"Nobody panic," the RodeoHouston announcer told the crowd on opening night of RodeoHouston 2016. It was moments after Gary Sandstead flew out of his chuckwagon as it rounded a curve, sending him tumbling into the dirt. He wasn't getting up.
The jazzy tunes stopped immediately. The crowd swapped cheering for gasping. The three horse-drawn chuck wagons continued racing around the arena — and then the driver-less one crashed into the wall.
While Sandstead laid on the arena floor, the announcer assured the crowd the veterinarians would take care of the horses and that they'd be OK. And sure enough, they were. Sandstead, meanwhile, was taken to the hospital with eight broken ribs and a broken shoulder. In the months after the rodeo, a CT scan revealed where his broken ribs had punctured his lungs, leading doctors to believe the splotches were signs of cancer. Then they found out about his chuckwagon accident.
"They told me I had 30 days to live," said Sandstead, 65, who's been racing for the past 40 years. "That changed my whole perspective on life. But I got back in the wagon. I'll just do it until I get too old I guess."
That year, Sandstead had given the RodeoHouston spectators just a small taste of the dangers of chuckwagon racing, sometimes overlooked in comparison to the bull riding and the bareback riding. Drivers aren't the only ones at risk of injury. The Calgary Stampede — where the event is most famous, takes place on a full racetrack with larger wagons; 65 chuckwagon horses have died since 1986. In 2015, four horses died in one summer at the Stampede, prompting animal-rights activists to call for the end of chuckwagon racing at the classic rodeo, where chuckwagon racing originated in 1923.
Sandstead said he's encountered the animal-rights people all around — but has embraced them instead of turned them away. Once, he said, when he was racing at a rodeo in Colorado Springs, a bunch of them were up on a hill snapping pictures, holding signs. Sandstead invited them down to pet his horses.
"The emphasis is on safety right now with the animal rights people and the way it is," Sandstead said. "You've gotta take care of these horses. And that's one thing we really try to do. Rather than alienate those people, bring 'em into the fold, let 'em see that these horses are part of our family, and we take care of 'em just like our family. Don't make them think we're trying to hide something, because there's nothing to hide."
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Rene Salmond, who's been a chuckwagon driver for 47 years and has raced every night at RodeoHouston since 2002, said his horses live a pampered lifestyle. To win in chuckwagon races, horses need to be well-fed, taking in a healthy amount of vitamins every day, and well-conditioned, trained to know the course and their specific roles.
Since he began in 1970, Salmond said regulations have evolved with the goal of reducing crashes and horse injuries, even including hefty fines and penalties levied against drivers who cause any crashes that hurt the animals, or who attempt risky maneuvers causing interference with other wagons on the track. Those financial regulations went into place in 2008, the year the Chuckwagon Safety Commission was founded after a crash at the Calgary Stampede that left three horses dead and a driver injured. During the Stampede's rough chuckwagoning year in 2015, for example, two drivers were fined $10,000 after the commission found they were responsible for the crash that led to a horse's leg getting run over by a wagon wheel. The horse had to be euthanized.
"Any time you have horses going that fast, you're gonna get some chance of an accident," Salmond said. "But [the fines and penalties] make everyone more careful to stay out of the accidents, so you think about it more. The cost comes out of your pocket."
As for human safety, Sandstead said he doesn't expect another accident like the kind that happened last year to be happening again: Now, the chuckwagons at RodeoHouston have guardrails on each side of the bench.