Injecting Science Into The Debate About Rodeos
Rodeos are the quintessential, Western-style entertainment. They began as a way to dramatize certain activities of cow production, and over time, they’ve become embedded in the culture of some communities. Today, there is much debate about the use of horses in rodeos, particularly for roughstock or bucking events. Is it trained performance or coerced abuse? From our perspective as animal advocates, it seems to be the latter. But in fact, the horse’s actual experience has not been evaluated from a scientific perspective.
Horses respond to unknown situations or danger by avoidance or flight. However, as they become acclimated, they may cease to react as strongly to the triggering event. They appear less afraid, but whether this is due to habituation or “learned helplessness” is not always clear. Learned helplessness occurs when an individual concludes they have no control over unpleasant conditions. This psychological state leads to a lack of response to stimuli and an emotional state akin to depression. If experienced rodeo horses are demonstrating learned helplessness instead of habituation, it’s an indication that their welfare is being compromised.
Researchers in this study looked at reactivity of horses in rodeos prior to bucking events. They wanted to clarify if there was a relationship between the horses’ experience and familiarity with the rodeo environment, and how this is linked to either habituation or learned helplessness. To do this, they followed 116 horses over three years at the same rodeo. They analyzed behaviors that were part of event preparation for bareback, novice bareback, saddle bronc, and novice saddle bronc performances. This involves putting on the required tack, such as halters, flank straps, cinches, or saddles, and eventually, the rider.
The actions of both humans and horses were visually recorded during active loading and while horses were held in chutes before being released into the arena. Behaviors were combined into composite scores for horses and humans. Higher scores indicated more behavioral vigor, which in turn is linked to fear and the desire to escape in horses. Researchers measured two specific equine behaviors for use in data analysis. One was balking, or not wanting to move cooperatively with the handlers. The other was charging or moving suddenly to get away from an interaction. They also captured six handler actions representing increasing levels of visual, auditory, and physical engagement with the horses. These included using a voice/whistle, waving a paddle or their arms, hitting a fence with a paddle, hitting a horse’s face or another body part, or swinging a gate on a horse.
Overall, 72% of horses balked during loading, and 37% balked more than once. Balking was correlated with the number of handlers present. Familiarity with the facility did indeed affect horse behavior. The odds of balking during loading increased for horses with less exposure to the rodeo, as did vigorous behaviors in the chute. Despite these trends, horses with more experience still displayed spontaneous behaviors and responded to random environmental cues, which isn’t usually the case for animals experiencing learned helplessness. As such, the authors believe that the more subdued behavior of seasoned rodeo horses was likely a result of habituation.
These results offer some positive news in that rodeo horse welfare may not be compromised by learned helplessness. However, more research is needed, because behavioral observations alone aren’t always enough to demonstrate how a horse is coping. The authors offer some observations on how facility layout may influence horse reactivity. They also recommend minimizing the number of handlers to less than four during loading to decrease the fear and stress experienced by horses when they’re surrounded by too many handlers. Animal advocates can use these results to urge rodeo sponsors to adopt more horse-friendly preparation standards. They can also follow up on the authors’ recommendations for future research to improve our knowledge of horse welfare in a rodeo setting.