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Calgary Stampede rodeo goes ahead, as nearby horse races cancel due to smoke

calgary stampede air quality

Two horse-racing events were cancelled in southern Alberta on Sunday to protect the animals from severe wildfire smoke that had pushed the region’s air quality off the charts, but the Calgary Stampede said its rodeo will go ahead.

The air quality health index was sitting at 10+, or very high risk, as of 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

The World Professional Chuckwagon Association said it consulted with veterinarians who determined racing was not recommended due to the smoke, forcing the postponement of the Battle of the Foothills races scheduled for 7 p.m. in the town of High River that evening.

“Our love for the horses is why every precaution is taken to ensure their safety and well-being,” the organization said in a statement.

Century Downs Racetrack in Calgary also cancelled its standardbred races, citing the safety of horses and humans scheduled to compete.

The Calgary Stampede said the final day of its rodeo would go ahead. 

“Our on-site team of veterinarians is monitoring the animals for any sign of increased respiratory effort. If noted, they will not be permitted to compete,” a Stampede spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

We look after the horses, that’s what comes first for us.– Kurt Bensmiller, chuckwagon racer

An amateur rodeo was also going ahead in High River on Sunday. 

Carl McGovern, vice-president of the High River Agricultural Society, said rodeo events carry a lighter workload and have a shorter duration than chuckwagon or horse races. He said the decision to postpone the chuckwagon races came after an emergency meeting.

“We monitor their workload. If you have four horses hooked to a wagon and you’re running them for a full minute … it’s the right thing for the horses and it’s the right thing even for the spectators. The air quality is definitely an issue,” he said. 

Chuckwagon racer Kurt Bensmiller said the cancellation due to smoke was a first in his more than 20 years of racing.

“We’re not going to risk it. We’ve got lots of time so why not look after the horses first,” he said.

“This is our livelihood. We look after the horses, that’s what comes first for us.”

Calgary’s air had concentrations of PM2.5 (or fine particulate matter) that were 17 times higher than the World Health Organization’s exposure recommendations at the time the rodeo began on Sunday afternoon, according to IQAir, a Swiss-based company that tracks air quality around the world. 

Environment Canada says when the air quality health index is this high, people should reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors, and children, the elderly or anyone with respiratory or heart conditions should avoid outdoor exertion entirely.

A study published by the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology this week also suggests that wildfire smoke exposure is associated with an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

Arts Commons cancelled pop-up performances scheduled in the East Village due to the air quality as well.

The Stampede was offering free admission for its final day.

The festival, which was one of the first large events to take place across Canada since the pandemic began, said it saw roughly half of its pre-pandemic daily attendance, or about 50,000 people per day.

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