Veterinarian: Pro Rodeo Boasts 99.9% Animal Safety Record

“Livestock is the lifeblood of rodeo,” says Douglas Corey, DVM, of Pendleton, Oregon, who has played a central role in crafting animal welfare rules for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) for more than 30 years and is a PRCA Hall of Fame inductee. The organization adopted its first livestock policy in 1947, and today it has 70 rules governing animal health and safety. Keeping horses and livestock injury-free has been—and will continue to be—a PRCA priority, he told attendees during the 2020 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention, held virtually.

Data collected during the last five years show animal injuries occur in just one of every 1,000 runs at PRCA events—a safety record of 99.9%. This statistic is based on approximately 355,000 “animal exposures” during a single year, Corey explained. Specific PRCA requirements, along with detailed action plans, make personnel better prepared to respond when emergencies do occur.

One mandate is that a veterinarian be present at all PRCA-sanctioned rodeos. Another is for a large animal ambulance, trailer, sled, or other conveyance to remain on site so injured livestock can be moved immediately to a dedicated area for evaluation and treatment. The on-site veterinarian not only provides expertise in treating sick or injured animals but also plays a leadership role in ensuring the standard of care.

Education has been critical in reshaping rodeo culture, Corey said, especially as more people come into the sport who are not from traditional farming or ranching backgrounds. PRCA judges are trained in animal welfare, and their job includes ensuring participants follow all rules. Judges inspect facilities, housing, equipment, ground conditions, and the care, handling, health, and suitability of horses and livestock before a competition begins. What’s more, the veterinarian signs off on this report.

Despite these efforts, Corey said misperceptions about the treatment of rodeo stock continue to exist. One involves the use of flank straps on bucking horses. They are not placed over the horse’s genitalia, as often erroneously claimed, he said. PRCA also requires that flank straps be lined with fleece or neoprene, and they cannot be adjusted tightly. Corey points out that this would interfere with the horse’s natural ability to perform. Additionally, the flank strap is in place for only a short time and is released by the pick-up man at the end of an 8-second ride. Saddle bronc and bareback riders wear only dulled spurs with unlocked rowels during roughstock events, he said.

Corey said facility and equipment improvements are also reducing injuries. Facilities are replacing wooden chutes and corrals with smoother, stronger metal gates and panels, and padding is strategically placed within and above chutes and alleyways. Horses and cattle are less likely to get a leg caught in a gate or to injure their heads if they rear. Other safety measures include limited use of electric prods when moving livestock and better biosecurity protocols. He also noted that the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), which sanctions barrel racing and breakaway roping, has led the way on medication and drug-testing policies, embracing U.S. Equestrian Federation guidelines. Corey anticipates that PRCA will follow suit but acknowledged it’s an area of animal welfare that still needs work.

Good communication is also essential.

To the credit of the sport, he said producers and stock contractors are more transparent today when accidents or disease outbreaks occur. But Corey advised they put statements in writing before making public announcements. This ensures the information will be accurate, pertinent, honest, and consistent, reassuring officials, spectators, and contestants that equine and livestock welfare is a top priority.

Corey also noted that rodeo is benefiting from selective breeding programs that produce horses well-suited to their jobs—whether that’s roping, barrel racing, bull-dogging, or bucking. It’s rare for a backyard horse to be plucked from the pasture and put into a bronc string, he said. In fact, the final slide in his presentation was of a beautiful herd of specially bred bucking horses running free on a Wyoming ranch. Breeders, contestants, and stock contractors are more invested than ever in the quality of horses that pro rodeo requires, and it’s reflected in the care the animals receive, he said.