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Do horses and cattle enjoy participating in rodeos?
Arguments put forward in support of the use of horses, bulls, steers and calves in rodeos tend to focus on the fact that these events have been part of country town life for many years, that they are good for the local community and that the animals are well treated and they 'enjoy' their work.
But looking at participation in rodeos from the animals' perspective, there is very little evidence that these animals 'enjoy' the experience. Rodeo horse and bulls buck repeatedly as an instinctive reaction to the discomfort of being ridden and to the presence of flank straps which have been tightened around their underbelly, a very sensitive and vulnerable part of the body. Horses and cattle are prey animals and their reaction to being ridden in this way is the same as their reaction to being attacked by a predator, a situation where they are subject to increased stress, anxiety and panic. It is not uncommon to see horses and bulls hurl themselves at solid objects in order to rid themselves of the rider. Only when the rider has been thrown or dismounts and the flank straps loosened do they quieten down. Also, some ridden animals are so distressed that they then charge the rider on the ground, further demonstrating that a very strong 'fight' stress response has been activated.
The experience of calves during calf roping events is even more stressful, as these animals are very young with limited exposure to the rodeo environment. They are lassoed around the neck with a rope, wrenched to a halt which lifts them off their feet, then they are picked up and dropped on their sides with their legs hurriedly tied up. A recent study undertaken by the University of Queensland has demonstrated that even calves who had experienced roping previously showed elevated stress hormone levels in the blood after being roped similar to that described above. In terms of behaviour, all calves showed 'white eye', where the eye rolls to reveal about 50% of the white of the eye and they showed increased run speed indicative of an attempt to flee the chasing rider. 'White eye' is believed to be a response to help shut out environmental input which may be overwhelming for the calf to see. For calves who had never been exposed to a holding pen or chute used at rodeos, the same study also showed increased stress hormones after they had been marshalled and simply moved across the arena by a rider and horse.
In addition, there is likely to be regular transportation of animals to venues in different States, which is stressful due to movement, noise, unfamiliar surroundings etc. Also, some rodeos use young steers for roping from a local farm where they are completely naive to the rodeo environment, which is extremely stressful and increases the risk of injury as these animals are frightened by the noise, intense handling and being chased by a horse and rider.
RSPCA Australia does not believe that there is any justification for subjecting animals to this level of stress and potential injury, when the event is carried out only for the purpose of human entertainment or sport.
 Sinclair M, Keeley T, Lefebvre, A, and Phillips, C. (2016) Behavioural and physiological responses of calves to marshalling and roping in a simulated rodeo event. Animals 6, 30
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