Chuckwagon drivers know what happens shortly after they declare their six horses – four for the wagon, two for the outriders – for the night’s heat. They will step aside and allow veterinarians to do inspections. And this is not some random peek at one of their thoroughbreds. All six horses get a going-over. And no one’s griping.
Because drivers appreciate the medical attention their horses get every afternoon at the GMC Rangeland Derby. Officially, it’s known as the Fitness to Compete initiative, which started in 2011 at the Calgary Stampede.
“This is a great program to get our horses all checked out, something that you’d have to pay a huge amount of money for anywhere else,” Jordie Fike told reporters Thursday afternoon after a demonstration by Stampede veterinarian Erin Thompson Shields at his barn. “These horses are getting checked out … making sure they’re at the peak of their physical condition for the Stampede.”
Commitment is considerable. Do the math – 36 drivers activating six horses apiece per night. That’s 216 inspections – a couple of minutes each – every day for 10 days of racing. To boot, every single horse is screened upon arrival at the GMC Rangeland Derby.
“It’s huge for us,” said Fike, who brought 16 horses – a typical number – to Calgary. “They’re our family. They’re our livelihood. We spend every day of our lives with them. So anything we can do to make their lives better, easier, to make them feel better … we’re 100 per cent for it. We’re appreciative that the Stampede is willing to do that for us.”
Vets do their work with a range of tools, from a wand-and-iPad combination that loads data to ever-evolving software to an old-school stethoscope to a simple eye test for gait assessment.
Benefits are obvious – preventative maintenance and general care. For instance, Fike, armed with up-to-date information, can draw reliable conclusions about his animal’s well-being.
“Some horses might be more relaxed here than you think, right?” Fike said. “(If the vet) says, ‘His heart rate is real low.’ You wouldn’t really expect it because he’s a high-energy horse. But at least you know he’s resting when he should be.
“We do not want to run a horse that is fatigued (and susceptible to break-down injuries). You want horses – you want athletes – to feel good before they compete, just like any other sports team.” Fike noted that other drivers have had horses with irregular heart-beats identified. “It’s great to catch that,” he said. “You’re not going to put them to work. It’s not safe for them. They can go retire in the pasture. I mean, just learning any little thing you can about a horse – maybe he had a (health concern) somewhere that you didn’t even know about. To have these professionals here that spot these things is great for us.”
Even previously undetected injuries – say, sustained at home in the winter – can come to light in Calgary, thanks to the vets’ scrutiny.
“There might be something underlying that he did in the field … and it’s sitting there, waiting to (get worse),” said Fike. “We don’t want those kind of injuries to ever happen. Anything we can do to prevent it, we do it.”
Since every horse here has been microchipped, chuckwagon officials can track usage and eligibility. Horses are permitted to race a maximum of four consecutive nights, which necessitates two mandatory days off.
“There’s multiple checks and steps in the process to try to mitigate risk as much as possible,” said Thompson Shields, adding that four vets are ringside during races, plus another one, with interns, stationed in the barn area.