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Cowboy tradition or animal cruelty? Video of horse-roping event causes controversy

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Posted at 10:13 PM, Jan 23, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-24 00:13:45-05

BOX ELDER COUNTY, Utah -- A day of competition at the Box Elder County fairgrounds was seen as cruelty through the lens of one Utah State Student, who captured the event on video.

“I’ve roped cows a little bit, I used to rodeo, and they weren’t roping them very well,” Robyn Van Valkenburg said.  “And they were kind of hitting the horses a little rough.”

The USU sophomore attended the November 23rd roping as part of a journalism assignment for school, but what she uncovered hasn’t been sitting well with her since.

“By the end of the event, the horses were obviously stressed,” Valkenburg said. “And many of them were bleeding from gashes in their forehead.”

As part of the competition, 40 horses were brought onto the fairgrounds. For nearly five hours, 165 teams of two raced against the clock to rope the animals, first around the neck, and then around the front feet, as quickly as possible.

Throughout the clip, several horses topple over as the teams rope them in by their feet. While the intent is not to knock them down, long-time rancher Shawn Judkins said it does occur.

“I love horses as much as anybody else,” Judkins said. “That does happen sometimes. That was not the intent, though.”

Judkins, who organized the event, has been participating in roping events since he was young. While the practice has been outlawed in some states, he believes it’s a historic contest that should be allowed.

“I’m just here trying to keep a cowboy tradition alive,” Judkins said. “They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. You know, everybody there was there to showcase their skills roping and their horses that they were riding.”

Judkins denies Valkenburgs’s claims that the animals were ever harmed.  After he noticed her filming, he asked her to delete the video and leave the premises.

“I just think she had the intent to go in there, and like I said, sabotage my deal and totally twist things around,” Judkins said. “The horses were not mistreated.”

But Dr. Karen Blake, a Park City specialist, disagrees.

“It was very difficult to watch, especially the beginning of the video where the horse falls over and is unconscious and paddles a little bit with its legs,” Blake said.

From her viewpoint, the competitors were actually tripping the animals, and doing it so improperly, they were actually cutting off their air supply.

“As soon as the rope is loose, it starts struggling for air and is a bit dazed as it wakes up and regains consciousness,” Blake said. “It’s very unsettling.”

Judkins, however, stands by the event and plans to continue the practice in the future.

“No horses were hurt,” he said. “It’s not inhumane. It’s not illegal. We were all raised this way. It’s something we believe in. So, I don’t look at it as being cruel.”

Because of the public backlash following the release of the video, Judkins cancelled another roping scheduled for January.

Officials with the Box Elder County fairground told FOX 13 News they are drafting and reviewing a policy that would prohibit a similar event from taking place there in the future.