Engineering safer chucks

A Schulich School of Engineering student looks at how chuckwagon poles respond to the stress of competition.

Michael Platt
Schulich School of Engineering
July 2017

Staring for hours at the rear end of one horse, never mind a quartet of them, wasn’t exactly how Sam Pollock imagined his summer.

But when your research goal is to improve the chuckwagon, making races safer for horses and drivers alike, the Schulich School of Engineering student says there’s nothing like hands-on experience — even if that experience means getting down and dirty amidst the mud and hooves.

“I’m a born-and-bred Calgarian and a big fan of the Stampede, so of course I knew about chuckwagon racing, but I didn’t know much about how chuckwagons worked,” explains Pollock.

“I’ve spent the last month chasing dust and dirt and getting to know everything I can about chuckwagons and the crazy world of chuckwagon racing, and it’s been amazing.”

Now an undergraduate specializing in biomedical engineering at the University of Calgary, Pollock’s current research is focused specifically on chuckwagon poles, which is the metal pipe attaching the four horses to the undercarriage of the wagon.

Subject to intense stress during a race, chuckwagon poles have on rare occasions been known to bend or even break during training and competition, leading to wagon wrecks that are dangerous for both the horses and their driver.

“My goal is to gain a better understanding of why chuckwagon poles fail, how they fail, and to suggest some design changes to reduce the risk of failure,” says Pollock.

“Between the drivers and the Calgary Stampede, safety is a vital concern.”

UCalgary engineering student applies science to chuckwagon safety at Calgary Stampede

Protecting horses and drivers from harm has been a priority since the very first chuckwagon event organized by the Calgary Stampede back in 1923, when a rudimentary race established “the chucks” as an exciting highlight at the annual outdoor show.

Indeed, the initiative to improve the chuckwagon pole was spearheaded by the Calgary Stampede, which approached Dr. Renaud Léguillette, Calgary Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, looking for assistance.

From there, the quest for a safer pole became a collaboration between three faculties — veterinary medicine, engineering, and kinesiology — all working together through the university’s Centre for Bioengineering Research and Education.

Pollock, under the supervision of Mark Ungrin, professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and Art Kuo, professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, is leading the research. Armed with duct tape and cameras, he’s been working among the horses since early June.

“The preliminary step is to examine the behaviour of the pole, and find out what’s happening during an actual race, and that’s the first of many steps,” says Pollock.

There are currently a large variety of designs and materials that are in use for poles employed on the racing circuit, which makes Pollock’s research extra challenging.

Using a mounted camera, strain gauges, and accelerometers to monitor chuckwagons under race conditions, Pollock has been working with top drivers like Jason Glass and Mark Sutherland to observe the stress endured by the pole, and the Calgary Stampede has donated a pole for use in the laboratory.

Several wagons are being instrumented with strain gauges and on-board electronic devices to monitor the response of the poles to the racing conditions.

“I’m hoping to have new specifications for pole designs as soon as next year,” says Pollock.

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy is focused on developing solutions for pressing health challenges in disease and injury prevention, diagnosis and treatments. We are also applying systems engineering principles to continuously improve the health system. 


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