Rodeo in New Zealand: Animal cruelty or PC gone mad?



To the readers. Over the past 6 months I have been trying to critically assess issues surrounding rodeo in New Zealand, from an objective standpoint. This article forms the summary of that process, and describes my conclusions as well as the reasoning behind them. As with any opinion article I am sure there will be criticisms, and I want to encourage these for those who wish to provide them. Please feel free to ask me (in the comment section) for citations to back up the information in this article, and to provide constructive criticism if you feel the need.


According to the New Zealand Encyclopedia, rodeo first appeared in New Zealand in the 1960’s, and the first national championship was held in 1973. Currently there are approximately 36 rodeo events held in New Zealand each year. Although rodeo has some popularity in rural areas as a spectator sport, relatively few people participate in the events themselves.

Previously I had not expressed either support or opposition to rodeo. Approximately 6 months ago, after reading concerns about rodeo from various organisations in the media, I decided to look into the issue. My primary objective was to ascertain whether these concerns were simply overexaggeration and/or hysteria, or whether rodeo events were in fact a legitimate concern. Despite being born and raised in a rural area, I was by no means familiar with the ins and outs of rodeo. I set out aiming to avoid emotion, and to reach a conclusion that was based on fact as objectively as is humanly possible. I asked for video footage of alleged concerns from anti-rodeo campaigners, I spoke to qualified vets and SPCA officers that had attended rodeo events, I trawled the scientific research literature around the topic, and I looked to see if any animals had been killed in NZ in recent years as a result of injuries sustained during rodeo events. Finally, last month, I attended a rodeo event out where I grew up, which was being held at the sport grounds that I played club rugby for as a kid. In the remainder of this article I have attempted to provide a summary of my conclusions and the reasoning behind them.

The video footage from 2015-2017 rodeo seasons shows a variety of instances of distress and clear animal abuse, occurring at multiple different rodeo events up and down the country. This includes, but is not limited to: Animals (including young calves) enclosed and being shocked with cattle prods because they refuse to move forward to be mounted, calves having their necks twisted back the wrong way, bulls having their tails twisted at the base, and so on. Multiple animals have died in recent years as a direct result of injuries sustained during events at NZ rodeos. Attending vets I have spoken to have told me about horrific injuries that they have witnessed, as have SPCA officers who attend and assess events and report back to the Minister for Primary Industries. As a result, in part, of their experiences while attending rodeo events over the last two decades, the SPCA is calling for an outright ban on rodeo in New Zealand. Recently the New Zealand Veterinary Association released a position statement outlining concerns about rodeo events, and calling for a re-evaluation of the rodeo code of welfare. Although the NZVA have previously supported NAWAC decisions on issues which SPCA have criticized, for example the use of farrowing crates on pig farms, they appear to agree with SPCA on a number of issues surrounding rodeo events. Huntley rodeo has now been shut down not long after clear breaches of animal welfare codes were uncovered, following the publishing of video footage from the events. Huntly rodeo organisers Fraser and Craig Graham pulled the plug in 2014 “for fear of being prosecuted by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), possibly leading to a fine or even jail time.”. However in 2015 the organisers announced plans to reopen a modified event which would be ‘equestrian-based’. The RNZSPCA expressed disappointment at the action.

I attempted to find media surrounding the issue at Huntly rodeo, in order to try and understand a promoters perspective on these issues. Following the uncovering of the abuse at Huntly rodeo Fraser Graham said of the incidents, in an interview with Seven Sharp, that “There were a couple of animals that played up in the chutes. And one young bull sat down. And to try and make it get up so that he could get his ride, the cowboy stomped on it with his foot a few times…Didn’t hurt it…But it was perceived to be cruel”. When challenged by the interviewer, that Graham should accept this was cruel, he responded that perhaps it was but “In a very minor way”. In response to further questioning on footage of a significantly distressed palomino horse, the Graham’s response was that they “…cannot control the heat of the moment behaviour of some of the competitors.”, before going on to admit that they could not guarantee further breaches would not occur if the event were to remain in operation. I personally felt that this response was concerning in itself, as it attempted to shift blame onto the animals, and attempted to argue that clear breaches of the welfare code were not cruel. If organizers think that breaches of the rodeo code of welfare do not constitute a significant animal welfare concern, it appears reasonable to suggest that alternative measures of whether rodeo events are causing distress to animals are necessary.

Next I decided to research the history of animal welfare organisations, as well as local body governments, with respect to rodeo. Media resources show that the SPCA have been calling for a ban on rodeo in NZ since at least the 1990’s. During this time Auckland SPCA ran a three-year campaign that lead to rodeos being banned at Auckland’s Easter Show. Their subsequent campaigning, along with support from animal welfare organisations and the public, resulted in Auckland City Council banning rodeos from council-owned land within the city in 2008. Christchurch City Council had been asked by animal welfare organisations to follow suit. At the time a banner was seen flying behind an aircraft over Christchurch City that read “AKL CAN, WE CAN, CCC BAN RODEOS.” However Mayor of the time, Bob Parker, stated to media that it would be “ridiculous to ban an event that passed SPCA inspection.”.* The Christchurch City Council did not pass any bylaws on rodeo. Unfortunately, at a subsequent 2014 rodeo event in Christchurch, an animal was severely injured and had to be euthanized. This occurred Horncastle Arena, formerly Westpac Stadium, a council owned and operated venue. I have contacted Vbase to see if they intend to host another rodeo in future, or if they would consider hosting one again if approached by rodeo event promoters. I did receive an email back last Thursday morning, that asked why I was enquiring, and which I promptly responded to with a detailed explanation. At this point I have not received an answer to the questions mentioned above. Edit: after emailing again today (Tuesday), I received a response explaining that Vbase were quite busy with events currently but hoped to prepare something for me in the coming days.

*Although the SPCA had been historically opposed to rodeo, their inspections were to ensure events operated in line with the rodeo code of welfare. SPCA had criticized the code, which outlined rules for rodeo events that were supposed to reflect the Animal Welfare Act 1999. SPCA submissions were largely not accepted by the committee that constructed the code. However SPCA officers can not bring legal action, upon persons involved in acts which they deem to be cruel, unless those acts are specifically in breach of the code. As such, SPCA inspection officers could only ensure that events complied with the code.

With regard to the published science on this issue: High quality research on the topic of animal welfare at rodeos is scarce compared to many areas of scientific inquiry. The most recent scientific publications on this issue state that more research is necessary. However there is good evidence from this research base to demonstrate that animals do suffer in at least some of the events included in NZ rodeo competitions. Australian agricultural & veterinary scientists from the University of Queensland conducted a high quality study, which was published recently in the scientific journal ‘Animals’. The study was actually commissioned by the Australian Rodeo Association, who were hoping this would show that the animals were not suffering, amid fears that animal welfare concerns might cause events to be shut down. However the results demonstrated that all calves involved in rope and tie showed behavioral signs of stress (specifically eye rolling), and they also found that both naive and rodeo experienced animals had significantly elevated stress markers in blood samples following rodeo events. There had been a study published prior to this, but which measured cortisol levels only, and which was less methodologically sound than the more recent publication (e.g. Calves were transported from the rodeo arena back to the farm ~20 minutes away prior to blood collection, whereas in the more recent study blood collection was undertaken immediately following each rope & tie procedure). So far the weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence appears to support the conclusion that these animals do in fact suffer at rodeo events.

Confusion among rodeo proponents, on the science around this issue, may be the inadvertent result of a 2003 article by Mark Fisher of Kotare Bioethics Ltd., titled “the effects of roping on the behaviour and physiology of calves in a rodeo”. This article was cited by NAWAC in their scientific review summary, during development of the rodeo code of welfare. However this article was not a typical scientific research publication, but rather a report prepared for MPI (formerly Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries). Unlike the article mentioned previously, the Fisher (2003) article was not published in an academic journal, which would require it to pass the scrutiny of a scientific peer review process.

At this point in my investigations, various different avenues of evidence appeared to point to the same clear conclusion. In order to look at the issue from an alternative perspective I considered whether failure to change, in the face of the evidence, might lie with social opposition between community groups. Is this issue a matter of conflicting interests between rural and city folk? Based on my own experience, I did not believe that support for animal cruelty is a common trait among rural people. Throughout my life I have personally interacted with countless people, from rural communities, that have nothing but the utmost respect for their animals. While attending a rodeo event last month I spoke to several locals, and some expressed similar concerns to those which I had heard from the SPCA with regard to rodeo. While I was talking with protesters outside the entrance to the rodeo ground, one local walked past with their dog and told the protesters to “keep up the good work”. The club I played rugby for as a kid is based at the same sport ground this rodeo event was being held. My father was one of the people that helped, alongside others in the community, to establish this very sport ground many years ago. Following a thorough analysis of all of the available information, neither him nor I could say with a clear conscience that we are not deeply concerned for the welfare of animals involved in these events. Based on what I know about the number of good people throughout our rural communities, most of whom pride themselves on high animal welfare standards, this issue appears to be far less to do with rural interests than some have argued. It turned out that several of those involved with the rodeo protest movement were people with backgrounds working in the dairy farming sector. I recall learning the position of one protester, who had previously competed in rodeo events themselves before deciding that several of the events were not in line with their personal values.

It is now my position that rodeo should be banned in New Zealand, but that those involved in the activity should be actively encouraged, and warmly welcomed, into other highly physical sports that New Zealand has to offer. Hopefully with this outlook we can all work together to retain the positive physical aspects of the events for those keen sportsmen & sportswomen, while avoiding the need to sacrifice animal welfare in the process.


16 thoughts on “Rodeo in New Zealand: Animal cruelty or PC gone mad?

  1. “However the results demonstrated that all calves involved in rope and tie showed behavioral signs of stress (specifically eye rolling), and they also found that both naive and rodeo experienced animals had significantly elevated stress markers in blood samples following rodeo events.”

    This is what is considered “fake news”. Take some bovine anatomy classes and you will find out that calves, cows, bovine in general are incapable of ” rolling their eyes “.

    Maybe the elevated stress markers in the blood was caused by the action of acquiring the blood.


    • Hi Gliding Buzzard, thanks for your comment. The eye-white response is well documented in the agricultural science literature, and dairy farmers that I have spoken to personally have told me that they understand it to be an indicator of stress in their cattle. Are you sure we are talking about the same thing here?

      I would love to learn more about bovine anatomy, and I am all ears if there is anything you would like to tell me. Cheers!


      • I didn’t see anything about white eyes in the article just the rolling eyes, but my eyes are tired. But I will respond to the white eyes. I have plenty of horses and some in the barns. You can walk through the barn anytime during the day and never see a white eye. But come feeding time and they know it, you can see the whites of their eyes every time. White eyes is nothing more then being attentive or focused.

        You can ride through a herd of cattle with a horse and you will see white eyes as they are paying attention to you. Or bring them a round bale or two in the winter and you will see plenty of white eyes.

        Seeing white eyes does not always mean they are stressed.

        Watch a roping horse when they are backed into the corner before a run and you will see plenty of white eyes. Or a barrel horse just before it enters the arena.

        As far as your post below about roping calves running. Horses and cattle both learn everything by habit. If you take a roping calf and don’t prepare them properly before being roped and you get one that turns back in the left corner the first time they are roped, they will turn back in that left corner every time.

        The reason they run is because they are prepared or should be prior to being roped and tied down. For example take and run them through the chutes a few time with several calves at a time with a person loping a horse behind them at a distant. After doing that a few times then do them single. Gradually them start picking up speed and leaving the box as soon as the gate opens. After that breakaway rope them a half dozen times. That helps them to start slowing down when the rope goes around their neck. Then start roping and tie them.

        Have a good one.


      • Hi Gliding Buzzard. In the 2016 study, the animals were prepared as you have described below (run through the course a few times in preparation with a rider following behind). This includes animals in both conditions, i.e. the naive-marshalled calves also.


    • Just to add, good thinking to point out that the action of acquiring the blood could cause elevated stress markers. The study that I cited thankfully thought about this and controlled for it, have a read if interested…Fisher et al, 2003.



  2. I would just like to say that I disagree with the conclusion you came to in regards to the Sinclair et al paper. The paper shows that calves that were moved across a rodeo arena, roped or unroped, displayed signs of stress indicators in blood. The conclusion of that paper should be that there is little to no significant difference between roped and unroped groups in terms of blood indicators. In fact, for cortisol, the levels were higher in the unroped calves. It was commented that eye rolling only occurred when the calves were being lifted to the ground. I would argue that this is common in all calves that are lifted and placed on the ground, not necessarily a symptom of event handling. The experiment simply showed that movement across an arena could be stressful for the animal, not that this was necessarily related to roping. Can we say that this response is isolated to rodeo arenas? Is it possible that this is a normal response for any animal being herded over any space by humans?

    The authors of this experiment acknowledge there are some short comings with their experimental design. They also acknowledge the need for further research.

    However, I would be interested to hear your opinion on this interpretation.


    • Hi KyraKat, thanks for your comment. I would liked to have given a more thorough analysis of the study above, but the article was already getting very long. I will try to reply to your question as best I can here.

      It is important to note that the Fisher et al study also looked at several measures of stress, and to look at the results as a whole. Regarding research methodology and stress biomarkers – The calves that were roped were all rodeo experienced calves, and the calves that were only ‘marshaled’ were rodeo-naive calves. You are right to say that there were not naive-marshaled versus naive-roped, or experienced-marshaled versus experienced-roped conditions. All calves involved in the study were put in chutes, and released from the chutes, in much the same manner. The only difference was that experienced-roped calves were actually roped, whereas the others were not. Although cortisol levels were higher in the naive calves, there was no difference in epinephrine (adrenaline) levels. Epinephrine plays an important role in fight-or-flight responses. The fact that these biomarkers are increased in both cases is cause for concern.

      It found that 100% of roped calves displayed an ‘eye-white’ response, which is described in the agricultural science literature, and understood by dairy farmers, to indicate stress in this species. This response was found while calves were laterally recumbent following roping, but not prior to roping. The study also measured differences in run speeds between naive and rodeo experienced calves, following release from the chutes. It found that experienced calves had higher run speeds than naive calves. It also measured time spent walking, trotting, and running, in all calves studied. It found that naive marshaled calves spent 57% of the time trotting, 46.4% of the time running, and 11.7% of the time walking. Rodeo experienced calves, on the other hand, spent 100% of the time running. It could be argued that this is a learned flight response to the expectation of impending danger, in rodeo-experienced calves. That would be my interpretation, and it seems that the authors felt that way too. The peer-review process helps with quality control in that respect. If the journals peer-review process found their conclusions not to be adequately justified by the data, it would have a high probability of having been rejected.

      The study also mentioned that one calf was roped around the leg mistakenly, and vocalized repeatedly until it was released.

      It pays to mention that the cowboys used in this research were all top level competitors. At the typical rodeo, average rope & tie times are longer, and it is not uncommon to see inexperienced competitors leave the rope around a calves neck for a much greater period of time, particularly when failing to drop the calf. Ropes in this study were fitted with a safety pulley that reduces jerk on calves necks, but these aren’t required at NZ rodeos under the rodeo code of welfare. For these reasons, calves at the average NZ rodeo are likely to experience even greater distress than those studied here.

      Thanks again for commenting, and do feel free to continue posting!



      • Hi Matt,

        Thank you very much for your reply and sorry in advance for my long discussion. I understand the need to shorten your piece for the benefit of reader attention, which is why I am glad there is an opportunity for discussion in the comments section. I believe when you said “Fisher” you meant the 2016 Sinclair paper, so my answer is in response to that. If this is not the case, please correct me. I would not like to have our wires crossed!

        “Epinephrine plays an important role in fight-or-flight responses. The fact that these biomarkers are increased in both cases is cause for concern.” – I would disagree. Cattle are a prey animal. Who is to say that even moving these animals from one paddock to another would not cause an increase in epinephrine? I have seen cattle who have found a bucket in their paddock and spooked at it. They too would likely have higher epinephrine levels to normal, does that mean that a bucket in a paddock is a welfare issue? We cannot say that the elevation these levels was higher when animals crossed a rodeo arena because of the arena. The experiment did not compare the arena with another area. All we can say is, regardless of whether animals were roped or not, walking across a rodeo arena causes an increase in epinephrine. This cannot, and should not, be used as an indicator of whether rodeo as a sport causes stress for the animals above what is normal and acceptable for a yarding situation.

        I definitely agree that there is an element of error when taking blood samples from any animal. As you have said the process can be enough to cause a fear response. However, in an experiment by Ferguson et al they justify the use of cortisol levels by commenting that cortisol levels in blood can accumulate over a short period of time. Their study looked at various stressors around rodeo and their effect on calves. All calves in their study were preconditioned to the arena and had been roped previously. They took bloods before and after roping and found no difference between the cortisol levels in both roped and unroped calves. If they had only taken bloods after the event I would tend to agree with your comment about the sampling having an effect on blood indicators. However, as these readings were taken before and after you should be able to detect a difference between background “noise” and cortisol present due to the roping event. I believe this study to be as comprehensive as the Sinclair et al paper in terms of this measurement. I would also say it is slightly better because all calves were preconditioned to being roped and therefore the comparison between groups was a fair test. (Ferguson et al. (2013) The effect of transporting, scoring and roping on cortisol concentrations in acclimated roping calves. Journal of Applied Animal Research. 41 (1): 8 – 13)

        The figures on calf run speed are interesting, but not relevant. A calf that is not being chased will not move as quickly as one that is. This is common sense. Non-roped calves in the Sinclair et al paper were herded gently across the arena, not pursued like the roped calves. All this information tells us is that calves that are chased run faster than those who are not. On top of that, you cannot compare calves that have previous experience with roping and those that do not and call it a fair test. Of course there will be differences. Comparing experienced and inexperienced calves is like comparing the starting speed of an experienced athlete and a beginner. The experienced athlete will have a faster starting time because they know what to expect.

        I have similar opinions about the eye roll and vocalization. In my opinion, eye rolling would have been significant if this behaviour had been displayed before or after the event. It would have indicated stress associated with anticipation of the activity. However, I would say that it is normal for an animal that usually remains upright to roll its eyes when lifted and placed on the ground. I would say there is an element of this being worse than usual (because there will definitely be some stress from the activity) but I do not believe it would be enough to decide whether animal welfare is compromised. You cannot determine whether the roping was the cause of the eye roll or the lifting, as this was not assessed within the experiment. As the blood indicators were not elevated, in spite of this response, would that not indicate that it was an immediate short term response?

        As for vocalization, is this beyond normal behaviour for an animal caught by its leg? I have had some work experience with both sheep and cattle in the past. There have been instances where it was important to catch an animal to treat specific aliments. I have seen both lambs and calves make vocalizations when their legs have been mistakenly grabbed and have also seen them make no sound when they are caught correctly. Is this not similar to what was seen in the experiments by Sinclair et al?

        The Sinclair et al paper was very interesting, and its findings should be further investigated especially in regards to the behavioural aspects. You are critical of the Fisher et al report, but I feel it was in some ways more comprehensive than the Sinclair paper. Although not peer reviewed in a journal it was assessed by members of NAWAC and commissioned by MPI. NAWAC consists of a varied group of people, including well respected scientists. If these scientists, who peer review other papers, did not find this research satisfactory they would not have used it to support the case for continuing rodeo. The Fisher et al report looked into the behaviour of the animals after roping. They conclude “The roped calves, showed no significant behaviour indicative of trauma associated with neck roping with no evidence of head hanging, hunched posture, excessive panting and recovery of breath, extended tongues, excessive salivation, bulging eyes, white-eyed looking, or being unusually reactive or un-reactive”. The advantage of this study was that it was conducted at a rodeo, so the animals were being treated as they would be on the day, with all of the same stimuli. This adds weight to their findings and should alleviate some of the concern that these results cannot be applied to normal rodeo situations.

        I believe that welfare concerns around rodeo should continue to be monitored. More research is needed to fully understand this sport. However, the majority of the research shows that there is little to no difference between roped and unroped calves. The paper you cite concludes the same thing. A more comprehensive investigation of behavioural responses needs to be undertaken to determine the effects of roping on calves. However, it is my opinion that the evidence that we have at the moment indicates that roping a calf is no more stressful to the animal than running them across an arena.


      • Hi Kyrakat,

        That’s no problem. Yes I did mean the Sinclair paper, my mistake! I will try and respond to everything in your comment:

        It is correct that the experiment didn’t compare different arenas, the arena was held constant in order to specifically test stress responses to the event specifically. Given the research question, this seems to be quite sensible to me. I think it would be a waste of time for the Australian Rodeo Cowboys Association to call for a study like this one, if they only plan to say that the study isn’t relevant because it didn’t test for differences between a variety of different venues. Surely if the study found no changes to stress markers, it would have been good enough for them, don’t you think?

        The NAWAC report accompanying the code cited a paper that looked at blood cortisol levels, and although this measure has its own limitations when looked at in isolation, it is largely accepted as a valid measure when considered in context and when appropriate controls for extraneous variables are put in place. This paper looked at much more than just cortisol levels, but if cortisol levels were good enough supporting evidence for NAWAC, why shouldn’t they be anymore? Given that calves did not show increases in blood stress markers following the end of the rope & tie event, upon returning to the chutes, it doesn’t seem likely that being walked across the venue could be responsible for the results (for the same reasons that the authors mentioned it is improbable for it to be a result of the blood taking procedure).

        I think it was Buzzard who mentioned the sampling, and I said this was fortunately controlled for in the Phillips et al. study.

        It is my view that the Phillips et al. study was more methodologically robust than was the Ferguson study. In the latter, blood samples were not taken until after the events, and after the animals had been transported back to the farm approximately 20 minutes away. Whereas in the more recent study, blood samples were taken immediately following rope & tie while the animal was still on the ground. It seems likely that stress biomarker concentrations would taper off following the event, and so the more recent studies results are more relevant in my opinion. Also, as you mentioned, transport itself is known to have an impact on stress in calves. As mentioned earlier, rodeo-naive versus rodeo-experienced calves have been studied versus one another with respect to cortisol increases following rope & tie. The NAWAC publication cites the study where this was done, and it was found that rodeo-naive calves experienced greater increases in cortisol concentrations due to the event than did rodeo-experienced calves.

        Regarding the run speeds: Calves in both conditions were followed by the rider. In order to be chased at speed it would seem necessary for the calf to run first, upon exiting the chute, and it was my understanding that this was the point at which the speeds I referenced were measured. The main difference between the two conditions was that in the ER condition, calves were actually roped. Whereas in the NM condition, the rider followed behind the calf as it exited the chute, in the same way that they did when actually roping the experienced calves, but they did not throw the rope around their necks.

        Why isn’t that a fair test? The researchers wanted to know if animals that had experienced this rodeo event before had an increased flight response when released from the chutes, compared with animals that had not experienced rope & tie before. It would be impossible to answer that question any other way than to compare naive versus rodeo-experienced calves.

        Just quickly regarding the bucket comment: If cattle are likely to have a stress response to a mere bucket in a paddock, is that not just another good reason not to subject them to rodeo events? It seems reasonable to expect rope & tie or steer-wrestling to be more distressing of an experience than the sight of a bucket in a field. However unless there is a published study showing that stress biomarkers in response to a bucket in a field are increased to a similar extent to that seen here, this isn’t really a scientific argument.

        Peer-reviewed publication in a journal is as high a quality evidence available to us in science. This ranks well above being looked at by NAWAC. As much as I respect the qualifications of the committees veterinary scientists, particularly having recently met and spoken with two of them, including the current chair, the processes that the committee has used previously are not as stringent or immune to error as the independent peer-review process used by scientific journals. As stated by NAWAC, only one person peer-reviewed the NAWAC rodeo code of welfare, an American vet by the name of Dr Cia Johnson. Have you been able to read the Sinclair publication itself? Because it hasn’t been journal published I haven’t been able to access it. Please do let me know if you can send me a copy, if you have one.

        Although I think that is argument from authority, rather than a scientifically based argument, it pays to mention that the NAWAC report also stated that:

        “NAWAC asked for comment on calf roping during public consultation. In light of the submissions on this rodeo event, there was significant debate within NAWAC, with some members stating preferences that this event be discontinued. However, in the absence of evidence that this event causes the calves significant pain and distress, not all committee members agreed that this event should be discontinued.”


        “NAWAC decided to introduce further requirements to this event to ensure that the welfare of the calf is upheld and the committee has added further minimum standards around this event. These include the requirement that calves must be handled using the minimum force and in a way that minimises pain and distress at all times during the event. NAWAC does however, wish to make it known that it is aware that a number of countries have now prohibited this event from an ethical viewpoint and as a result of welfare concerns for the calves. Should NAWAC consider that this event, at some point in the future, is ethically unacceptable to New Zealanders, then NAWAC may again consider the requirements placed around the performance of this event.”

        In my opinion, these are hardly the words of a committee in consensus on the issue.

        Regarding the eye-white response. That was actually assessed by the experiment, which is why it was measured! The calves Why would putting an animal on its side elicit this stress response? Can you cite any studies that have shown eye-white responses to be typical of happy cattle when laying horizontally? If so, I am all ears. If not, there is solid literature concluding that this is a stress response.

        Previous research has already demonstrated that rodeo-naive calves experience greater increases in blood stress markers than do rodeo-experienced calves following rope & tie. This was looked at in a 2012 study, which was cited in the NAWAC report accompanying the rodeo code of welfare. Given that we know rodeo-experienced calves have less increase in blood cortisol following rope & tie than do rodeo-naive calves, and given that the rodeo-naive calves showed the same levels of cortisol in this study as the experienced calves that were actually rope & tied, it follows that the extra blood cortisol increases seen in naive-calves in the 2012 study can be explained by the actual rope & tie procedure itself. If the difference were explained by the venue, or being put in the chutes, the 2016 study should have found the same greater cortisol levels in naive-marshaled calves that the 2012 study did. However it appears the rope & tie specifically has brought the increases in rodeo-experienced calves cortisol levels up around the same mark as the naive-calves, in this study.

        “The experienced athlete will have a faster starting time because they know what to expect.”

        It is much more likely that run speeds are faster in these calves because they expect danger and are attempting to escape. I don’t see what the calves would possibly want to run faster for, if they understand that they are going to be roped, if it isn’t to try and escape being roped.

        Regarding the vocalizations, have you seen calves vocalize in this way at any other point than when they are potentially in distress? E.g. when they have been grabbed by the leg etc.? I’m not too sure what the argument is here, please explain further when you have a moment.

        Hope this helps, apologies if I missed one or two things from your comment, it has been a very long day here!



      • Since branding is painful, particularly if done with a hot iron. So that wouldn’t surprise me. Is there any research to show that cattle exhibit eye-white responses to something as innocuous as a bucket in a paddock? The published literature that I have read states that it is a known sign of stress in dairy herds. Several dairy farmers that I have spoken to have confirmed this to me. Thanks!


      • Hi Matt,

        Thank you for your long reply above. I am unable to do this reply justice at the moment as I am going to be away from internet access for the next 24 hrs. However, eye roll behaviour can present itself in many situations in cattle. This behaviour is observed in a paper by Sandem et al (2002) and in their case was caused by frustration (feed deprived cows were given a box with food in it that they could smell and not reach). In their discussion they state “we suggest that the increased percentage of white in the eye can generally be seen as an indicator of activation of a motivational system involving the need to monitor the environment carefully”. Eye rolling can also be linked to animals that are more aggressive than others (Core, et al., 2009) as shown by comparing animals that were held in a yards. It is not necessarily a reaction to fear, and is caused by multiple stimuli.

        My comment on tipping calves over causes eye roll is from over 15 years experience of rearing calves. This is common for any calf that is tipped upside down for routine and generally painless procedures. That is why I believe eye roll is a irrelevant measurement unless another group was also tipped upside down to compare the level of eye rolling.

        Sandem, et al. (2002) Eye white may indicate emotional state on a frustration-contentedness axis in dairy cows. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 79: 1-10

        Core, et al. (2009) Eye white percentage as a predictor of temperament in beef cattle. Journal of Animal Science. 87: 2160-2174


      • Hi Kyra, this study talks about eye roll behavior in calves that are subject to frustration, which is a negative mood state, and animals showing aggression. Is there anything that shows that this happens to calves during any kind of positive or neutral experience?


  3. What confuses things is the word stress being applied so much to just typical behavior response to a cow or any animal including us. Calves in particular like most young animals have a very high level of energy. So any little sound, object they haven’t seen before, is going to raise there level of excitement.

    They say us humans are only born with 2 fears, falling and loud noises. We create all the other fears. So what would be the fears of calves when they are born? Knowing that might help decide some of these scenarios that calves respond to. But I don’t think we will ever know the answer to that.

    Some humans are scared to death to fly, while others love to fly. So you have 2 different responses to the same situation and if you blood tests both type of people you would have different answers from flying is not stressful to flying is very stressful for humans.

    You can walk in a pasture with cows and calves and once they get use to you, some will come up and smell your hand while others will run away and stay a far distance away from you as they can. The one that comes up to you would be less stressed then the ones that run away from you.

    Guess my point is, there really is no sure way to measure stress levels in calves without knowing the natural fears they are born with, their personality traits, the personality trait of the cow, etc.

    Have a good one.


    • As in any type of science, the word stress as used here is clearly defined. Norepinephrine excretion holds the physiological roll of activating flight responses in animals, including humans, which occurs in response to threat. Typically in nature the impending danger is predatory animals, whereas cows and horses are herbivorous prey animals in nature. These animals are responding to threatening stimuli, and the fact that norepinephrine excretion is heightened lends strong support to that conclusion. You may be able to pick wholes with small parts of this study here and there, but this is a multifaceted study, several facets of which are quite robust, and all of which point to the same conclusion. Surely this can’t be mere coincidence. Remember, this study was called for by the Rodeo Association in Australia, was lead by good scientists including the current chair person of an australian government animal welfare committee (the counterpart to our NAWAC), and the research was expected to find contradictory results because of these facts.

      It at the very least casts grave doubt on whether or not the conclusions draw here recently are accurate. And absolutely demonstrates that this issue needs to be subject to immediate review, in light of the new science and in light of the facts mentioned above.


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