07/04/2012 11:19 EDT | Updated 09/03/2012 05:12 EDT

University of Calgary study aims to reduce deaths of chuckwagon horses

CALGARY - John Walters is in his first year on the professional chuckwagon circuit and already knows how painful losing a horse can be.

The rookie driver from Delburne, Alta., is allowing his team to be part of a study by the University of Calgary that is measuring the heart rates and electrical activity of chuckwagon horses. It's hoped the findings could eventually reduce the number of animal deaths.

"It's very emotional. We had one that we lost with a heart failure two hours after the race ... last year," Walters said Wednesday as he prepared his team for a training run. "As a family you sit there and cry. They're family to us right? They're our children now that our children are grown up."

The study involves the university, the Calgary Stampede and the Moore Equine Veterinary Centre.

Lead researcher Renaud Leguillette and his team are using electrocardiogram (EKG) equipment to monitor horses before, during and after their morning exercise. Selected horses competing in chuckwagon races at the Calgary Stampede are part of the study.

Leguillette said he became interested after several cases over the years in which horses died from heart attacks after competing.

"When I saw that I thought there must be something we can do for these horses and the first thing to do is to try to understand if there are some risk factors and to see why it could happen and then try to give recommendations to prevent that," Leguillette said.

"We want to know what the effect of cumulative racing is on the heart function of these horses. We were concerned about the sudden death problem that has happened at these rodeos."

The data collected will also provide veterinarians with scientific information about when it is physically best to run a horse and when it’s best to rest the animal.

There are 100 chuckwagon horses in the study, which began a few weeks ago and has followed them through a number of chuckwagon races already.

Leguillette said he has already determined the animals are extremely fit and their stress levels remarkably low.

The Stampede introduced changes last year aimed at making chuckwagon races safer for both horses and competitors. The move came after six horses died in 2010 — two of heart attacks.

All horses are now inspected by veterinarians when the animals arrive at the Stampede and before and after every race. There is also a mandatory rest day after every four days of racing.

The number of outriders that accompany each chuckwagon as it thunders around a dirt track was reduced to two from four to try to avoid congestion. Several riders have been seriously injured over the years.

Walters is looking forward to seeing the study's results.

"I believe in the future this is going to be a big step for chuckwagon racing."