One of the busiest places behind the scenes during the 10 days of the Calgary Stampede is the stables, but there’s more than just grooming and caring for horses going on; there is some important scientific research too.

One of the studies has researchers with the University of Calgary employing a common device used in the treatment of sick patients in the ICU. The instrument measures ammonia levels in blood, a factor that doctors say is a great marker of how hard the body can push itself.

“Ammonia is very interesting because it’s a very, very good marker of the anaerobic metabolism. Anaerobic means ‘without oxygen’ so when you run hard, you’re going to be out of breath because you are basically burning more energy than you can get from breathing oxygen,” says Dr. Renauld Leguillette, chair of equine sports medicine at the University of Calgary.

Dr. Leguillette says that when horses are out running, they use oxygen and that anaerobic power to go to the limit and the amount of ammonia in the horse’s bloodstream can be used to measure the extent of that reserve.

“The principle is that a really good horse will be able to deliver more horse power from his anaerobic metabolism than an untrained or weaker horse.”

He says that there are other things that can be used to measure performance of an animal, like blood lactate, but that doesn’t always give the best results.

“The lactate level is not as good as the ammonia because it’s involved in too many other chemical reactions in the body.”

The goal of the study at this year’s Stampede is two-fold.

“One is to validate a handheld analyzer and second is to measure the ammonia blood level and look at how high they go on the chuckwagon horses and, in this case here, the outriding horses.”

He adds that this is not the first time that studies have been done at the stables of the Calgary Stampede and it definitely won’t be the last because of the great relationship they have with chuckwagon drivers.

Both sides of the relationship also benefit from the study.

“The chuckwagon drivers have always had access to the equine medicine innovations first because they are so welcoming of us and happy to have us test horses. So it’s really a win-win,” Dr. Leguillette says. “It’s giving us access to high performance horses running in kind of standard conditions; they all run the same distance and same kind of speed, so you have the dream control situation for a researcher.”

Champion chuckwagon driver Mark Sutherland says he’s been involved in a lot of studies at the Stampede and is also working with Dr. Leguillette on this one.

“I love doing this stuff. Anything that can improve the safety of the sport, the performance and health of the horses, I’m in for. They know that so I am one of the first ones they ask.”

He says that all the other studies he’s been involved with have helped him and his team and this time around is no different. There have been times where he’s noticed that a horse on his team has been having trouble breathing, so he’s called Dr. Leguillette to check it out.

“Sometimes he comes out and he says ‘Mark your horse is overweight, he needs more training’. Sometimes he says your horse has some phlegm, so we’ll use this medication and clear that right up and sometimes he says there is an obstruction in the breathing so we need to do a surgery. We do it and the horse has another four or five good years.”

Sutherland says the results of the ammonia test will also help him save some cash too.

“This will be a tool in my tool chest when I buy horses from competitors or buy them at the race track. We tour all over North America buying horses and some are very, very expensive.”

Dr. Leguillette says they will have the validations on the instruments completed by the end of the summer and will have a lot of data from the Stampede to look over before an international presentation scheduled in November.

It’s hoped that the instruments will be standard issue by next year.

(With files from Kevin Green)