By Jeffrey Jones
CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The debate between cowboy tradition and animal rights at the Calgary Stampede was reignited late Thursday when three horses were killed and a fourth seriously injured during a chuckwagon race at the huge annual rodeo and exhibition of Western Canadian culture
Chuckwagon racing, the marquee event of Calgary's famous 10-day festival, is inspired by pioneering cowboys' practice of breaking camp and racing away. The thrilling sport is a Stampede symbol but it has claimed dozens of animals over the years.
In the event, teams of horses pull covered wagons with wood-spoke wheels around a track after making their way through a tight figure-eight. Each team has two outriders who have to finish the race with the wagon.
Thursday's crash occurred in the evening Rangeland Derby competition -- one of the Stampede's biggest crowd draws -- when one of the lead horses pulling a covered wagon went down on the back stretch of the racetrack, pulling the rest of the team into the dirt. Another horse being ridden behind the rig collided with it.
Two of the horses, part of the team of driver Chad Harden, were euthanized on the track. Harden and the outrider were not seriously injured.
Stampede officials said the lead horse may have died of natural causes during the race, triggering the crash. A post-mortem was being performed on that horse.
"We are continuing to review the video and talk to the people who were involved in the incident," Stampede spokesman Doug Fraser said. "We're going to try and fully understand what happened last night so we can prevent it from happening again."
Harden, a veteran driver on the chuckwagon circuit, tearfully told reporters that the deaths were "devastating for our whole family".
"The out riding horse is an 18-year-old horse. I've had him for 13 years. He's part of our family, he's supposed to be my kid's horse," CBC television quoted him as saying.
Animal rights groups, already harsh critics of chuckwagon racing and other Stampede rodeo events, called for the suspension of the big-money competition, despite several recent changes aimed at making the sport safer. Fifty horses have died in the chuckwagon races since 1986.
"The Stampede has run out of excuses," Vancouver Humane Society spokesman Peter Fricker said in a statement. "Now is the time to take real action to stop these horses from dying."
Recent changes to the sport have included reducing the number of outriders per team to two from four and vastly increasing veterinary inspections of horses both before and after races, Fraser said.
He ruled out any suspension of racing, and said those calling for it are "activist organizations with an activist agenda".
"We turn around and see the full grandstand that we had last night, we look at the probably millions of people we had in television audience. We know there is a love for this sport," he said.
(Editing by Peter Galloway)