July 15, 2022

How do bucking bulls really feel about rodeos?

UCalgary researchers study behaviour of bulls at Calgary Stampede to find out
Bucking bull at the Calgary Stampede
Vet med researchers are examining the behaviour of Stampede bulls and how factors associated with the bucking performance affect an animal's conduct. Todd Korol, for the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

Each afternoon at the Calgary Stampede when the bucking chute opens, all eyes are on the spectacle of a cowboy, one hand gripping a thick braided rope, trying to stay atop a 1,700-pound bucking, spinning, twisting bull for eight seconds.

At this year’s rodeo, there will also be some scientific eyes focused not on how well the rider fares, but on how the bull behaves during and after the ride.

“There's a lot of controversy around the use of animals in rodeos but there's not a lot of science to reference and inform those arguments,” says Dr. Ed Pajor, PhD, professor, University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM), and Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare. He has been researching the behaviour and welfare of animals at the Calgary Stampede since 2011.

Looking at bull-riding from a bull’s perspective

This year’s project focuses on the behaviour of bucking bulls while in the arena. “Animals receive lots of different cues during their performance,” says Pajor. These include things like the presence or absence of the rider and/or the tack used during the performance, the movement of a gate, the sound of the buzzer, the roar of the crowd.  

The research team is collecting data specifically on what the bull does after the rider is off or the buzzer sounds, looking for changes in the animal’s behaviour or gait. Do bulls continue bucking after the event is “officially over” and if so for how long?  Do they leave quickly or not? How do they respond to the bullfighters (present to distract bulls from a fallen rider) or the presence of the cowboys on horses (pick-up men) that have the specific job of directing bulls to the exits?

“It’s likely that animals will vary in their response to different cues perhaps depending on early training or experiences at rodeos. There’s never been research done examining the bull’s behaviour and how the presence or absence of different components associated with the bucking performance impact an animal's conduct,” says Pajor.

“What we’re trying to do is improve our understanding of these amazing animals, collect more data to inform the discussion about the different factors of the performance and the impact on the animal’s welfare.”

Collecting data to get clear picture of bull’s experience

Pajor says the first step is to describe what's happening, try to understand the relationship between different factors and get a clear picture of a bull’s experience. Once they have initial data, they will likely move forward with more hypothesis-driven studies on bulls and may expand the descriptive study to include bucking horses in future years.

“The Calgary Stampede gives us complete access to all animals. They are very open to the research that we do, and really appreciate the information that we provide. When our research findings have suggested ways to improve animal welfare, the Stampede has acted on them,” says Pajor.

Behind the scenes at the rodeo from a student perspective

This summer, Pajor’s research team includes Dr. Jennifer Pearson, DVM, PhD, an assistant professor at UCVM and a co-lead on this research project; research associate Dr. Anice Thomas, PhD; grad student Lindsay Arkangel; and DVM students Kathryn McLellan and Allison Veseley. 

“It’s fantastic for the students. They gain experience in conducting behavioural research, doing direct observations, understanding how to look at the data and analyze the data. It’s a real hands-on experiential introduction to a behavioural study in a very unique environment.”

Along with the research experience, the students also get to see what a rodeo veterinarian does on a daily basis and the kind of care animals receive. And with UCVM veterinarians and staff working with horses in the chuckwagon barns, there are opportunities for students to get experience in that setting as well.

“All these situations have their unique challenges and opportunities, so it’s something that students walk away from completely thrilled with the experience they’ve had in learning and doing,” Pajor says.