchers ran chuckwagon horses on different levels of footing depth and firmness over distances of 100 and 200 metres. The horses galloped with a rider at full speed with sensors to measure acceleration and impact on the legs.

“If you punch your fist on a wall, that’s deceleration, going from high speed to zero. That’s exactly what happens when they run.”

Collecting data to help prevent leg bone fractures

In the prevention of leg bone fractures during racing, the track is one of the parameters that can be controlled. To collect data on different track conditions, sensors were placed on the horses’ hooves, cannon bones, and radiuses, using saddles fitted with a device measuring all the data.

“Right now, it’s an observational study, meaning when you change the track condition, we are looking at what happens to the legs of the horses. I'm not saying we'll immediately find the perfect track condition, but we are measuring and documenting and will be publishing our results.

“It’s cool because it's a collaboration with human kinesiology, veterinary medicine, the Stampede, and the chuckwagon horse owners are absolutely behind this project and are really great to collaborate with. They just want to make it work,” says Leguillette. “This is a nice, nice project.”