Cal Poly's rodeo on April 12, 2023. Credit: Owen Roberts / Mustang News

The horse that was euthanized during an April 15 Cal Poly Rodeo event suffered a paralyzing spinal injury, according to a report from the state Veterinary Medical Board. 

On-site veterinarian Edward Hamer described the injury in the report as, “Acute onset of hind end paralysis following a buck out.” While the horse was bucking, its spine was damaged and its back legs, tail and pelvic muscles suddenly lost all sensation. The horse was euthanized, “due to grave prognosis.” 

The report listed the horse as a “bareback bucking horse.”

Cal Poly veterinarian and animal sciences professor Kim Sprayberry said that while she was not involved with the horse’s treatment, she found the case extremely unusual in rodeos and horses in general. 

“I’ve been a veterinarian for 33 years,” Sprayberry said, “in all those years, I have never seen this particular injury in a bucking horse.”

Sprayberry is the associate head of the Animal Sciences Department and has worked at Cal Poly for 10 years. She tends to the on-unit animals, including the horses at the equine center on campus. 

Though she said it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened to the horse’s spine without a full magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Sprayberry believes that it was likely a ruptured disc or a similar injury that occurred while the horse was bucking. Typically, this kind of injury is only seen in cases where the horse suffers severe trauma such as by falling down.

A severe spine injury on a horse is not something that can often be successfully treated, Sprayberry said. The sheer size of horses and their quality of life they could expect after treatment are limiting factors in a successful recovery. In most cases, Sprayberry said, euthanizing the horse is the humane option.

“The term euthanasia literally means ‘good death’,” Sprayberry said. “And that is what the human can provide.”

Dairy science senior Steven Degrott was sitting in the front row of the arena when the horse was injured. It was the first event of the night, and the horse’s rider was the first contestant. The rider was bucked off soon after the horse exited the gate and in the next few bucks, the horse collapsed onto the arena floor. 

Degrott described the initial confusion from the crowd; “I don’t think a lot of people realized it until there was a group of 20 people that ran up and everyone crowded around the horse.”

Following the horse’s collapse, Degrott said the announcer commented, “‘You know, this is the cost of doing business. These horses are bred to buck and this is what happens, unfortunately.’ It was dead silent, it was pretty awkward.”

This year’s Poly Royal Rodeo was held from April 12-15 during Cal Poly’s Open House event, where prospective students visited campus to learn about the university. Tickets were sold out online days before the rodeo, and there were a variety of events including calf roping, horse riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing and others. Contestants included members of the Cal Poly Rodeo team as well as students from other universities on the West Coast.

Despite its popularity among many Cal Poly students, the rodeo has been subject to animal rights controversies in the past. In 2017 and again in 2018, activists for animal rights protested the rodeo’s use of animals for entertainment. 

Objections to the Cal Poly Rodeo and rodeo practices overall are still being voiced by organizations in San Luis Obispo. 

Peggy Koteen, the director of the Animal Emancipation San Luis Obispo County Chapter, has been advocating on behalf of rodeo animals for 31 years. 

While Koteen conceded that this year’s horse injury was not necessarily due to improper care, she spoke out against the use of animals in rodeos. 

“Rodeos are spectacles of animal abuse and human domination,” Koteen said. “They are about profit and entertainment at the animals’ expense.”

Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier addressed the university’s animal practices in an email response to Mustang News. He said that Cal Poly complies with all rodeo and legal guidelines regarding rodeo animals.

“Cal Poly believes strongly in and places a high priority on the humane care and treatment of animals used for instruction or related purposes,” Lazier wrote. 

Sprayberry said she has worked with rodeo coach Ben Londo and provides routine veterinary care for rodeo animals. She spoke positively about his treatment of rodeo animals.

“He’s an ethical, professional rodeo cowboy,” Sprayberry said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t work for him.”

Londo was unavailable for comment on the situation, and the identity of the rider who was on the horse prior to the accident is unknown. The horse was provided to the rodeo by a stock company, according to Lazier, and its name and age are unavailable.